Jun 10, 2009

A Political-Educational Rant

Dear Readers:
Here is a response I wrote for a grad school class to an article we read. I sort of jumped the couch a little on it - I felt like Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire - but since I hadn't blogged in a while, I thought I would show you what I've been up to. Enjoy. Or not.

What Dr. Marshall has highlighted for me in this article is how inexorably political the standards movement truly is. A Nation at Risk reads like a political tract, a public relations manifesto or something. I mean, who compares any educational system to an act of war but a politician? You can declare war on anything. Doesn't do anything. Just makes a political point. And that's one of the biggest problems. Widespread, governmental public relations campaigns have made it a point to use business tactics to sell the American people a news-snippet ideas, things that sound earnest in sound bytes but don't work when teased out to their logical conclusions. "Rhetorical grandeur" is a much more eloquent phrase than "hyperbole", which is what I would call it.

Moreover, it follows that our educational system as a whole is in the hands of politicians, not educators. I can only be skeptical of any system now, due to how highly politicized they in time come to be. Even if we were to eliminate NCLB and all of its subpar proponents and substituted a wonderful, teacher-friendly program in its place, how long would it last in its best and most beneficial form? How long before it would become bastardized and ripped apart, like a precariously hung bureaucratic pinata, to see what kind of money lay inside?

Okay, let me scale back a bit. It sounds overtly cynical and pessimistic, and to a certain degree it is. I can only blame my obsession with Lewis Black and George Carlin for that. I'm not that angry. But I am concerned. I know that we can work the system to our kids' benefits - and isn't that what matters - but the area we've been relegated to is getting awfully claustrophobic, and it's about time the pendulum swing the other way. Since I've been in the program, there has been scant discussion of the symbiotic relationship between political capital and educational policy, and Dr. Marshall has done a wonderful job of outlining the rhetoric that has people fooled. What is being done is unfair to people like Dr. Marshall, who have attempted in earnest to do something positive, so I don't want this to come off as an attack on responsible professionals, whose efforts and intentions often are in the right place.

I am especially enthralled by how he explains A Nation at Risk: "To interrogate those policies, to marshal research evidence questioning their assumptions or their procedures, would be to stand somehow against educational excellence, against even our national stature in the world." I am in exact agreement. All that it creates, though, is fear - fear that our school systems are falling apart, fear that our kids will be illiterate and allow the collapse of our economy - and when people are afraid, they are easily manipulated, and that is the function of such contrived, bellicose language. And I am not decrying the politicization of education. Sadly, it was bound to happen. Everything has become an issue of political tug-of-war today, and education cannot be exempt. In fact, I'd be terrified if it somehow weren't involved in some brand of ideology war. But I think it's going to take a certain amount of de-politicization, if that can be achieved, to reach a higher level of nationwide educational stability.

And, ultimately, I'm not against standards. Or standardized tests, even. I want to make that clear. I do think standards can be beneficial. I am in favor of helpful, well-designed universal guidelines for teaching. I also recognize how they have been hijacked to punish teachers and even administrators, and not even consciously. It's just that, when there needs to be a neck on the chopping block, who better to place there than the teacher?

However, my rage seemed to be misplaced on reading discussions of how the standards are devised, since they were not and are not brokered by stogie-smoking snake-oil salesmen in the back rooms of governmental buildings, but by principled women and men, and the politicians are who need to be reprimanded for conflating education with war and nuclear proliferation and so on and using their influence to make shortsighted political decisions, rather than long-term educational ones. Shame on them.

What we have seen - and I don't believe this is generally acknowledged - is that the purported need for a "back to basics" assessment system is a conservative one, a backlash against the supposed "liberal agenda" that has been demonized as having misled the country. Sophistication of thought and complicated ideas are often portrayed as hippie-dippy liberalism, so this is an important and often understated distinction between what we're seeing and what we perhaps need to see. When we, as teachers, talk about the need for professional development and mutual accountability across the spectrum, it can look a bit, er, dislocated. It seems too complicated and erratic and not simple enough to digest in a commercial-length spot. Simplicity, not religion, is the opiate of the masses.

The difference is that some of what's going on is not complicated or sophisticated, but muddled. Teachers should be accountable for what happens in their classrooms, but not in the Frankensteinian, villagers-at-the-door-with-pitchforks sort of way that seems to be today's norm. There needs to be support for gradual improvement, instead of a, forgive my idiom, "cut and run" policy.

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