What’s wrong with universal public education in the U.S.? If we are to believe the new reformers and the growing list of celebrity commentators and education hobbyists, the failures include the corrosive influence of teachers unions, “bad” teachers, and an entrenched status quo that those unions and teachers cling to for personal gain.
And where is the evidence for these narratives? There isn’t any, except for the power of celebrity to state something and to make it true (especially through repetition).
Throughout the U.S., political forces are attacking unions and teachers, calling for more funding of charter schools and discarding traditional teacher pay scales for merit-based systems that include connecting individual teachers to their students’ test scores. When both of these proposals were raised in my home state of South Carolina, I published an Op-Ed, refuting the credibility of either supporting further charter funding or of merit-based teacher pay.
While I received many supportive emails and messages from educators across the state, I also received one reply that was submitted as a letter to the editor that, I believe, highlights the central problem with the education reform debate driven by celebrity reformers who trust that simply making statements equals the truth with the public: “Consequences for teachers based on student achievement won’t improve our schools. You believe that? Professor Paul Thomas uses a third of a page in The Greenville News, citing ‘studies,’ to try to convince us. Let’s see, common sense versus ‘studies’?”
Once this letter was published, an on-line comment also emphasizes the problem we face: “Mr. McCarty. You are dead on it. Studies are like surveys. With either you can prove anything, right or wrong, at any time, on any subject. Common sense, regardless of a persons education is true facts, based on past experience!!!!!”
The power of quote marks and a bouquet of exclamation marks-many in the public have an uninformed and distorted view of research, believing that evidence is always flawed or manipulated. Few recognize the difference between one study and a body of research, and few understand the difference between research and peer-reviewed research. As I have discussed before, the U.S. public is predominantly a belief culture, and politicians have learned to speak to those beliefs.
And the “common sense” continues with one of the usual suspects, Michelle Rhee, and with yet another addition, George Will, to the growing morality play that lacks credibility and, ironically, ethics.
Also detailed before, the so-calls “liberal” media is one of the most powerful and misguided elements in the newest assault on universal public education. Like Bill Maher’s Real Time, Stephen Colbert’s Report, Oprah, MSNBC, CNN, and the Hollywood elite’s Waiting for Superman, NPR has offered Rhee an unchallenged forum for spouting common sense without a shred of evidence.
Rhee has already made sweeping and grossly inaccurate claims about the superior U.S. education system in the 1950s, so for NPR she adds this interesting claim:
“‘Over the last 30 years, the education policy has been driven in this country by lots of special interest groups, including the teachers union,’ she says. ‘I think that one of the missing pieces is that there is no organized national interest group that has the heft that the unions and the other groups do who are advocating on behalf of children.'”
This claim smells like similar charges offered by Geoffrey Canada, also on Colbert’s show, and maintains the effective pattern used by the new reformers-make a claim that sounds true, offer no evidence, and press ahead with a compelling argument and a smile.
What is telling, however, is the “30 years” claim. Is there any powerful body of evidence that for 30 years teachers unions have driven public education into collapse? I am not aware of any studies, much less a body of evidence.
What has been occurring for the last 30 years? The accountability era, spurred by the misleading A Nation at Risk and perpetuated at the state level for three decades with no real results and then ushered to the federal level with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), yet another colossal bureaucratic failure.
And how do we know that the standards, testing, and accountability movement has failed? A compelling body of evidence, and 50 separate experiments throughout the U.S.
But the failure of accountability works against public common sense so the claims by Rhee match what the public believes-and the evidence doesn’t matter.
And now there is the public-intellectual journalist George Will, who has fashioned a scholarly persona throughout his career. What does Will believe about the need for education reform?
“We do not, she insists, have to fix society or even families in order to fix education. It works the other way around. The movie ‘Waiting for Superman’ dramatizes what TFA has demonstrated - that low-income parents leap at educational opportunities that can break the cycle of poverty. Teaching successfully in challenging schools is, Kopp says, ‘totally an act of leadership’ by people passionately invested in the project.”
He buys and perpetuates the Superman narrative as well as the Utopian faith in education as transformative, regardless of social influences.
But what about the evidence? Teach for America has glowing PR from its advocates, but the evidence paints a much different picture. In one comprehensive study of TfA, the researchers draw this conclusion:
“A district whose primary goal is to improve achievement should explore and fund other educational reform that may have more promise such as universal pre-school, mentoring programs pairing novice and expert teachers, elimination of tracking, and reduction in early grade class size.”
And what about the Utopian (and contradictory) assertions about the power of universal public education?
First, every one of the new reformers simultaneously wants to paint public education as a current and historical failure that also is the key to overcoming every ill that faces society. The failure of logic in these claims is staggering.
In short, the education quality and reform debate has been reduced to the worst element of democracy-a public argument that warrants celebrity over expertise. As Joanna Weiss explains about the Wisconsin teachers union protests:
“Here are the three major players in the Wisconsin labor battle: loud politicians, billionaire refinery owners, and middle-class people who want the right to bargain for benefits and working conditions. . . . Even the mainstream media that were historically sympathetic to union causes-and composed largely of union members-have grown more critical, largely spurred by stories about urban schools that have cast teachers’ unions as impediments to progress.”
And as the headline suggests, “Unions are losing the PR battle.”
Think tanks, billionaires, celebrities, and politicians are adept at PR while educators and academics are focused on teaching and scholarship. The lives and careers of educators and scholars are often insular-and thus silent, impenetrable to the public.
Now is the time for educators and scholars to speak against celebrity PR and raise a public voice of expertise to and for a public that is crying out of common sense and being manipulated by a ruling elite that is neither common nor making any sense.