Despite the rhetoric, modern movements to reform schools have had a devastating effect on education
As a full-time teacher, I don’t have a lot of time to look up from the dailiness of the job to consider something as nebulous as the “future” of education. When I do, I feel a vague unease that too many non-teachers seem to have a lot of time to do this kind of thinking.
One thing in my favor is that education reform seems to take the same basic forms, year after year. There’s the standards and accountability movement and the ongoing attempts to give it “teeth.” Then there are the tech giants peddling autonomy and self-direction in lieu of soul-crushing activities like reading The Outsiders and using protractors. And though the latter reformers are often critics of the former, the two have a lot in common.
Both represent billion-dollar industries. Both frequently co-opt a rhetoric of liberation, autonomy, and empowerment. Both can barely disguise a deep disdain for teachers and schools, especially of the “sage on the stage” variety. And both are almost exclusively headed up by white men.
These are the kind of people setting a bold agenda for the future of education.
Admittedly, us unruly American educators would have a hard time coming up with anything coherent enough to compete with the brave visions set forth by the leaders of these two industries. The very fact that such an all-encompassing solution is needed testifies to their dominance in framing the narrative around American schools. Mired in the day-to-day challenges and complexities of actually caring for and educating children, many teachers exhibit a complete failure of imagination when it comes to sweeping monolithic initiatives with pithy acronyms, eye-catching logos, and font pairings that are straight fire.
But we do need to change. Beyond the usual Alice Cooper-type critiques, we teachers have been especially complicit in the widespread marginalizing, neuroticizing, and criminalizing of our most vulnerable students. Yes, we need to stop boring future white rockstars and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. This is already well known. But, more importantly, we also need to stop harming children of color with our whitewashed curriculum, inequitable funding systems, and disparate use of punitive disciplinary measures.
Can today’s reformers help us make progress toward these goals? Or do they exacerbate, perpetuate, and contribute to the very problems we face?
Trying to pin deception, manipulation, and violence on this rag-tag bunch leaves me feeling petty and mean-spirited. After all, they’re often so upbeat and sincere, their rhetoric so humanistic and progressive. Ted Dintersmith, former venture capitalist and billionaire author of the book What School Could Be, recently teamed up with Prince Ea, who has made not one but two viral videos echoing the same message: schools must change. And on the standards and accountability side, David Coleman, “architect” of the Common Core and now CEO of the College Board, has boldly laid out a “beautiful vision” for American schools. In a field plagued by widespread mediocrity and entrenched inequities, shouldn’t we applaud any moves toward a more inspiring, inclusive future?
The problem is that, despite all the rhetoric and good intentions, both these movements have had a devastating effect on education, all while continually escaping blame for their outsized impact. Any negative outcomes are used to justify further expansion and dominance. Poor test scores and persistent achievement gaps aren’t seen as issues with the tests, but as misalignment and implicit bias on the part of teachers. Student attention deficit and boredom aren’t seen as a function of technology addiction, but rather an occasion to blast schools for their inability to fully capitalize on the promise of the digital age.
Not surprisingly, this seeming unassailable innocence reveals close links to the logics of white supremacy culture, especially the values of individualism, objectivity, and so-called meritocracy. They additionally amplify neoliberal beliefs in the absolute goods of privacy and consumer choice, thus shifting the blame away from dominant elites under the guise of “empowerment.” To borrow the central metaphor from Todd Rose’s The End of Average, they ultimately seek to style us as fighter pilots in the “cockpits of our economy,” where we must summon limitless initiative, grit, and resourcefulness just to survive.
Ultimately, their ideas are rooted in America’s original “solutions” to the problems of pluralism, wherein subtle self-effacement and silencing became stratagems for consolidating power. All of this is part of a long tradition in the United States, one that dates back to colonial times, guiding both the “Strange Compromise” of 1789 and the founding of the Common School. Although these roots may be less obvious in our day, they are arguably more powerful and moneyed than ever before.
Reading “Without Comment”
In 1837, Horace Mann, education reformer and “father” of the Common School movement, saw competing religious denominations standing in the way of his vision for free, universal, nonsectarian schools. His solution? The Bible would be read in schools “without note or comment.” The various churches could catechize their children as they saw fit, but schools would remain ideologically and theologically neutral.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time the United States arrived at a similarly “negative” solution to the problems of pluralism. At the Constitutional Convention in 1789, representatives from the various religious commonwealths realized that none of them could muster a majority vote to achieve polity over the fledgling nation. As educational historian James Fraser recounts, the minority denominations, in an uneasy alliance with Jefferson, Madison, and other Enlightenment-minded deists, agreed that “religious toleration was preferable to the establishment of someone else’s church.” Religious freedom, in other words, happened by compromise, by default, by accident.
Despite strong opposition, Mann’s vision of schools largely prevailed, and the distinctly American solution of ideological silence, negation, and effacement continued to provide a template for further educational reforms. These reformers used stratagems of invisibility, silencing, and self-effacement—what Tocqueville called “negative” doctrines—to consolidate and centralize control.
Power had not ceased to function, it merely made itself less assuming.
We should note, too, that this ideological “neutrality” was never applied with fidelity or equity. For example, shortly after his election to the presidency, Thomas Jefferson entered into a pact with evangelicals to bring education to Native Americans, an alliance wildly inconsistent with his professed belief in the separation of church and state.
Neither were blacks included in Mann’s vision of free and universal schools. Despite his vocal abolitionism, Mann was notably reluctant in standing beside early integrationists. As Hilary J. Moss writes in her book Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in America, “His reticence was not lost on integrationists.”
As [white abolitionist and desegregationalist Wendell] Phillips charged, while Mann agreed with integrationists in private, he withheld even “one word of recognition, countenance or aid.” And for that “systematic and designed silence” he predicted, Mann would “live to repent yet of the wrong he did the colored children of this State.”
This same “systematic and designed silence” continues to characterize educational reform today.
David Coleman’s “Beautiful Vision”
When the Common Core State Standards Initiative came on the scene on 2010, English language arts and humanities teachers began hearing a lot about “close reading.” Without paying much attention to its origin or intended meanings, I used the term in my own classes. It seemed a modest concept, indicating that we should develop a deeper appreciation for the finer nuances of a text.
Close reading is not a new phenomenon. It has been defined a lot of ways but is most commonly considered a “text-dependent” technique of reading, one that focuses on the text as an autonomous entity, existing apart from both authorial intent, historical or political context, and reader response. Louise Rosenblatt, tracking the development of this trend through the 19th and the 20th century, observed how the reader was relegated the role of an “invisible eavesdropper” and the text, in the words of John Stuart Mill, a “soliloquy overheard.” One finds in it another echo of Horace Mann’s edict to read the Bible “without comment.” Although this movement largely peaked with New Criticism in the mid-20th century, it has enjoyed a renaissance under the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT and AP Exams.
The College Board and its current CEO, David Coleman, have exerted a powerful influence in instituting this approach in American schools. As architect of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, Coleman inscribed the values of close reading into the English language arts curriculum. Now, as CEO of the College Board, he closes the loop, hoping that a revamped SAT will ensure their de facto implementation, even in states that originally rejected the CCSS.
The dominance of so-called “objective” approaches like close reading is not without consequences or content. Since white culture is the only one for whom this kind of cultural “invisibility” is possible, close reading, by its very nature, prefers and privileges white writers, readers, and characters. It shouldn’t surprise us then that the eminently “universal” genius Shakespeare is mentioned nine times by name in the high school Common Core, but everyone else is “other authors.”
Nonwhite writers admitted into this canon must aspire mainly toward the white standards of universality, invisibility, racelessness. If this can’t be done through an evocation of timeless American themes, as in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, it must at least provide enough formal interest to render any social and political context secondary or irrelevant. Although intended perhaps to “revere” the writer, this process possesses an uncanny ability to turn a powerful work into a harmless museum piece. David Coleman modeled how to use the approach with Martin Luther King’s Letter.
Setting aside Coleman’s condescending tone and laughable advice to spend “six-eight days” subjecting King’s letter to this treatment, it’s no surprise he would have a vested, almost fastidious interest in rendering any outside opinion or context invisible or irrelevant. From a practical standpoint, it would make arriving at a measurably “right” interpretation of a text nearly impossible, thus making the validity and reliability required for standardized tests untenable.
Certainly, Coleman’s growing dominance over American curriculum is worrisome. His hasty rewrite of the SAT is part of the reason the College Board has started to win some states back from the more popular ACT. But despite his peerless appreciation and analysis of King’s Letter, Coleman and the College Board have no answers for the fact that race and class are the best predictors of success on the exam.
But let’s lay off David Coleman and the College Board and look at the testing industry as a whole. Using the same playbook as Jefferson’s Strange Compromise and Horace Mann’s Common School, this industry is able to masquerade as valueless, neutral, and ideologically empty. By hiding behind its many “different discourses and agendas” (Biesta 2017), the testing regime is able to elide inequities, dissimulate power, and jockey for ever-increasing control of curriculum, college admissions, and students’ future prospects, which they faithfully reproduce along class and race lines.
“I Just Want to Learn From You”
It seems like most tech philanthropists and other apologists of self-directed learning hated school. This righteous indignation alone makes them a lot cooler than Coleman—and perhaps better prophets of change when it comes to education reform. Surely, these risk-takers, disrupters, and dropouts have some fresh new ideas for education.
Well, kind of. For one, quite a few seem to be in bed with David Coleman and the Common Core (my submission, by the way, for worst band name ever). But don’t let that sour you on them. Whereas the test industry looks to objectivity, individual achievement, and critical silence as its invisibility cloaks, these tech types value autonomy and self-direction. In Coleman’s perfect world, the text and the test are the inviolable idols before which we must efface ourselves; in the world of techy TEDTalkers, the student is. For them, it’s the teacher who needs silencing, letting the student set the agenda. “Nothing to see here,” they can say. “Just empowering and amplifying students!”
At face value this demotion of teachers’ role in education can sound liberatory, and the idea of separating learning from schooling is not without merit. But again, we see the trademark invisibility, silence, and self-effacement attending unprecedented power. These elites aren’t the reviled “sage on the stage,” even though they are the ones who truly dominate stages, lounging in sleek wingback chairs or standing on that rug they roll out in front of the red TED letters. Here, celebrity authors, speakers, and consultants like Ted Dintersmith, Sir Ken Robinson, and Will Richardson grant the student unprecedented autonomy in learning, at times almost echoing the emancipatory language of Paulo Freire. But whereas Freire’s vision of autonomy was oriented toward collective identity and action, the present rhetoric orients each student toward what Noah de Lissovoy (2018) calls “relentless entrepreneurial activity” and identification as an “exhausted and fragmented agent of neoliberal freedom.”
Whether these apologists are themselves tech giants or not, many seem to have seen the information age as a kind of tipping point, where the multiple interests, intelligences, rationalities, and passions of students can finally be accommodated. Todd Rose asserts:
We have a chance right now to use this technology to create learning environments that are so flexible that they truly can nurture the potential of every single individual. Now, you might think that sounds expensive, right? Doesn’t have to be. In fact, we can get a long way; we can make great strides, with simple solutions that we take for granted in our everyday digital lives.
We should start by saying that education technology has often failed to deliver on this inspiring vision. For instance, at ISTE 2018, buzz was building about a revolutionary new feature in Google Classroom. As it turned out, it was nothing more than a “locked mode” that allows teachers to prevent students from opening tabs during a quiz or test through Google Forms. Mike Crowley summarized it well: “New tools. Old thinking.”
But even when technology attempts to deliver the kind of personalization Rose believes is now possible, the results have often been highly suspect. For example, the computer-based personalized-learning charter Summit Schools have received massive investments from Bill Gates, Lauren Powell-Jobs, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which has developed and now maintains the Summit Learning Platform. Betsy DeVos even invited the Summit founder to speak on “customizing learning” at her Rethink School Summit. For his part, Mark Zuckerberg has put out a few super awkward videos of his visits to Summit Schools, informing students “I just want to learn from you.”
Contrary to the highly polished promotional materials, accounts from students, parents, and visitors to the schools note how personalized learning at Summit often devolves into sitting in front of a computer watching videos and taking notes all day. Not surprisingly, this development seems especially pronounced in Summit Schools serving disadvantaged students. Far from the stated ideal of having “a dedicated mentor who knows them deeply and supports them in setting and achieving their short and long-term goals,” students are often seemingly left alone with their “playlist.” Said one parent, “He was basically in charge of his own education at the age of 12.”
It isn’t hard to see why high-poverty, high-minority schools with persistent staffing and overcrowding issues would be particularly vulnerable to this sort of “solution.” In this light, Rose’s sanguine assertions of personal learning’s fundamental affordability take on a more sinister light. What deep systemic inequities and issues do we ignore when we capitulate to the dreams of billionaires? What are we saying when we allow our children—especially the most underserved and vulnerable—to become “de facto beta testers for their ideas”?
Ultimately, the several silences of education reform have proven a powerful gambit for privatization and profit. These industries implicitly offer themselves as neutral alternatives to our fraught political climate, much as Horace Mann’s enjoinder to “read without comment” secularized schools in a sectarian age. They also shift the onus of agency and ownership from themselves onto the student, who assumes full responsibility for finding and following their own educational path.
Whereas Mann, perhaps unconsciously, hoped to indoctrinate students into his supposedly doctrineless Unitarianism, these reformers peddle the so-called empty doctrines of individualism, personalization, objectivity, entrepreneurialism, and meritocracy—all while exacerbating inequities and deprofessionalizing teachers.
Resisting these trends starts by seeing them as two sides of the same coin. Anything that counsels and valorizes silence—before the text, the test, or even the individual student—may partake in this phenomenon. The primary effect is always to atomize: content into itemized bits, classrooms into individualized projects and timelines, and each of us into solitary individuals pursuing personalized pathways.
Among the many omissions implicit in this vision is the notion that each student has equal access to a pathway of choice. Once that false premise is established, you are truly on your own. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps, find your own personal road less traveled, dive headfirst into the entrepreneurial shark tank. Unfortunately, far too many smaller-scale reform movements espouse a similar ethos, often flooding Twitter with a toxic positivity that ignores intransigent inequities and injustices.
None of this is intended to romanticize the educational mainstays of the past: lectures, textbooks, worksheets. But we should note how these more modern trends themselves often devolve into regressive, behaviorist, sit-and-get pedagogy.
Confronted by daunting challenges like widespread budget shortfalls, inequitable funding, increasing school segregation, whitewashed curriculum, and racial injustice, it’s no wonder we would reach for solutions that appear easy, inexpensive, and ideologically empty. At a time when we most need to engage in serious deliberations about the purposes and future of schools, we instead equivocate and efface ourselves before tests and technology, leaving students to suffer or succeed within their own educational echo chamber.
As appealing as these options may seem, they are not without content or consequences. Ironically, today’s progressive educators find themselves in the strange position of having to fight reform, resisting those who would render everything—including their own intentions and impact—invisible.