Words matter, and thus, I must apologize by opening here with a mundane but essential clarification of terms.
As I have written over and over, everything involving humans is necessarily political, even and especially teaching and learning. Therefore, no teacher at any level can truly be apolitical, objective. Taking a neutral or objective pose is a political choice, and an endorsement of the status quo.
Key to that claim is recognizing the difference between political and partisan. Partisan politics involves allegiance to and advocacy for organized political parties, notably Republicans and Democrats.
A partisan feels compelled to place party loyalty above ideology or ethics. To be political can be and should be a moral imperative.
We can avoid being partisan, even as that is political. And when many people call for education and educators to avoid being political, what they really are seeking is that education and educators not be partisan—a position that is achievable and one I endorse.
This distinction matters in public education and public education reform because all public institutions in the U.S. are by their tax-supported status at the mercy of partisan politics.
From around 1980, in fact, politicians at the local, state, and national levels have discovered that public education is a powerful and effective political football. The standard politician’s refrain is “Schools are horrible, and I can make them better!”
The current rise of the inexpert ruling class at the presidential level has been foreshadowed for more than three decades by the partisan politics around education reform—politicians and political appointees with no experience or expertise in education imposing pet reform initiatives onto public schools because these policies appeal to an equally mis-informed public.
Even with large failed crucibles such as New Orleans post-Katrina, political leaders remain committed to finding themselves in a hole and continuing to dig.
In my home state of South Carolina, infamous for our Corridor of Shame, Charleston, on the east coast and part of that corridor, continues to represent the savage inequalities that result from a combination of an inexpert ruling class and an absence of political courage.
Charleston schools reflect the most stark facts about and problems with K-12 education across the U.S.: private and gate-keeping public schools (such as academies, magnet schools, and some charter schools) that provide outstanding opportunities for some students in contrast to grossly ignored high-poverty, majority-minority public schools that mis-serve “other people’s children.”
As a result of these inequities and dramatically different student outcomes exposed by the accountability era obsession with test scores, Charleston has played the education reform game, committing to provably failed policies over and over: school choice, school closures and takeovers, school turnaround scams, overstating charter schools as “miracles,” and investing in Teach For America.
Why do all these policies fail and what ultimately is wrong with inexpert leadership? The absence of political courage to address directly the blunt causes of inequitable student outcomes in both the lives and education of students.
Currently in Charleston, the closing of Lincoln High and transferring those students to Wando High (see here and here) highlight that the gap between commitments to failed edureform and political courage to do something different persists.
The debates and controversy over how former Lincoln students are now performing at Wando offer some important lessons, such as the following:
- The media and the public should be aware of partisan political code. A garbled reach for “the soft bigotry of low expectations” has been used to explain why Lincoln students’ grades have dropped while at Wando. The “soft bigotry” mantra is a conservative slur triggering the public’s belief in “bleeding heart liberals,” who coddle minorities. But the more damning part of the code is that it focuses blame on the administration and teachers in high-poverty, majority-minority schools and thus away from political leadership.
- And thus, the public needs to distinguish between blaming educators at Lincoln for low expectations (again, garbled as “low standards”) and the expected consequences of high-poverty, majority-minority schools suffering with high teacher turnover, annual under-staffing, and persistent teacher workforces that are new and/or un-/under-certified. Additionally, the accountability era has unrealistic demands of these schools when compared to low-poverty, low-minority schools that have much greater percentages of experienced and certified teachers.
- The apparent drop in student grades and test scores from Lincoln to Wando is extremely important data that deserve close scrutiny, but so far, that scrutiny has been reduced to partisan politics and deflecting blame. Dozens of reasons could explain the grade differences, including the transfer as well as the staffing differences between the two schools (neither of which is the simplistic “soft bigotry” argument used primarily to justify closing a community school).
The partisan political approaches to schools and education reform are tarnished by both willful ignorance and a confrontational blame game.
The willful ignorance of politicians and the public refuses to acknowledge huge social inequity driven by racism and white privilege; the blame game seeks ways to blame the victims of those inequities instead of confronting systemic forces.
What should political leaders be doing and what should the public be demanding that is different from the patterns identified above, than the policies already proven as failures?
- Recognize that in-school only reform creates two serious problems: (1) unrealistic demands with high-stakes consequences produce unethical behavior among otherwise good people (see the Atlanta cheating scandal), and (2) since out-of-school factors overwhelmingly influence measurable student achievement, even the right in-school only reform is unlikely to result in measurable improvement.
- Interrogate the proclaimed cause of low student achievement—”low expectations”—and instead seek to understand the complex reasons behind that low achievement by poor and black/brown students based on available evidence that includes carefully interviewing the administrators, teachers, and students involved.
- Advocate for public policy that addresses serious inequity in the lives of children—policy impacting access to health care, a stable workforce, access to safe and stable housing, and high-quality food security.
- Refuse to ignore needed in-school reform, but reject accountability-based reform for equity-based reform focusing on equitable teacher assignment for all students, articulated school funding that increases funding for schools serving struggling communities, guaranteeing the same high-quality facilities and materials for all children regardless of socioeconomic status of the communities served, and eliminating gate-keeping policies that track high-needs students into test-prep while advantaged students gain access to challenging courses such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate.
Ultimately, the absence of political courage in SC and across the U.S. is where the real blame lies for inequitable student achievement along race and class lines.
Many students, the evidence shows, are doubly and triply disadvantaged by the consequences of their lives and their schools.
Trite and misleading political rhetoric, along with “soft bigotry of low expectations,” includes soaring claims that a child’s ZIP code is not destiny.
Well, in fact, ZIP code is destiny in SC and the U.S.; it shouldn’t be, but that fact will remain as long as political leadership chooses to ignore the expertise within the field of education and continues to lead without political courage.
Political courage requires direct action, even when it isn’t popular, and refuses to deflect blame, refuses to wait for what market forces might accomplish by taking the right action now.
Political courage, as James Baldwin expressed, embraces that “[t]he challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”
For More on Political Courage
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