Bob Somerby on education deform speak

Special report: Back-to-school week!

Part 2—Easy to be fatuous: Many scribes find it “easy to be hard” when they talk about public schooling (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/21/08). The rules of the game are fairly simple: They scold those troubling teachers’ unions—and the troubling pols who support them.

Beyond that, many scribes find it easy to churn perfect pap about public schools—to type tired bromides about “reform,” thus avoiding actual thought. The Washington Post took this standard approach in Saturday’s editorial:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (11/22/08): Another [cabinet] selection that will merit scrutiny is Mr. Obama’s education secretary: Will the choice reflect his stated commitment to reform? Will it be someone with hands-on experience in education and a proven willingness to experiment? While the new president’s attention is understandably focused on the economy, not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s critical to have someone who comes to the education post with those credentials.

When it comes to Obama’s education secretary, the Post favors “reform”—it wants someone who’s “willing to experiment.” Meanwhile, everyone knows what these words mean when mainstream journalists discuss public schools. “Reform” means cracking down on teachers and teacher groups through ideas like merit pay and the ending of tenure. There may be some merit to these ideas—but few others seem to get mentioned.

In case we didn’t know what “reform” means in these parts of the Village, Fred Hiatt wrote a recent Post op-ed piece which made the point fairly clear.

It’s easy to be fatuous, we incomparably thought, after reading his column.

As usual, Hiatt’s piece took the form of a paean to DC schools chief Michelle Rhee. We mean that as a criticism of Hiatt, not of Rhee. Yes, this passage is utterly silly. But it was written by Hiatt:

HIATT (11/10/08): Rhee is hardly anti-teacher. One problem, she says, is that “our good teachers have not been told that they’re good.” And she is committed to helping teachers “who have the will but are underperforming—that is essentially the biggest challenge for the District for the next couple of years.”

But she won’t compromise on the notion that every student can learn to read, write and do math; that their ability to do so should be measured; and that if they’re not learning, it’s not their fault—it’s the schools’.

In a way, you can’t blame Hiatt for that sort of talk; it’s the type of chatter that’s routinely churned by “educational experts.” But Hiatt is being fatuous when he says that “every student can learn, write and do math” (whatever so vague an assurance might mean)—and he builds a straw man when he goes on to say that “their ability to do so should be measured.” (Few oppose sensible measurement.) Duh! The question isn’t whether “every student can learn;” the question is how much various students can learn, at what point in their public schooling. The larger question is what sorts of changes in instructional practice might help these students achieve these goals. Meanwhile, the desire to rush to the question of who’s “at fault” merely extends the problem. But Hiatt makes it clear, at the start of his piece, that fault and blame are driving his vision. He opens with an anecdote designed to show that Rhee is high-minded and good—while an unnamed principal is an uncaring villain. He then cranks out this standard text—although, within the Insider Press, churning such text is real easy:

HIATT: Rhee offers the ultimate in no-excuses leadership. She has taken on one of the worst public school systems in the nation and has pledged to turn it into one of the best within a decade. The usual excuses made for such schools—that they cannot possibly do better because their students are poor, or come from broken families, or haven’t been read to, or are surrounded by crime—Rhee does not accept. She has seen such students learn, Rhee explains, in her own classroom in Baltimore in the early 1990s, and in many other schools since.

Just as he drives a framework of “fault” and blame, Hiatt builds a framework in which people are looking for “excuses.” (It can’t be that they’re offering “explanations,” or describing real problems and obstacles.) Of course, it’s easy for pundits to say that we shouldn’t “accept…the usual excuses” about the progress of deserving students who may enter kindergarten far behind their middle-class peers. But those students’ achievements won’t increase just because Hiatt enjoys talking tough—because he churns familiar bromides as a replacement for thought. Once again, though, we have to cut Hiatt some slack, since he can quote “educational experts” saying the same goldarn things:

HIATT: Kati Haycock, president of the nonprofit Education Trust, says Obama is “absolutely unequivocal on, ‘Don’t tell me black kids can’t learn.’ It comes directly from his gut.” So maybe he will sympathize with Rhee’s conclusion that patience, tact and compromise are inappropriate when half your kids or more never graduate from high school.

We’re sure that Haycock is a fine person; Jonathan Kozol writes good things about her, and that’s good enough for us. But everyone knows that “black kids can learn” (whatever that vague assurance might mean); reciting this bromide makes “experts” seem noble, but it doesn’t make anyone smarter. The actual questions here are quite different: How much can this particular child learn, during this particular week, and what would be the best particular way to help him or her do that? Unfortunately, educational experts often like to cheerlead—and the Hiatts start acting like cheerleaders too. Soon, we find ourselves snarling at teachers, who surely must be “at fault” in these students’ “failure to learn.” (By which we presumably mean failure to learn enough.)

In the process, we may fail to notice how few real suggestions come from observers like Hiatt—other than the tired old bromides about things like merit pay.

In large measure, Hiatt’s piece concerns the wonders of merit pay—an idea which sometimes seem to have magical power in the world of the Village pundit. Who knows? Some form of merit pay may be a good thing—though we doubt that Hiatt has any idea, one way or the other. To our ear, his piece was the usual insider piece—a piece pundits churn again and again. He found it easy to be hard—when it came to those lazy teachers. When it came to the search for real ideas, he found it easy to be rather fatuous.

Meanwhile, his column turned—as these columns often do—on a certain miraculous tale. It’s easy to believe in miracles inside this mainstream celebrity press corps. When Post pundits talk about low-income schools, miracles tend to play a key role in their ruminations.

Tomorrow—Part 3: Easy to believe.


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