Good Intentions, Political Realities, Privileged Cluelessness: On Education Reform and Poverty

Education and education reform are vibrant examples of the wide spectrum of good people with good intentions and then all the way to the other extreme, spurious people with dubious intentions.

When my home state of South Carolina began sliding down that slippery slope of adopting (flawed and misrepresented) reading policy modeled on Florida, I came face to face (actually, voice to voice) with the harsh realization that good people with good intentions can be as harmful as spurious people with dubious intentions: Good people with whom I had been talking suddenly brushed me off, citing political expediency—better to get the money for reading and swallow the horrible grade retention element than to get no money at all, I was told.

I thought of this when I saw associate editor at The State Cindi Scoppe’s To fix SC schools, start with governance. Scoppe, for full disclosure, has published a number of my Op-Eds in The State, notable is that my positions are decidedly not in line with the politics or ideology of my home state.

Also, I am certain Scoppe is a good person with good intentions; she genuinely wants equitable and effective schools for all children in SC.

However, I also know good intentions (even mine) are not enough.

Scoppe opens with admitting she isn’t an expert on educating students, and then offers a relatively modest plan for education reform—ones she characterizes as “commonsense reforms that come from across the political spectrum.” Scoppe endorses the “best ideas from the right and left,” including:

  • Making it easier to fire bad teachers (right);
  • increasing teacher pay to teach impoverished students, and freeing teachers from non-teaching tasks (left);
  • increasing charter schools, magnet schools, and parental choice, and giving schools more freedom in spending (right);
  • implementing a better school funding formula, with more equity, and pursuing, possibly, district/school consolidation (left).

My immediate response was to share on Twitter my argument that we need not simply appease the political right and left, or the public, but instead should endorse evidence-based reform addressing equity.

So that leaves these questions:

  • Are bad teachers, and the difficulty firing them, major (or even minor) hurdles to high-quality education for all children in SC? I have never seen anyone making this claim show evidence that this is true. I am deeply skeptical of these claims, also, in a right-to-work state where teachers’ unions have no legal power and very limited buy-in by K-12 teachers in the state. The real teacher quality problem in SC (and across the U.S.) is a tremendous inequity of teacher assignment: affluent and white students disproportionately have experienced and certified/qualified teachers while impoverished, minority, ELL, and special needs students disproportionately have beginning/inexperienced and un-/under-certified/qualified teachers.
  • Would targeted merit pay for teaching high-needs students and relief from non-teaching tasks help improve education for high-poverty, majority-minority schools (notably along the Corridor of Shame)? Unlikely, since legislation in the past in SC has included both, unsuccessfully. Merit pay has been discredited for education (as well as all professions) in general, in fact (see the work of Daniel PinkAlfie Kohn, and Joe Bower). What we do know is that teachers are more motivated by teaching and learning conditions as well as support from administration and parents than by merit pay schemes. Step one for encouraging teachers to work with high-needs students is addressing directly teaching/learning conditions in high-poverty schools. Step two is to reject teacher evaluation plans that are predicted to discourage high-quality teachers from working with the students having the greatest needs.
  • Are investments in charter schools, magnet schools, and parental choice effective reform measures for achieving educational equity? No. Charters schools in SC have shown that 95% of charters perform about the same and worse than public schools while also being highly segregated and often underserving ELL and special needs students. And the sloganism of “parental choice” hasn’t proven to be effective either; many efforts to increase parental choice have shown parents rarely choose based on academic quality, but tend to seek social or ideological goals.
  • Does SC need a better school funding formula, one that is more equitable, and one that likely will require consolidation of schools/districts? Yes, with caveats. Here, evidence is key. While there is a “common sense” argument that “money doesn’t matter” or “you can’t just throw money at schools,” solid and long-standing research refutes both; see the work of Bruce Baker. SC needs a new funding formula, but it must not be a partisan political event, and it must be based on research and not talking points. And as a powerful example, school/district consolidation is exactly one of those common sense ideas that research challenges: “While state-level consolidation proposals may serve a public relations purpose in times of crisis, they are unlikely to be a reliable way to obtain substantive fiscal or educational improvement.”

Good intentions and political expediency, then, simply are not enough—and are likely to keep SC mired in bad education reform piled on top of the historical and lingering cancers of racism and concentrated poverty.

Which brings us to the other side of the spectrum—spurious people with dubious intentions, in this case the grand whitesplainer employed by The New York Times.

I refuse to mention he-who-shall-not-be-named, and gross stereotyping of people in poverty deserves as little attention as possible, but for balance here, I offer a wonderful refuting by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, Poor People Don’t Need Better Social Norms. They Need Better Social Policies.

And also, Emmitt Rensin offers a thorough unpacking and discrediting of “blame the poor” mentalities:

It would be one thing if we didn’t recognize the problem of American poverty. It would be easy if the moral scolding of our poor were confined to one section of our polity. Then we might pursue the many avenues of fiscal and monetary policy available to us. But among even those whose rhetoric suggests an awareness of the situation, even those who know that to be born monied in America is to be heir to a self-fulfilling prophesy of the kind of “good” behavior Brooks is crying out for, are so easily seduced by a reversal of effect and cause.

But out here, poor parents, poor kids and poor schools don’t have the luxury of indulging Brook’s harmful, costly relativism. They live by the most inflexible “code” of our national life: If you’re poor, you’re on your own. Good luck. Oh, and we’ll be watching. Future pay will reflect performance….

We aren’t bereft of ideals. Rather, we are plagued with bad ones—that discipline is proved by wealth, that the ideas of middle class luxury help children more than material wealth.

A better set might be the kind that makes the elected, empowered, ostensible advocates of America’s poor ask “tough questions” about their culpability in the condition of “our kids.” The kind that recognizes that there is a moral failure at the bottom of American poverty—but this failure does not belong to its own victims.

I will end with this: U.S. public education, notably in SC, is a disturbing reflection of the inexcusable inequity in our country not the result of anyone’s effort or character, but the consequences of privilege and inequity.

Until we make political, media, and public efforts to eradicate inequity and poverty—including that we rise above the hatred aimed at impoverished people, racial minorities, and women—from our society and our schools, whether we fire bad teachers, add more charter schools, or not will make little difference.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Good Intentions, Political Realities, Privileged Cluelessness: On Education Reform and Poverty | My BlogThe Philosopher's blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s