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The Politicians Who Cried "Crisis"

Sunday, 24 October 2010 15:40 By PL Thomas, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

The Politicians Who Cried "Crisis"
Education Secretary Arne Duncan (Photo: nasa hq photo / Flickr)

"The Boy Who Cried Wolf" is a well known Aesop fable that offers a moral about the dangers of lies. While this tale holds a simple but accurate message, the world of fables is rarely a fair reflection of reality.

In our real world, the villagers appear less perceptive than those encountered by the shepherd boy in the fable. Politicians for a century have built political capital by crying educational "crisis" while pointing always at our schools and our teachers. Unlike the villagers who exposed the shepherd boy's lies, we dutifully turn in any direction politicians point without asking for even a shred of proof.

"It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts," George Orwell warns in his "Politics and the English Language."

Few examples are better for proving Orwell right (and Aesop wrong) than political language addressing, ironically, the education of children throughout the U.S. But, as Orwell adds, "If one gets rid of these habits, one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration."

The language of choice for politicians is "crisis," and the wolf of choice for politicians is "teacher."

When Barack Obama entered the White House, many hoped to see results from his message of change, but the education policy and discourse coming from Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are disturbing evidence of the status quo: Corporatist and positivistic approaches to school reform designed to keep everyone looking over our shoulders at schools and teachers in order to hide the massive inequities in the lives of children and their families.

David Sirota, writing in The Seattle Times, has exposed the power of politicians to distract through cries of crisis about education:

"Of course, 30 years into the neoliberal experiment, the Great Recession is exposing the flaws of the Washington Consensus. But rather than admit any mistakes, neoliberals now defend themselves with yet more bait-and-switch sophistry - this time in the form of the Great Education Myth." [1]

The political slight of language works this way: Cry wolf (or assume the frantic mantle of Chicken Little: "Our schools are failing! Our schools are failing!"), and the villagers will never look at the inherent flaws in our society, flaws that keep the corporate elite in power, that keep the political elite in power, that relentlessly carve an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. [2]

Secretary Duncan is proving to be a master of crisis discourse, cloaking his corporate commitments in the language and settings of authentic civil rights.

Duncan, speaking on behalf of the Obama administration in Little Rock, Arkansas on August 25, reminded his audience of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Central High. Duncan made his case by crying wolf about the need to focus on teacher quality:

"The big game-changer for us, however, in terms of both formula and competitive programs, revolves around the issue of teacher quality," Duncan charged, adding:

"Nothing is more important and nothing has a greater impact on the quality of education than the quality and skill of the person standing in the front of the class - and there is so much that needs to change in the way that America recruits, trains, supports and manages our teachers."[3]

Nothing?

Duncan's wolf comes just months after this sobering truth about childhood in the U. S.:

"The rate of children living in poverty this year will climb to nearly 22%, the highest rate in two decades, according to an analysis by the non-profit Foundation for Child Development. Nearly 17% of children were living in poverty in 2006, before the recession began." [4]

In his August speech, Duncan mentioned teachers over four dozen times but he never mentioned poverty. And while he waves his arms and draws our eyes toward the claimed failure of teachers in our failed schools, invoking a crisis in teacher quality (which joins the drop-out crisis and the achievement gap crisis), the truth about what matters in student achievement remains ignored, silenced.

And while a powerful body of research proves false Duncan's claims about teacher quality(the dominant influence on student achievement is poverty, not teacher quality) [5], exposing the political lie doesn't require that we villagers go that far.

The annual hand-wringing over SAT scores is all we need.

Near the end (of course) of a discussion of 2010 SAT scores in EdWeek, a recurring truth is shared:

"Students' scores continued to reflect their family income and parents' education. Those in the lowest-income brackets, and whose parents had the least education, scored 125 points or more below their peers at the top of the family-income or parental education grid." [6]

Students who take the SAT are a unique population of students, more affluent and more likely to take advanced coursework than the entire population of U. S. students. Yet among the elite students in our schools, who also disproportionately have access to the most experienced and properly certified teachers [7], SAT scores are most strongly correlated with parental income and parental educational attainment.

And that truth can be verified for every year the SAT has been administered, decades of data refuting decades of politicians crying wolf about failing teachers and schools in crisis to distract villagers from the social forces that keep them in their place while the corporate and political elite enjoy the fruits of their persistent deception.
 

[1] Here 

[2] See Timothy Noah's series at Slate concerning the income divide

[3] Duncan speaks on behalf of Obama 

[4] Nonprofit analysis 

[5] Berliner, D. C. (2009). Poverty and potential: Out-of-school factors and school success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. . Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. York, North Yorkshire, UK. 

[6] EdWeek

[7] Peske, H. G., & Haycock, K. (2006, June). Teaching inequality: How poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality. Washington DC: The Education Trust, Inc. 


 

PL Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Associate Professor of Education at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, has recently published "Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice" (Information Age Publishing, 2010) and maintains a blog. addressing poverty and education. His scholarly work can be followed here.

Last modified on Sunday, 24 October 2010 10:29