Preventing Arson Instead of Putting Out Fires

What do the allegory of the river, the science fiction film In Time, and a mainstream examination of living in poverty by an economist and a psychologist reveal for those of us seeking the next phase in our resistance of the education reform agenda in the U.S.?

We need to pull back from a thousand individual examples of how political, media, and public claims about education are failing children and public education. In other words, we need to increase our calls for ending arson and reduce our efforts to put out fires.

The allegory of the river emphasizes the need to address causes for our problems, instead of only tackling over and over the consequences:

The woman replied, “Someone or something is causing these children to fall into the river.  We could be here for years pulling broken bodies from the water.  I am going to walk upstream until I find out what is causing these children to fall in and see if I can do something to stop it!”

Babies tossed in the river, arsons setting fires—or as Oscar Wilde confronted, “But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.”

So step one in the next phase is shifting our energy to causes.

Step two includes a recognition that spending a disproportionate amount of our time and energy putting out the fires the education reformers are setting insures the reformers win—just as the majority of people are shackled to their frantic lives artificially by ruling forces in the film In Time.

Teachers and students are now experiencing paralyzing frantic lives—conditions (remedies) labeled “reform” that in fact “deform” (part of the disease).

Focus on causes, reduce our frantic responses, and then the third step, revealed in Scarcity: Committing ourselves to disciplinary evidence addressing large-scale social forces (instead of accusatory stares focused on individuals).

Let’s consider, then, how to move forward, shifting our messages away from putting out fires and toward calling out grand scale failures because politician X or celebrity Y or journalist Z is not a unique or especially flawed example on his or her own.

Politicians, celebrities and journalists are failing the public discourse often, and we cannot express enough that those failures are grounded primarily in their lack of experience and expertise in teaching and education. So we certainly need to continue reminding everyone of those facts: I don’t know politician X or celebrity Y or journalist Z, and I have no way genuinely to examine any of their intentions or essential nature as people (although I have credible suspicions, I think), but I do know they have little to no credibility, and that their claims and policies are misguided.

Today, for example, reveals both our need to continue the resistance (although with a new resolve) and how dangerous our duty remains:

  • The New York Times reports on very disturbing details about a sports-celebrity’s charter school. The lesson here is not specifically the celebrity-athlete or the political figures who allowed the charter to form, but the larger failure: Political, media, and public commitments that ignore expertise and evidence represented by the unwarranted charter school movement.
  • NPR reports on a journalist’s book about teaching, teachers, and teacher effectiveness. The media coverage of that book has also promoted Tom Loveless to refute many of the claims made by the journalist. None of this is an isolated or unique problem because we daily are bombarded by the media and journalists examining education as if educators and researchers have never considered their own field. The result is the public is misguided once again. NPR and the NYT represent journalists covering journalists writing about the disciplines as if the experts in the disciplines simply do not exist; and therein lies the problem.
  • At The Washington Post‘s The Answer Sheet, we learn that grading policies at Princeton are mis-serving students. Education Week adds that at-risk students are also mis-served. These seemingly separate reform fires can be traced to the same arsonist: Our urge to label students and our blind allegiance to grading.

I could go on, and tomorrow will be the same, I suspect: Fires, fires, everywhere fires—ones set by the exact reformers who claim to be here to help us (possibly suggesting another key work of science fiction literature).

We cannot ignore the fires, of course, but we must not allow them to keep us mostly focused on the frantic task of fighting those fires to the exclusion of unmasking the arsons, an unmasking designed to prevent those fires.

One comment

  1. Peter Smyth

    The idea that the NCTM Standards were weaker in content and depth is amazingly flawed.
    I’ve found that most critics have either never really read them, been engaged in teaching from them, or just can’t see math in any other way than the math classes of heir schooling.

    Those who seem to have demonized constructivism seem to have redefined it in their own narrow way,maven equating it with “progressive” math.

    I wonder if we should return to the 1960s and the behaviorists.

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