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Education Reform

I read Diane Ravitch’s review of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools by Stephen Brill and As Bad as They Say? Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx by Janet Grossbach Mayer. Ravitch places both books in America’s long history of thinking that there’s a crisis in education (her treatment of which sort of fleshed out my understanding of Arendt’s rather unpalatable essay on the same), and then opposes them to each other. Brill’s book she places in the camp of those who are for school “reform,” and Mayer with those who are against it. Describing the stances of the two ways of dealing with education’s problems, she writes

On one side are those who call themselves “reformers.” The reformers believe that the schools can be improved by more testing, more punishment of educators (also known as “accountability”), more charter schools, and strict adherence to free-market principles in relation to employees (teachers) and consumers (students). On the other are those who reject the reformers’ proposals and emphasize the importance of addressing the social conditions—especially poverty—that are the root causes of poor academic achievement. Many of these people—often parents in the public school system, experienced teachers, and scholars of education—favor changes based on improving curriculum, facilities, and materials, improving teacher recruitment and preparation, and attending to the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children. The critics of test-based accountability and free-market policies do not have a name, so the reformers call them “anti-reform.” It might be better to describe them as defenders of common sense and sound education.

Brill’s book stresses the importance of measuring how well students are educated, via standardized testing. The fact that this approach is supported by an (apparently?) “improbable consensus among conservative Republicans, major foundations, Wall Street financiers, and the Obama administration” is not as improbable, to my mind, as Ravitch paints it. The viewpoint of all these groups tends to the abstracted, statistical. What it stresses is not the realization of an individual’s potential, which in and of itself is a hard thing to gauge — not to mention immensely mutable — and is only with great difficulty measured against that of another, but the standardization of achievement. As such. Which, among other things, aids in making persons more interchangeable, quantifiable, manageable. A personal history, familiarity with what has gone into each students learning, what might be called his or her concrete education, is irrelevant to this view. The numerical representation of their performance on a test, which will be taken by all other students and so furnish a standard by which to judge (and place them in society) is what matters.

There’s a deeply biznesslike way of rendering individual achievement. It effaces the personal and stresses the bureaucratic. Sure, it might aid, in certain exceptional cases, mobility, but, in most, it serves to entrench and justify stratification. Because if what matters is a student’s performance on an annual test that does not take into account differences in districts, neighborhood and family situation, etc. — things that have been demonstrated, again and again, to have material effects on education — and there is nothing done to address these differences, then they become invisible. What matters is that district A performed well, and district B not so hot, and district C did so abysmally that, well, federal funding is going to be cut. Which isn’t going to improve the scores of the students in it. But there is a measurable rubric; there is “accountability.” And we can stop dedicating funds to lost causes. Along the way we can support vouchers so that people can send money to private charter schools (free enterprise!) and break the teachers’ unions (pesky near socialists!).

It’s probably no surprise that the groups that are enthusiastic about this sort of education reform are the rich. They’ve been predisposed to perform well since birth, in virtue of their gilded milieu.

On the other side, there’s Grossbach Mayer. Her book, as Ravitch describes it, “describes her life on the front lines of urban education.” In it,

Most chapters tell the stories of her students, each of whom lived in difficult circumstances, struggling with daily challenges that would be beyond the imagination of those who live on Central Park South and Park Avenue. Many had asthma, exacerbated by exposure to exhaust fumes, or an allergy to cockroaches; students suffering from asthma found it difficult to climb the school building’s five flights of stairs when the elevator was out of order, which it often was. In the winter, students wore their coats inside all day because the lockers had been removed and not replaced many years before. Many students had “divided families, hostile families, distant families, no families” and lived in roach- and rat-infested buildings.

In other words, shes stresses the concrete lives of the students is stressed, and focuses on the very real impact that poverty has on what they achieve. It’s also striking that Mayer remained within her neighborhood and didn’t flit from location to location (which, unremarkably, is the ]sort of behavior that standardization, if not requires, by making people so easily interchangeable, encourages). Rather, as Ravitch writes, “[l’ike most career teachers, she chose to teach where she grew up, which happened to be one of the poorest districts in the nation.” And because of her connection to the place, her rootedness in the concrete situation of her students, she is able to be a highly effective teacher.

Thinking about the difference between Brill and Grossbach Mayer’s take on our perpetual education crisis, I got stuck on mobility. Or maybe it might be better described as the desire for interchangeability. The groups that are pushing for education reform do not want to address structural problems that impede students from learning. They want results that they can measure, count, and use to make decisions about the allocation of funds. This benefits certain segments of the population, in a very big way; but reformers are probably  blind to that, because the framework through which they are judging success elides material conditions that determine “success” in learning.  And success in learning is interchangeable, allowing for one person to have a success easily related to that of another: it’s either a higher or lower grade or number.

Which aids in the production of an interchangeable, mobile, rootless society.

Categories: Notes.

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