Paul Thomas is a professor of teacher education at Furman University in South Carolina. I just heard a fantastic interview with Paul by Bob Maxfield and Linda Tyson of Leaderful Schools. Leaderful Schools does a wonderful job of interviewing a variety of people who are doing excellent work in education. (And, as a self-serving plug, you can hear their interview with yours truly in Volume 4, Episode 4.) In this interview, Paul touches on a number of concerns he has with the effects of the corporate education reform movement on children.
The “No Excuses” approach to school reform vs. the “Social Context” approach to school reform. Paul explains that the No Excusers are led by those who are outside of the school community- they tend to be business leaders and politicians- no educational experience at all, while the Social Contexters tend to be educators and researchers. Because they lack the authority of experience, the No Excusers use the “bully pulpit of politics” to leverage change.
The No Excusers lead with messages such as, “poverty is not an excuse.” This “couches poverty in the control of people living in poverty.” Essentially, this presentation frames poverty as a choice. So if you can choose to live in poverty, you can choose to get out of it. This framing serves to mask the power dynamics within our culture. As Maxfield says, the logic is, “If they (those in poverty) only tried harder, they could get out of it.” The fact that this message resonates with the public doesn’t make it any more true and it simply continues to allow our schools to reproduce the power dynamics of the greater culture. The effect on the powerless (i.e. children) is obvious. It leaves them as victims of social forces they have no control over, but, using the logic of the No Excusers, there is no one to blame but themselves.
Thomas argues that the Social Context side “has some real serious problems also.” We need to address “equity reform.” Thomas says there is not an achievement gap, there is an equity gap, and we need to address social inequity for children as core part of school reform.
We need to recognize that schools do need to be reformed. The Social Context side can not accept the criticism that we are supportive of the status quo. We need to recognize the ways that schools mirror and reproduce societal inequities, and we need to stop them. Testing still skews by gender, race and class. Continuing to depend on testing as means of tracking, for instance, simply reproduces existing biases and inequities that hurt children.
The Bully Politics of Educational Reformers. Because they stand on ground outside of the educational field, the No Excusers “have to use some other leverage besides their expertise…Their leverage is being bullies.” Thomas goes on to point out that the media is giving people with no credibility huge amounts of attention- this perpetuates the bully pulpit.
Thomas’s Ideas on School Reform. We need to attack those elements that perpetuate inequity. We need to look at de-tracking schools, we need to look at teacher assignments, and we need to completely eliminate our testing system. As Thomas puts it, “We need to stop testing, ranking and sorting children, and stop making it public.”
The whole interview is well worth the listening time. You can find it here. Interview With Paul Thomas
For the full array of Leaderful Schools interviews, go here (remember Volume 4, Episode 4) Podcasts for Leaderful Schools
And finally, for more of Paul Thomas’s work, check out his blog Radical Scholarship