Saturday, December 03, 2005

Refrains of the School Critics

Publication Date: 2005-08-03, By Susan Ohanian

I somehow missed this in the summer but O'hanian elightens as usual. The emphasis is mine.

Behind the rhetoric lies a contempt for the work of public school educators.
This article is from the August 2005 School Administrator, published by the American Association of School Administrators

George Packer, a New Yorker staff writer, points to the danger of clarity, observing that seemingly simple and tough-minded words blow out as much smoke as the jargon of the Pentagon of decades past.

Nowhere is this smoke thicker and trickier than in the lingo the corporate-politico-media squad uses when talking about public schools. At first glance, their talk seems plain and to the point: failing schools, caring about education and education as war. In contrast, education progressives befuddle the public with authentic means of assessment,decision-making processes and triangulated learning.

But the simplicity is deceptive.
The expression failing public schools has a lot in common with war on terror. After the media parrot these phrases often enough, we find ourselves at war and in the morass of radical public school deformation. Familiarity breeds acceptance. We need to unpack the knee-jerk, smoky phrases to examine the purposes behind the rhetoric we are in danger of taking for granted.

What follows are refrains about schools plucked from the news--not always unique statements but phrases repeated so often they have become jingles framed around a common theme: Make sure the public can’t think about public schools without thinking about failure.

The structure below is designed to encourage people to look closely at the rhetoric used to describe schools. Readers are invited to unpack popular phrases, to think about what is revealed and what is hidden. In so doing, we can keep our own discourse free of the corporate catchphrases.

The refrains are these: Schools are failing; Caring about education; Education as war; The knowledge supply chain; Failing schools, failing teachers; The private-sector fix;

and my two favorites:

Refrain: Preparing all students for the 21st century

Example: “Today, more than ever, we live in a global economy where competition and technology are changing the workplace and impacting economic success for all Americans. U. S. schools must change if they are to prepare all students for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. This is not a partisan issue.”

Speaker: Edward B. Rust Jr., chairman and CEO, State Farm Insurance Co.; former chair, The Business Roundtable’s Education Initiative; and member National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century. (Testimony before House Subcommittee on Education Reform, March 8, 2001)

What It Means: Rust is right that this isn’t a partisan issue. Republicans and Democrats alike embrace the corporate agenda. When working people can’t find living-wage jobs and their children don’t pass the high-stakes test for a high school diploma, blame the schools. When 50-year-old high tech workers find their jobs shipped to India, blame the schools.

What It Hides:
The global economy is a cutthroat slaughterhouse for which corporate America assumes only profits, not responsibility. Despite all the hype, algebra cannot ensure a living-wage job for tomorrow’s workers. As Gerald Bracey and Richard Rothstein have pointed out in their essays, technology often lowers the skills needed for jobs. Moreover, even a casual glance at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’Occupational Outlook Handbook, ( that retail sales positions account for almost as many jobs as the top 10 fastest-growing occupations combined.

In case you missed it: Sandy Kress, education adviser to President George W. Bush and prime architect of No Child Left Behind, pointed out in his keynote address to the EduState Summit in June 2004: "The Business Roundtable has been at the forefront of the effort to craft, pass and implement the No Child Left Behind Act."

and finally (because I am a kindergarten teacher after all:

Refrain: Beefed-up kindergarten academics

Example: Nap time needs to go away. We need to get rid of all the baby school stuff they used to do. (“Time May Be Up for Naps in Pre-K Class,” The Washington Post, March 15, 2004)

Speaker: AndrĂ© J. Hornsby, former superintendent, Prince George’s County, Md., Public Schools

What It Means: In hyper-academic frenzy, kindergartners get DIBELS-tested on their speed parroting of nonsense syllables--instead of singing, dancing, finger painting, block building and hanging from the monkey bars.

What It Hides: Developmentally appropriate practices are abandoned in favor of giving the appearance of high standards. Suddenly, 5-year-olds worry they aren’t good enough to measure up to the demands of the global economy. Battling this tide, the admissions office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology asked seniors who applied: "Tell us about something you do for the pleasure of it."

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