The Shock Doctrine- Alive and Well in Michigan

Symptomatic of what is occurring in education across the nation, Detroit Public Schools are deep in debt.

Detroit, though, is somewhat unique in that they have in place an autocratic and unilateral leader appointed by the Governor of Michigan.  They have an Emergency Manager, a person appointed at the governor’s behest to alleviate a financial situation that has been deemed by such governor to be an “emergency.”

DPS Financial HistoryIn Detroit Public Schools, this has led to the marginalization of a perfectly capable and democratically elected school board.  It has promoted the market fundamentalists’ premier value of economic efficiency over democracy, and it has done so at the expense of the economic health of the district, the academics of the students affected, and the community’s agency as expressed via the accountability of a democratically elected school board. It is no small thing to again point out the irony of the fact that Emergency Management has been installed at the expense of  the district’s financial viability.  (For more on this sordid history, please read Bill Wylie-Kellerman’s excellent account.)

So what is the governor going to do now with this mess he has exacerbated? According to The Detroit News, “Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration is exploring ways to link a change in governance of public education in Detroit with ‘financial relief’ for the debt-ridden and cash-strapped Detroit Public Schools.

Hmm..little mention of here of the structural conditions that led to such a situation.

No mention of the damning, incomplete, and false narrative of “failing schools.”

Although there are some hints if you read between the lines.

Since DPS is managed by its fourth emergency manager in six years, the issue of giving the district some financial breathing room looms large as the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren tries to craft a new school reform plan for Snyder to pursue in the Legislature.

See, it seems that there is a glimmer of understanding that an Emergency Manager- the fourth in six years- has simply not worked.  The solution? “…a new school reform plan for Snyder to pursue in the Legislature.”

Again, if you read between the lines you will note who is not able to pursue anything in the legislature -the people of Detroit whose children are affected. You see, their voices have been silenced.

More hints of what might be to come?

Snyder wants the plan before spring so he can pursue potential legislative changes before the next school year, Walsh said.

Walsh, a Livonia Republican, was term-limited from the House last year and joined Snyder’s staff in January. He since has worked closely on Detroit and urban education reform issues with Paul Pastorek, a former Louisiana schools chief credited with turning around the New Orleans school system after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Last summer, the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which has invested heavily in the EAA schools, sent Pastorek to Michigan to assist Snyder’s office in studying education reform in Detroit.

The 36-member coalition is exploring reforms that include common enrollment and the creation of a new commission that could have governance power over all DPS…

So what is this really about?  In order to learn, we need to follow the bread crumb trail ( in this particular nightmare that means “money”) to New Orleans.  The Broad Foundation, whose marketing brand reads, “Entrepreneurship for the public good in education,” a sentence whose inherent contradiction is mind-boggling, has funded Paul Pastorek as an advisor to the Michigan Governor as he looks for a system that he can use to, “ pursue potential legislative changes before the next school year.” 

As the governor wrings his hands about the debt DPS is incurring.

Sound familiar?

Let’s see- the creation of massive financial insecurity that allows for radical structural changes which will then allow for corporate profit at the expense of democracy and local communities? Yes, the Shock Doctrine!

To those familiar with the history of public schooling in New Orleans it will sound all too familiar.  (Thank you Paul Pastorek.)

And for those not familiar, please rapidly learn about the NOLA history, as it’s coming to a school near you.

As a public service I offer the video below.  (From New Orleans Education Equity.)

And as a succinct encouragement to view, I offer this quote from the video:

A lot of money has come into New Orleans to open up new schools. That actually incentivizes school failure. The more schools fail, the more money certain organizations get to open new schools….closing schools simply gets the money changing hands again.” 

It’s easy to predict that a lot more money will be soon be changing hands again in Michigan.

Please watch.

The “Achievement Gap”: Banning the Language of Deficit

George W. Bush famously pushed through NCLB with his hyperbolic rally against, “The soft bigotry of low expectations.”  His argument was that minority students were performing poorly, as measured by “the achievement gap,” because expectations for them were low, or “soft.”  His answer? To raise standards and test to hold schools accountable to these standards.

Time has predictably shown that Bush’s stance has only served to reinforce a racialized world dominated by Whiteness.  What standards are we asking students of color to rise to?  Standards determined by dominant culture that are reinforced through a biased testing system that rewards those who benefit from privilege, and continues to punish those who lack it.

I assume that Bush would argue that success is determined by this dominant culture, and thus, it is this culture that our students must learn to navigate in order to be what our culture deems “successful.”  (Though he probably would word it differently.)

If only it were so simple.

It seems that the game that determines the winners and losers against our standards of success is rigged.

In What’s Race Got To Do With It?, Wayne Au explains,

One of the key assumptions undergirding the use of standardized tests to measure, sort and rank students is the idea that these tests are measuring students objectively and accurately- for if the tests are objective, then they truly are assessing the individual  merits of students.  In turn the individual students who have worked the hardest and who have the most merit will rise to the top compared to their peers.

So far it kind of sounds like Bush was right, right?

Except he’s not.

Because standardized tests are neither objective nor accurate.

Au points out the flaws in the design of the SAT, “…ensuring that the test question selection process itself has a self reinforcing, built-in racial bias.”

He points out the ways in which out-of-school factors matter more in determining “achievement” than in-school factors.

He writes,

…systems of accountability built upon high-stakes, standardized testing cannot function if everyone is a “winner” for both ideological and technological reasons.  Ideologically, if everyone passed the tests there simply would be no way to justify elite status for any particular group: Every student would qualify for the most elite colleges and jobs, thereby rendering the very hierarchy of elitism obsolete. A high-stakes, standardized test that everyone passed would then function to challenge White supremacy, not maintain it.

Hmm….

But no worries, as long as we are talking about achievement and data and standardized anything, the ranking and competition and market driven forces will ensure that those on top stay on top.   Especially considering,

The White supremacist curriculum enforced by high-stakes testing directly and negatively impacts students of Color. Research tells us that students learn best when they can connect themselves, their identities, their lives, and their experiences to their learning.  This has proven to be true for students of Color in particular, especially those historically underserved by our school system:  Curriculum that connects to students’ cultures and identities fosters deeper connection to concepts and learning, and can lead to more academic success.  By legitimizing Whiteness through the delegitimization of non-Whiteness in curriculum and classroom environments, high-stakes tests explicitly include and exclude certain student identities in schools.  Put differently, because high-stakes tests force schools to adopt a standardized non-multicultural curriculum that structurally enforces norms of Whiteness, it ultimately silences the cultures and voices of children of Color, particularly if those voices, cultures and experiences are not contained on the tests.

And Why This Matters: Towards Banning Deficit Language

So to be clear, the ways in which we supposedly measure the “achievement gap” serves to reinforce the achievement gap.  These measures ensure that we look at students already marginalized through a  lens of “deficit.”  “They” are not measuring up to the standards that “we” have set.  Standards that are defined by, and serve to reinforce, a dominant culture determined by Whiteness.

And it is within this context that I would like to join Andre Perry in  his quest to eliminate the deficit language of “achievement gap.”

In, Why We Need to Smash the Concept of the Achievement Gap Into Tiny Pieces, Perry points out that the deficit model serves to externalize the problem of achievement.  In other words, the achievement gap is seen as a problem that rests with people of color, rather than one that rests within structures that have institutionalized racism.

Perry writes,

Common titles like Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School and in Life and Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Strategies for Educating Latino, Black, and Asian Students insidiously de-emphasize institutional responsibility for graduating men of color and as a consequence, measures of institutional accountability based on inclusion are ignored.

The authors of these and similar texts acknowledge and deconstruct institutional factors. However, we mitigate our efforts comparing black and brown weakness to supposed white strength. We undermine our cause when we try to fix black and brown boys and men of color…

The inferred white male referent in the achievement gap construct contributes to the centuries old logic that others should be compared to whites. On its face the idea of student success lets institutional factors of the hook, which have been shown to be at least half of the reason why men of color are pushed out of college. Educators shouldn’t be data driven.

We should be community driven and use data to support students.  (Emphasis added)

So what’s the first step?

To stop using any language that reinforces a perceived deficit.  Stop using any language that privileges one group vis-a-vis another.

To stop talking about a so-called “achievement gap.”

We can no longer allow language that functions to denigrate others.

Reframing the issue means that researchers must abandon antiquated constructs. Smash up the concept of the achievement gap in tiny little pieces.

Amen.

Maybe after banning the language of deficit, we can stop blaming people and start to become community driven.

PS- Thanks to Paul Thomas for providing fodder for this thinking. Read more here.

Privatizing the Public (On Steroids)

In one of the scariest articles on education ever written, States Weigh Turning Education Funds Over to Parents,” you will find that many states are creating policy that will allow parents to create “Educational Savings Accounts,” paid for by funds that were previously used to cover public education, that will give them “the freedom to design a custom education for their children — at taxpayer expense.”

It’s the ultimate in privatizing the public.

Whats-on-Americans-minds-Increasingly-me-UD1RA9SQ-x-large

I shouldn’t be surprised.  My own governor of the state of Michigan once developed a secret plan for the same idea.  And that was 2 years ago. Of course, when exposed it disappeared, only to surface again in a different form.  I guess I just hoped that such stupidity would be so abundantly obvious that no one else would ever attempt the same.

I was wrong.

So, to say the least, this idea is a threat to our most basic form of democracy, your local school district.

But then again, local democracy has also been disappearing for years.

And what has been the narrative that has allowed for such ideas?

The notion that our public schools are failing.

The article succinctly essentializes this point of view in quoting Tennessee’s state representative John DeBerry Jr.:

“Tennessee state Rep. John DeBerry Jr., a Democrat, couldn’t agree more: ‘We created public education. It didn’t fall from the sky. It wasn’t divinely given to us. We created it, so we can reform it,’ he said. ‘If the status quo  isn’t working, it needs to be changed.'”

Unfortunately for John DeBerry, the status quo he’s referring to, the common good of public schools and the traditional idea of local democracy, has been working just as it is intended, thank you very much.

“Public Schools Aren’t Failing,” a recent article in the Charlotte Observer, which leans on two recent studies and concludes,

“In fact, both (studies) show that American public school children are doing remarkably well.

For example, the NCES report shows that in schools with less than 25 percent poverty rates, American children scored higher in reading than any other children in the world. In. The. World.

The takeaway is simple. Our middle-class and wealthy public school children are thriving. Poor children are struggling, not because their schools are failing but because they come to school with all the well-documented handicaps that poverty imposes – poor prenatal care, developmental delays, hunger, illness, homelessness, emotional and mental illnesses, and so on.” (Emphasis added)

(Granted, I hate the idea of using “achievement data” as the basis of any form of comparison.  But if it’s going to be done, as a minimum we can be honest in recognizing that it measures privilege rather than learning.  These studies reinforce that fact.)

The issue isn’t public education, it’s poverty (and always remember the complication of race).

The neoliberal ideology of the privatization narrative finds it very convenient to ignore poverty. Why? Because they are actually fighting an ideological battle against so-called “government schools.”  They are actually not concerned with poverty, or the ills it leads to.  They are not able to see beyond the privilege offered by wealth and class.  And I’m not certain, at least judging from the evidence of their policy decisions, that they are able to garner any compassion for those less fortunate.

“The ultimate in local control” is actually a thin veil that intends to cover the ultimate in selfishness at the expense of those most marginalized.

Be on the look out.

 

Complicating Poverty

In Academic State Champs: Michigan’s Top 25 School Districts, Michigan’s Bridge, an on-line magazine, has come out with an attempt to rank schools in a way that factors in the variable of poverty.

Any attempt to rank schools that factors in the concern of poverty must be better than most, right?

I guess so, if you accept that the competitive, market driven model of ranking schools is acceptable, or that rankings based on achievement data is in any way useful.

And if you accept that poverty can be considered without also considering the ways in which race functions in our society and schools.

And if you accept that the real way to change children’s education is by addressing in-school factors while avoiding the impact of out-of-school factors.

I, on the other hand, accept none of these.

Allow me to explain.

But before doing so, let me applaud this attempt by the Bridge.  I think it is a genuine dive into the issue of poverty.  At least they accept that poverty has an impact on education. However, by accepting the myths I outline below, Bridge continues that failed narrative of “failing schools,” which hurts all of us, especially our kids, by misdirecting good intentions.

Myth 1- standardized tests measure learning.

In determining its rankings, Bridge makes the fundamental assumption that test scores measure learning.  They don’t. Bridge recognizes that, “To a frustrating level, school test scores track the socioeconomic status of the children who walk through the doors.”  Yes, there is a strong correlation of “achievement” to socio-economic status.  However, the problem goes even deeper.  As just a cursory look at testing, for example,  if we understand that learning is a function of growth, of some kind of difference in a student’s understanding between time A and time B, these tests scores, as they are static, don’t measure learning.  They are a tool that freeze frames a fluid process and focuses on where a student “is” as opposed to any growth. As a whole, we greatly confuse “achievement” with “learning.” And all too often, in these days of so-called ed reform, achievement simply means “ability to perform well on tests that measure superficial knowledge.”

Alfie Kohn, as usual, gets to the root of the matter when he writes:

“Even allowing for variation in the design of the tests and the motives of the testers, however, the bottom line is that these instruments are typically more about measuring the number of facts that have been crammed into students’ short-term memories than they are about assessing understanding. Tests, including those that involve essays, are part of a traditional model of instruction in which information is transmitted to students (by means of lectures and textbooks) so that it can be disgorged later on command.”

Standardized test, like the ones that Bridge uses for its comparative data, do not necessarily measure the increase of anything of value that can be singularly recognized as caused by a student’s school experience.  Instead, this data simply is a static representation of regurgitated information on the part of students.  It mistakes correlation with causation, and the correlation is too often to regurgitated, superficial information. If regurgitated information is important and what we want in our children’s school experience, then tests work well in their purported task.  If we’re after something more, then I urge us to consider Diane Ravitch’s caution:

“We measure only what can be measured. We measure whether students can pick the right answer to a test question. But what we cannot measure matters more. The scores tell us nothing about students’ imagination, their drive, their ability to ask good questions, their insight, their inventiveness, their creativity. If we continue the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations in education, we will not only NOT get higher scores (the Asian nations are so much better at this than we are), but we will crush the very qualities that have given our nation its edge as a cultivator of new talent and new ideas for many years.”

But for now, let’s just ignore the meaninglessness of wasting so much time and energy on pretending that these tests somehow relate to learning so we can get to myth #2.

Myth 2- poverty can be taken into consideration without factoring race into the equation.

The fact of the matter is that poverty functions differently according to race.  To put it another way, poor white people still have the privilege of being white.  This is not to deny the difficulty of their poverty. It is merely to say that for people who are poor and black, poverty is compounded by race. Educator Paul Gorski writes,

“What we see–what I see–is a society in which white people on average gain substantial benefits from their whiteness. Actually, this is not just what I see. This is very well documented and based on that documentation (rather than on ignoring entire systems of oppression when trying to understand what’s happening in our society) it is irrefutable. Every system and structure in the US–law enforcement, criminal justice, education, every single one–protects and benefits white people at the expense of people of color. Irrefutable.”  (Please see Gorski’s invaluable, Complicating White Privilege.)

And because this is irrefutable, considering poverty without considering how it is affected by race gives only a partial picture.  We can’t just talk about poverty, as Bridge does, without considering the impact that race has on how poverty is experienced.  We can’t justifiably consider two differing conditions of poverty and call them equal in these comparisons.

You might be wondering, just how does poverty function differently according to race?  For one way, see Gorski above.

For another, we have to recognize that because of our history of race in this country, poor African-Americans are much more likely to experience poverty in a way that is encapsulated by race.  That is, the neighbors of poor blacks are very likely to also be poor and black.  The schools that their children attend are very likely to have high rates of children who are also poor and black.  Writing about this disparity in Down and Out, Jamelle Bouie points out, “A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation affirmed this fact. According to the foundation, only 50 percent of black children live in neighborhoods with a poverty rate below 20 percent, compared to a national average of 74 percent. Of course, the other way to say this is that 50 percent of black children live in neighborhoods with poverty rates of greater than 20 percent.”

What does this mean?

Bouie continues:

“Once you grasp the staggering differences between black and white neighborhoods, it becomes much easier to explain a whole realm of phenomena. Take the achievement gap between middle-class black students and their white peers. It’s easy to look at this and jump to cultural explanations—that this is a function of black culture and not income or wealth. But, when we say middle-class black kids are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods, what we’re also saying is that they’re less likely to have social networks with professionals, and more likely to be exposed to violence and crime.”

Detroit Demographics

Understanding how poverty functions differently for blacks and whites is important, yet it is completely unaddressed by The Bridge.

It’s as if race just doesn’t matter.

As if only the variable of poverty matters.

And this means that as a whole, predominately poor black schools will be rated below predominately poor white schools, especially when comparisons only consider the factor of poverty to the exclusion of race. (Of course there will be predictable exceptions , which by their exception prove the rule.  And this rule obscures other factors that are bound up within the charter school movement.) And if poverty is the only factor, then we are left reaching for explanations that the methodology doesn’t allow for.

Structural racism is obscured.

Myth 3- the way to change outcomes is to address school quality while ignoring out-of-school factors.

Now, let me start by being crystal clear.  Teachers matter, and in-school factors make a difference.  Got it.  I’ve staked my career on the fact that as an educator, I matter.

The problem is, all of the evidence shows that out of school factors matter more.

From David Berliner’s Poverty and Potential: Out of School Factors and School Success, (http://www.greatlakescenter.org/docs/Policy_Briefs/Berliner_NonSchool.pdf),

“Because America’s schools are so highly segregated by income, race, and ethnicity, problems related to poverty occur simultaneously, with greater frequency, and act cumulatively in schools serving disadvantaged communities. These schools therefore face significantly greater challenges than schools serving wealthier children, and their limited resources are often overwhelmed.”

See.  Fundamentally, Berliner and Bridge agree that poverty impacts education. Yet, Bridge’s report manages to consider the out-of-scho0l factor of poverty as a means of directing attention back to factors within schools. It’s a magical trick of brilliant contortion.

What we all really need to consider is the question of, where do we put our energy? Into addressing in-school factors, where control is very difficult to quantify and thus know the effects of? Or in addressing out of school factors, which clearly would have an impact, though are difficult politically to make happen? Clearly, both are important. And yet the function of the current ed reform movement, whose narrative of testing Bridge is buying into, misuse in-school factors (i.e., “achievement data) is to direct attention away from out-of-school structural factors, which have a greater impact.

Berliner suggest that, “Efforts to improve educational outcomes in these schools, attempting to drive change through test-based accountability, are thus unlikely to succeed unless accompanied by policies to address the OSFs that negatively affect large numbers of our nations’ students. Poverty limits student potential; inputs to schools affect outputs from them.”

To be fair, Bridge seems to recognize this.  In their statement that explains their methodology includes, under the category of “disadvantages” of the methodology, “Disadvantages: It includes any disadvantages of the standardized tests and does not incorporate other factors that can affect performance, such as cultural differences, pre–K education, and neighborhood factors.” (http://cdn.bridgemi.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Achievement-Exceeding-Predicted-Proficiency-Methodology-1-23-2015.pdf )

Those seems like fairly significant disadvantages.  And they are the same disadvantages inherent in  any methodology that compares and ranks schools using achievement data.

Which of course, begs the question, why?

Why compare using standardized tests when these disadvantages are recognized?

And why, if we agree that poverty impacts education, write a story that looks at how to raise test scores that are themselves fundamentally highly questionable when we could make it all bit easier by considering  how we can actually address poverty (and race) directly?

The Lynchpin For This System

As part of my life-long (and mostly losing) battle against the misuse of test data (and anything referred to in education by the language of “achievement”) I offer this incredibly succinct and accurate quote by the Jersey Jazzman and encourage you to slip it into all of your conversations, educational and other.

“Standardized tests don’t measure learning so much as they rank and order children according to a social construction that is based on the notion that we must have winners and losers in our society.” 

I’ve written about this before (see  here, here and here) and probably will again. It’s important to keep saying as long as achievement data is used comparatively and as a weapon against “failing schools” and “bad teachers.” Achievement data is put forward as an objective means of measuring learning.  In fact, achievement data doesn’t measure learning. It does, however, serve as an accurate measure of socioeconomic status. Thus, achievement data is simply a marker of privilege that is used to reinforce privilege.  As such, those who present any argument for school reform that is fundamentally based on achievement data are actually arguing for maintaining our society’s status quo. They are presenting an argument that functions to benefit the privileged at the expense of the already marginalized.

The Jazzman continues:

“Ranking and sorting students does nothing to address this core problem in today’s America. All it does is ratchet up the pressure on children, whose parents understand that a life without a college degree increasingly means a life of misery. It’s become clear to many (even if they don’t articulate it in the same way I am doing here) that the standardized test is the lynchpin for this system. And it’s also become clear that the defenders of the real status quo refuse to acknowledge the truth about this state of affairs..

And maybe that’s why people are getting fed up with standardized tests: they are a distraction that keeps us from doing what really needs to be done.

Well said.

Same As It Ever Was: Achievement Data and the Language of Opportunity

Consider Paul Verhaeghe’s discussion of neoliberalism, social Darwinism and the fallacy of meritocracy.  (From  Verhaeghe’s excellent What About Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market Based Society):

“The analogy is plain to see: just like social Darwinism, neo-liberal meritocracy is aimed at ‘survival of the fittest’. whereby the best get precedence and the rest are selectively removed…Crucially, social Darwinism also discounted such factors as upbringing, social class, and, more broadly, environmental influences. Only factors determined by heredity were deemed important.  If you replace genes with talent, the similarity is clear: it’s all down to the individual; effort and innate characteristics will allow him or her to succeed.” (Emphasis added.)

The current zeitgeist of market fundamentalism erases all factors outside of the individual, which now makes it safe for the right to focus so much on the language of opportunity. (E.g., Michigan Governor Snyder’s recent State of the State’s  theme of “A River of Opportunity.”) I don’t think anyone is going to argue against opportunity, but it’s important to understand how it is used and what it can hide. Opportunity is a word that faces forward into the future. Opportunity says that we all need the same options as we progress.  The problem with this is it erases the past, as if the starting point for this opportunity is equal.  And if we are focusing on the individual- if we take away the context that each individual exists within as if this context is irrelevant- then opportunity sounds great.  If two people of equal social capital start at the same point, then they both have the same opportunity for success.  Right?  (If you haven’t yet, please read Ira Socol’s relevant thoughts on how this plays out in education via the language of “grit.”)

Of course,  context can’t be erased.  If we don’t consider how context and social conditions affect the starting line for opportunity, then we simply propagate the privilege of those who already have a head start.  If we only consider opportunity from the standpoint of the individual, then we can continue to blame individuals for their poverty, for their lack of success.

Ponder the case of Wisconsin Senator Paul Ryan, who has taken on the mantle of being a champion for the poor and a brand new promoter of opportunity.  What does that look like in terms of actual policy recommendations?

“On the Republican side, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) has taken the lead in arguing that conservatives should focus on opportunity. But his approach largely consists of cuts to the safety net…Helping the poor by cutting the programs they rely on is, to say the least, a risky theory of uplift. It’s easier to see what Ryan’s plan does to impede sufficiency of opportunity than to spread it…This is why it’s wise to keep debates about principle grounded in actual policies. Changing principles requires little more than changing rhetoric. It’s the policy where you can see if anything is actually different.” (From No One Really Believes in Equality of Opportunity.)

In other words, in spite of the rhetoric, and in the words of the great educational philosopher David Byrne, it’s the same as it ever was.

Verhaeghe provides exactly the lens needed in order to understand how this is analogous to the way “achievement data” functions.  Achievement data is put forward as an objective means of measuring learning.  In fact, it simply is a marker of privilege that is used to reinforce privilege.

Verhaeghe continues:

“This analogy exposes the weak spot in the reasoning.  Social Darwinism and neo-liberal meritocracy create the impression that they favour the individual who is naturally the best. He or she would have made it anyway; we are just giving nature a helping hand to speed the ‘fittest’ up the ladder.  But the reality is somewhat different. Both social Darwinists and meritocratists themselves determine who is the ‘fittest’ and, crucially, how that is to be measured.  In practice, they create an increasingly narrow version of reality, while claiming that they promote ‘natural’ winners.  They then preserve that ‘reality’ by systematically favouring those winners, thus keeping them on top.  The fact that they remain there is advanced to prove the validity of this approach.

…on the basis of figures, decisions are made over people’s heads. And ultimately, those figures create the reality on which they are supposedly based.” (Emphasis added)

Achievement data measures a reality as a means of recreating it. Whose opportunity is that?

 

Ed Reform and the Return of Individualism

In the logic of the ed reform, A + B= C, where:

A.  All is seen from the frame of the individual only and leaves out the importance of social capital.

B. Ed reform then layers on the “deficit perspective” to its frame. In a highly simplified nutshell, this deficit layer is competitive and colonizing in that it assumes that: (1)  I am excellent. (2) Therefore any differences between us are deficits on your part.

C. Thus, those who are privileged by the dominant frame continue to maintain the status quo and their privilege, in spite of all protestations, by blaming others for “faults” that are out of their control (such as conditions of poverty and institutional racism), and using this blame of the marginalized as a means, consciously or not, of maintaining the dominance of privilege. If “other” individuals are in  control of their destiny, it is their problem that they are not “successful,” not mine. If they just can improve (by becoming like me- I did it, can’t they?) then they can be successful (like me).

What does this lead to?

A frame that says the problem with education lies with “failing schools,” schools are filled with “failing teachers,” and with students who are products of a “tailspin of culture.” Or, as Curt Dudley-Marling words it in, “Return of the Deficit”:

“A deficit gaze that pathologizes individuals, families, and communities is instantiated in pedagogical practices and dispositions that are primarily responsible for disproportionate levels of failure among poor and minority populations.” In other words, this deficit gaze actually creates the failure it supposedly is working to eliminate.

That is the deficit model in a nutshell.  A model that projects failure on to others, blaming the victim while absolving a privileged perspective from any responsibility. It’s a model that privatizes achievement by reinforcing a culture of status and achievement where those who start ahead stay ahead, and socializing losses by avoiding all responsibility for “losers.” (See Stiglitz quote below)

You know this frame of individualism/deficit is working when you see or hear words such as “achievement,” “data,” “accountability,” “rigor,” etc.  Or when you read virtually any article on education in our mainstream, so-called “free press.”

Paul Thomas, in his excellent post, “Parents and Language: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” quotes Pierre Bourdieu, who writes:

” I’m thinking of what has been called the ‘return of individualism,’ a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy which tends to destroy the philosophical foundations of the welfare state and in particular the notion of collective responsibility….The return to the individual is also what makes it possible to blame the victim,who is entirely responsible for his or her own misfortune, and to preach the gospel of self-help, all of this being justified by the endlessly repeated need to reduce costs for companies….

In the United States, the state is splitting into two, with on the one hand a state which provides social guarantees, but only for the privileged, who are sufficiently well-off to provide themselves with insurance, with guarantees, and a repressive, policing state, for the populace. (pp. 7, 32)” (Emphasis added)

“The return of individualism” is contradictory to the evidence, which shows, as Thomas points out in “Unpacking Education and Teacher Impact,”  that “class and race are more powerfully correlated with success than effort.”

Thomas quotes Matt Di Carlo:

“… in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms.” (Emphasis added)

Wouldn’t it be nice if evidence mattered?

In other words, it is not the individual, or his/her habits, level of “grit,” or his/her anything that matters most in determining school success. Rather it is the “social context” that person exists within.  It is the nexus of interdependent relationships that provide the context for this person’s life outside of school that is most important. So policy which focuses only on factors that occur within the school represents a huge misdiagnosis of the problem.

The problem isn’t school.  The problem is poverty. The problem is the legacy of race and how it ties into poverty.  The problem is a system of social dominance that privileges some while oppressing others.

I guess, even though it’s a completely ineffective waste of time, it’s much easier to just talk about school.

What does this mean for us?

It does not mean that individual choices don’t make a difference.  As an educator, I talk with my students all of the time about the things that are in their control. About the choices that they make that have an impact on their lives. These things are important.  And they require the support of competent people within a context of care.  This care is my job as an educator. Your job as a parent. Our job as community members.

And I also talk to my students about the context of their lives, the things that are not so much in their direct control. About how issues of race and class affect them.  I want them to be able to name these things, to point to the relationships between who they have been, who they are becoming, and the forces of life that help shape them.It is necessary for them to able to this so that they don’t internalize the blame for things they can’t control. I don’t want them to internalize the projections of others.  I do want them to acquire agency in their lives. There is a power that comes in naming these forces, a freedom that comes with recognizing constraints, which is very different from accepting constraints.

Paul Gorski articulates this so eloquently when he writes,

“…experience has taught me that our biggest barrier when it comes to us as educators helping to create the change required to ensure more equitable educational opportunity for low-income students is the way that we, in education, tend to see problems as fundamentally practical, solvable with the next best instructional framework or bit of curricula or assessment paradigm. The trouble is that we tend to implement these strategies and initiatives without changing the biased ideologies that have helped sustain the problems we’re trying to solve. The first ideological shift is from a deficit view (or a grit view, which is a kind of deficit view) to a structural view. Again, even if I, as an individual educator, can’t change the structural stuff, I will not be the most effective educator I can be for low-income students if I don’t understand the realities they’re facing and how those realities are impacting the structure and practice of education. Looking through the lens of race, a racially biased teacher, however well-intentioned, is not going to be more effective as a teacher if she incorporates a few practical strategies for helping students of color learn unless she also is willing to become more racially just in her own thinking. Ideology, beliefs, world view drive every aspect of practice.” (Emphasis added)

The first task in the daily work the educator is recognize the limitations of the deficit gaze. Because this requires a context of care, a personal knowledge that can not be abstracted from lived context and then “scaled up,” this is not the job of policy. The choices we make as a community that are reflected in policy absolutely matter. But policy can not do the job of caring. Only the known human beings involved in our lives can have this effect.  It is a necessary and tragic limitation of policy.

So then, what is the job of policy if it can not act from this place of personal care?

The job of policy is to start the structural shift.

We can stop enacting policy that functions to blame people for things that are outside of their control. Instead, we can develop policy that addresses the systemic concerns that are broader than the personalized context of care. We can create  policy which addresses our growing inequality, that works  to alleviate poverty. We can work with consideration of the historical legacy that race continues to have in our country. Because these issues of poverty and race are the ones that most affect our students, these are the fundamental policy issues that need to be addressed in order to create positive and lasting change.

The Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz  writes“Our current brand of capitalism is an ersatz capitalism. For proof of this go back to our response to the Great Recession, where we socialized losses, even as we privatized gains. …

If it is not the inexorable laws of economics that have led to America’s great divide, what is it? The straightforward answer: our policies and our politics.”

You can see the individualist frame that Stiglitz unveils, and, as he points out, our policy choices do make a difference.  We need to stop enacting policy that serves to socialize losses and privatize gains.

As Thomas writes elsewhere in naming the ed reform movement’s obscuring of social forces the “American Hustle,” “We must act, we must do something directly about inequity while naming poverty, racism, and sexism as very real and not merely as token political discourse in order to mask those realities.”

Someday.

Maybe.