Diane Ravitch’s post about the debate over the Gates moratorium includes a comment from John Thompson that deserves close attention:

In a note to me, John Thompson pointed out that our side, which doesn’t have a name, cherishes the clash of ideas. The “reformers” march in lockstep (my words, not Thompson’s) in support of test-based accountability for students and teachers, Common Core, and school choice. Our side, whatever it is called, is more interesting, more willing to disagree, readier to debate and to think out loud.

Throughout the gradually intensifying high-stakes accountability era in education that began in the early 1980s, educators and students have mostly been done to and ignored or silenced. As a result of this partisan political dynamic, educators, scholars, and researchers have been pushed almost exclusively into a reactionary mode.

As I have noted recently (here and here), the media tend to give the political reformers the first word—which implies that first word, although not supported by evidence or experience, is most credible—and then frame “our side,” as Ravitch and Thompson call us, as “critics” or even “anti-reformers.”

Nothing, in fact, could be farther from the truth as many on “our side,” myself included, entered education as reformers.

This distorted dynamic in which the inexpert are rendered the experts, “reformers,” and the expert are rendered mere “critics” inspired the new volume I have co-edited (with Brad J. Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, and Paul R. Carr), Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity.

The central premise of the volume is that two broad camps of reformers exist: “No Excuses” Reformers (the current partisan political movement including Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and others) and the Social Context Reformers (the group I’d call “our side”).

Here, I want to offer an excerpt from the introduction to the volume above as a call to “our side”—we are the resistance and we must be named and then we must take over the public debate instead of simply being always second to the table.

Introduction: Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity

by Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr, and P.L. Thomas, Editors

Asked to explain the many competing narratives of the religions of the world, comparative myth/religion scholar Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyers (1988) that he did not reject religion, as some scholars have, but instead reached this conclusion: “Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble” (p. 56).

As a number of education scholars and historians have noted (Berliner & Biddle, 1996; Bracey, 2004; Kliebard, 1995; Ravitch, 2010, 2013; Tienken & Orlich, 2013), public education in the US has suffered a long history of crisis narratives about the state of schools , narratives which have been coupled with a never-ending call for reform. The last thirty years of accountability-driven reform have been based on standards and high-stakes tests. Standards were initially generated by states; however, there is now a move toward national standards known as the Common Core. High stakes assessments have followed a similar trajectory, situated first at the state level and now based on Common Core. During this past three decades, two competing narratives have emerged, what we label “No Excuses” Reform (NER) and Social Context Reform:

“No Excuses” Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of her/his making. As well, “No Excuses” Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which (as noted above) effort will result in success.

Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security. (Thomas, 2011b)

A powerful but generally ignored irony of the accountability era involves No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which rhetorically codified the use of “scientifically based research” in education. The problem presented by NCLB is that three decades of evidence on the most popular and dominant reforms implemented by NER advocates and political leadership—grade retention, charter schools, school choice, value added methods of teacher evaluation, merit pay, Teach for America, high-stakes testing, and standards—have failed to support the effectiveness of these policies.

When faced with the competing narratives of NER and SCR, then, the public, the media, and political leaders must face the research-base, and consider the degree to which false narratives an ideological myths have been imbued within NER as well as the relevance and importance of SCR narratives to seek out more bone fide evidence-based directions. Importantly, trends within the US have also had varying levels of influence elsewhere, and most international jurisdictions now have significant educational policy related to standards, testing, assessment and accountability. For this reason, the US context I particularly important for understanding neoliberalism and globalization at a broader level, encompassing many of universal concerns, such as social inequalities, accessibility, societal focus to education, differentiated outcomes, and the role of teachers. Ultimately, we find this debate to be fundamental in relation to democracy, and the place of education within a democracy (Carr, 2011).

Obama’s Failed Hope and Change

Writing in 1976 about the bicentennial, novelist John Gardner (1994) challenges the 20th century angst “that the American Dream is dead” (p. 96):

The American Dream, it seems to me, is not even slightly ill. It’s escaped, soared away into the sky like an eagle, so not even a great puffy Bicentennial can squash it. The American Dream’s become a worldwide dream, which makes me so happy and flushed with partly chauvinistic pride (it was our idea) that I sneak down into my basement and wave my flag….

That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)

Gardner continues, addressing “majority rule” as “right even when it’s wrong (as often happens),”

because it encourages free men to struggle as adversaries, using established legal means, to keep government working at the business of justice for all.

The theory was and is that is the majority causes too much pain to the minority, the minority will scream (with the help of the free press and the right of assembly) until the majority is badgered or shamed into changing its mind….

It’s true that the system pretty frequently doesn’t work. For decades, pollsters tell us, the American people favored gun control by three to one—law-enforcement officials have favored it by as much as nine to one—but powerful lobbies and cowardly politicians have easily thwarted the people’s will. (p. 97)

About three decades later, voters in the U.S. elected the first bi-racial (often called simply African American) president in the country’s history. At the time, some voted for Barack Obama primarily because the election was an important, symbolic moment for the U.S.; some bought his message of hope and change. Others remained skeptical that the Democratic Party establishment would allow a true champion of liberal and progressive ideas to assume the mantle of U.S. President. The sophisticated and compellingly influential rhetoric employed by Obama for two years before being elected, presenting “hope” and “change” as not only desirable but, more importantly, entirely achievable, laid the groundwork for an important juxtaposition between hegemonic forces and the will of the majority of people, who wanted a more humane, social justice-based orientation to public services and government (Carr & Porfilio, 2011b).

As public educators, academics, and scholars have discovered (Carr & Porfilio, 2011b), Obama is not progressive he portrayed himself to be, much less the socialist that libertarians and Tea Party advocates claim. In fact, Obama’s education policies are an extended version of the No Child Left Behind accountability agenda begun under George W. Bush. The Obama education agenda has been committed to neoliberalism, not democracy, not justice for all, not protecting human rights:

Barack Obama personifies the power of personality in politics and the value of articulating a compelling vision that resonates with many voters in the US and other global citizens. For Obama’s presidential campaign, the refrain that worked was driven by two words and concepts, “hope” and “change.” From healthcare, to war, to education reform, however, the Obama administration is proving that political discourse is more likely to mask intent—just as Orwell warned through his essays and most influential novel1984, the source of the term “doublespeak” that characterizes well Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s public comments on education reform. They mask the programs promoted and implemented by the Department of Education. (Thomas, 2011a)

Despite Gardner’s soaring optimism, the media is culpable in this failure to commit to the hope and change that was so eloquently and vociferously presented by Obama and his administration.

A powerful and disturbing example of how the Obama administration, through the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan, masks the neoliberal agenda (see Hursh, 2011, and Carr & Porfilio, 2011a) behind civil rights rhetoric and crisis discourse is an exchange between civil rights leaders calling for the removal of Duncan and Obama’s reply. Civil rights leaders include in their call the following:

National Journey for Justice Alliance demands include:

  • Moratorium on school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansions.
  • Its proposal for sustainable school transformation to replace failed, market-driven interventions as support for struggling schools.
  • Resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. (Ravitch, 2013a)

With Obama’s signature prominent at the end of his letter to Ed Johnson, the President replied, his language no longer masking his agenda. Obama is resolute in his commitment to “provid[ing] our children with the world-class education they need to succeed and our Nation needs to compete in the global economy.” Not once in this two-page response does Obama mention democracy, or any of the ideals embraced by Gardner above. Obama, instead, offers “cheap streamers in the rain”:

Our classrooms should be places of high expectations and success, where all students receive an education that prepares them for higher learning and high-demand careers in our fast-changing economy….

In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, students grow up more likely to read and do math at their grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form stable families of their own…. (Ravitch, 2013a)

The message is clear that education is a mechanism for building a competitive workforce; nothing else seems to matter. Obama’s focus on education as training for workers is disturbing, but his relentless commitment to competition and punitive accountability policies in education is highly problematic against democratic goals and the pursuit of equity.

Throughout the response, Obama mentions Race to the Top twice, invokes “competition” three times, and twice endorses “reward” structures for raising teacher and school quality. But let’s not forget the crisis: “America’s students cannot afford to wait any longer.” Even this crisis is driven by economic diction, “afford.” The emphasis is clearly in the workforce, business, employment and training, and not on citizenship, social justice, critical engagement and democracy.

More than 30 years ago, Gardner (1994) argues: “The lie on the American left is this: that the American theory promised such-and-such and has sometimes not delivered, whereas We Deliver. The truth—a metaphysical truth, in fact—is that nobody delivers” (p. 99). With Obama’s neutered education agenda before us as part of three continuous decades of failed accountability policies (Thomas, 2013), Gardner’s analysis seems prophetic. Despite Gardner’s rejecting cynicism (“But the myth of the mindless patriot is not worse than the myth of the cynic who speaks of America with an automatic sneer” [p. 98]), George Carlin, comedian and social critic, appears to have a more accurate view of the American Dream:

But there’s a reason. There’s a reason. There’s a reason for this, there’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason it will never, ever, ever be fixed.

It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you’ve got.

Because the owners, the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now, the big owners! The Wealthy… the real owners! The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.

Forget the politicians. They are irrelevant. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice! You have owners! They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought, and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear….

They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want:

They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. (Shoq, 2010)

This isn’t simply biting social satire. This isn’t easily discounted cynicism. Obama’s education policies and his neoliberal agenda are solid proof that Carlin, not Gardner, is right: “It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Table of Contents

Introduction: Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr, and P.L. Thomas, Editors Part 1: Social Reform for Equity and Opportunity 1. Defying Meritocracy: The Case of the Working-Class College Student Allison L. Hurst 2. Reforming the Schooling of Neoliberal, Perpetual Zombie Desire William Reynolds 3. The Pseudo Accountability of Education Reform: Injustice by (False) Proxy Randy Hoover 4. Teacher Education and Resistance within the Neoliberal Regime: Making the Necessary Possible Barbara Madeloni and Kysa Nygreen Part 2: School-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity 5. Changing the Colonial Context to Address School Underperformance in Nunavut Paul Berger 6. An Injury to All? The Haphazard Nature of Academic Freedom in America’s Public Schools Robert L. Dahlgren, Nancy C. Patterson and Christopher J. Frey 7. Educating, Not Criminalizing, Youth of Color: Challenging Neoliberal Agendas and Penal Populism Mary Christiankis and Richard Mora Part 3: Classroom-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity 8. Pedagogies of Equity and Opportunity: Critical Literacy, Not Standards P. L. Thomas 9. YouTube University: How an Educational Foundations Professor Uses Critical Media in His Classroom Nicholas D. Hartlep 10. Developing a User-Friendly, Community-Based Higher Education Rebecca Collins-Nelsen and Randy Nelsen 11. Transcending the Standard: One Teacher’s Effort to Explore the World Beyond the Curriculum Chris LeahyConclusion: Learning and Teaching in Scarcity P. L. Thomas


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