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The Education Reformers: Willfully Blind

Tuesday evening our grassroots group, Teachers' Letters to Obama, held a teach-in featuring educator turned Congresswoman Judy Chu and conservative education scholar turned critic, Diane Ravitch. (You can hear the recording here.) There were many memorable moments in our conversation, but the one that is resonating with me is Dr. Ravitch's description of her meeting with top White House staffers, including Arne Duncan and Obama's Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel. The meeting, she said, was pleasant enough, but there was no traction. No interest in what she was saying. Emmanuel actually left midway through, saying he had more important things to do.

She had been told they did not want to hear criticism but instead positive solutions, so she did her best to prepare such solutions. But in the end, they did not really seem interested in anything she had to say at all.

So far this has been our experience in seeking to interact with the administration as well. We should have been natural allies. Many of us raised money and campaigned for Obama, and celebrated his victory. We are educators not because we seek a comfy government job, but because we care deeply about our students, and their right to the best education we can offer them. We have been critical of education policies - but we have plenty of positive suggestions based on our firsthand knowledge of our students and schools. But we have no traction, no way to connect.

There is an oil and water phenomenon at work here. Our perception of the reality in our schools is so drastically different from that of the administration that the two cannot seem to coexist in the same space and time.

To be fair the paradigm of school reform we are facing did not begin with this administration. They have merely adopted it for whatever reasons. But let's be clear about what we are up against. We can offer positive solutions all day long, but until we share a common awareness of reality, we will not be heard. So what is at the heart of this disconnect?

The central claim of the "education reformers" in and out of the administration is that our schools, and in particular, teachers who hold low expectations, are the reason for the differences we see in performance between different socioeconomic groups. To bolster this, they cite research that shows that some teachers are better able to lift student performance than others. So, if we had nothing but great teachers like these, our problems would be solved. But while many of us have invested heavily in our own efforts to become more effective, and in processes such as National Board certification that offer ways to demonstrate and elevate our practice, these processes alone are not going to eradicate the inequities faced by our students.

Ironically, the administration co-opts the language of the Civil Rights Movement to proclaim education as "the civil rights issue of our generation." The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s were deeply concerned about education, but they understood very well that fighting poverty was fundamental to the health of their communities. So-called reformers have turned civil rights on its head, and no longer worry about the resegregation of schools, or the vast inequities in funding between wealthy and impoverished schools, or the widespread poverty and violence in these communities. Now these are dismissed as excuses offered by the real culprits, those teachers who set low standards and allow their students to fail, and the unions that protect them.

Martin Luther King, Jr, said in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964,

We have developed the greatest system of production that history has ever known. We have become the richest nation in the world. Our national gross product this year will reach the astounding figure of almost 650 billion dollars. Yet, at least one-fifth of our fellow citizens - some ten million families, comprising about forty million individuals - are bound to a miserable culture of poverty... the poor in America know that they live in the richest nation in the world, and that even though they are perishing on a lonely island of poverty they are surrounded by a vast ocean of material prosperity.

Why can we not recognize that poverty matters? Why is this anathema to the education reformer? The scholarship on this stretches back decades. Poverty produces a whole range of conditions that directly affect student performance. Studies show that the children in homes where the parents are on welfare hear a fraction of the vocabulary of the children in homes of well-educated parents. Poverty is associated with family instability. I know from frustrating attempts to make phone calls that many of my most disruptive and dysfunctional students were not settled at any particular home, and were being shuffled from one parent to another, or living in chaotic group homes or in foster care. As I shared in my blog last week, there is strong evidence that neighborhood violence results in traumatized children, compromising their ability to focus and learn.

But this awareness is forbidden. It is an article of unquestionable faith among the education reformers that the only causes for poor outcomes that we are allowed to acknowledge are bad schools, bad teachers and low expectations. And any attention to the causes I mention above is cited as strong evidence that the teacher in question holds such low expectations, because otherwise, why would you seek to offer "excuses" such as these for poor performance? In fact, we are told to banish such thoughts from our minds, lest they tempt us to make excuses for our students or otherwise lower our standards.

According to the education reformer, raising issues such as hunger and violence is equivalent to throwing in the towel on these students. Because apparently these conditions are beyond society's capacity to address - so educators must take on the impossible challenge of teaching students to excel without allowing these factors to interfere whatsoever.

What we have is an education reform agenda driven by willful blindness to the cruel effects of poverty. Why is this blindness necessary? Because to open one's eyes to these effects actually requires that we take steps to correct them. We have chosen to abandon any societal attempts to diminish poverty. Over the past three decades our society has greatly expanded the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, and the gap between the wealthy and poor grows wider and wider.

It might be argued that on the teachers' side, there is a corresponding blindness, an unwillingness to recognize that there are, indeed, poor teachers who ought to leave the classroom. While our unions are obliged to offer teachers a legal defense as part of the processes in place to handle such situations, I have not found that teachers as a whole are blind to the need for some professional standards. We can agree that there are a small number of ineffective teachers who may not belong, but that does not mean these individuals are the cause of our systemic inequities.

Who would desire this blindness to the effects of poverty?
Not the poor. Not those of us who work every day in these communities. Only the elite, and those who serve the elite. They cannot see the truth. The truth burns their eyes. We need to show them the truth at every opportunity.

What do you think? Does the awareness of the effects of poverty cause teachers to lower their standards, and thus perpetuate poor outcomes? Are the "education reformers" willfully blind to the effects of poverty?

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