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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Can we please stop arguing beans with bean counters?

The idea that education is a business just like any other, and that we can be “successful” by running it like a business, is just plain wrong. The current generation of reformers thinks that, if they stay focused and never take their eye off the bottom line, other problems will magically melt away. Ask them which is worse for a kid’s education, living amid urban decay or attending a school where teachers have collective bargaining rights, and they answer the latter. Problems like poverty, violence, racism - more charter schools ought to fix those in a jiffy. So what if a kid has no resources at all, material, spiritual or emotional? Just get rid of tenure. That should do the trick.

It’s madness to treat education like other businesses because, unlike other businesses, education must serve everyone equally, even at great expense. A business, faced with the reality that there is no cost-effective way to get poor inner-city youth to buy lots of widgets, can simply choose to forego selling widgets to poor inner-city youth. Educators, faced with the reality that there is no cost-effective way to get poor inner-city youth through high school, must nevertheless accept the responsibility of trying to do so.

For some education-bottom-line worshippers, the business model is actually literal. They’re in it for profit. There’s a buck to be made in privatizing education with charter schools and vouchers, and where there’s a buck to be made, there will be hungry hyenas sniffing around for ways to make it. I find it difficult to understand how someone could not feel guilty about treating as a commodity something so fundamental to the development of the minds and hearts of fellow human beings, but there you go.

So, okay, I know who the robber barons are. I know who stands to benefit from reducing education to an imaginary bottom line. I know whose side I’m not on.

But here’s what’s really bothering me: We’ve allowed their side to frame the issue in their terms, and we distort our own argument to fit. They’re obsessed, first and foremost, with the narrative of failure. Some public schools serve students really badly; therefore, public education is in crisis. The entire system must be changed - even though only a fraction of the system accounts for the lion’s share of the problem. Conveniently, they ignore the nearly universal correlation among bad schools, poverty, race and ethnicity. And before we know it, we’re all talking about education in crisis - not children in poverty, not urban decay, but education in crisis.

The self-styled education reformers are also obsessed with creating “success,” ignoring such educational intangibles as creativity and critical thinking in favor of high scores on standardized tests. They want to use that metric to decide everything from how much teachers get paid to which schools are closed down, and, if it means doing anything necessary to raise those test scores - including dropping programs in art, languages, music; ignoring the  needs of higher achieving students; even dumbing down the tests - then so be it.

I agree with those who lament this over-emphasis on standardized testing, because it confuses test prep with actual learning and allows one diagnostic tool to become the central pillar of the entire system. And yet I find myself unwittingly buying into the whole test-scores-prove-something world view. When it was revealed that the Christie administration had lied about testing data in order to claim that charter schools had outperformed public schools - that in fact, when equivalent schools were compared, public schools outperformed charters - I did the happy dance.  Hooray! Gotcha, Christie! Hoist with his own petard!

The trouble is, that “petard” - standardized test results - still sucks as a definition of success. Yeah, the story reveals Christie for the lying opportunist he is, but it doesn’t prove anything about effective education.  A report indicating public schools in urban New Jersey districts outperformed charter schools sure as hell doesn’t prove that those public schools deserve any awards, any more than the opposite would have proven that public schools should be burned to the ground. There is much more to a school than its test results, just as there is much more to education than filling in bubbles. By reducing education from the grand character-building foundation of our citizenry to an exercise in data-bean-counting, we are cheapening the educational process and its value to society.

We’ve got to have the courage to stand up to the bean-counters and tell them that our obligation to support public education, provided equally to all and paid for with public funds, does not arise from a set of data points on a graph showing standardized test results. It arises from our recognition that students are not widget consumers; that every child deserves to be treated with dignity and educated rigorously; that ignoring poverty and race in the discussion of education is misguided and morally wrong; and that government must be held accountable for its failures. We cannot just walk away from the social contract that binds us together in communal pursuit of the common good, give up on our shared responsibilities, and hand the whole enterprise over to whoever happens to be in the education business at the moment.

We have to have the courage to make the moral argument: Our nation owes its citizens a good education, and an obligation of that magnitude cannot be met through privatization and profiteering - the haphazard hit-or-miss of the free market. If there is systemic failure, then systemic solutions are called for, and that includes addressing underlying issues of poverty and race. It’s time to stop arguing beans with the bean counters.