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The Education Reform Conversation We Need is Not the One We Keep Having

Why do education policymakers despise talking about equity?

Photo Credit: US Department of Education via Wikimedia Commons


This past week, two videos captured just about everything you need to know about the status of the movement known as “education reform.”

The first filmed event was a staged encounter between two prominent advocates for what is conventionally thought of to be “opposing points of view” in the current debate over how best to implement top-down government mandates for public schools.

On “the right” of this crossfire was the American Enterprise Institute’s chief “scholar” on education policy, Frederick Hess, who speaks voluminously of the need for “busting” through and “breaking the status quo” that apparently confines the nation’s schools.

Stage left, we had President Obama’s chief PR spokesperson on education, Secretary Arne Duncan, who incessantly calls for “raising the bar” and racing “to the top.”

Ostensibly, amidst all this busting and breaking and raising and racing, there was to emerge some kernels of wisdom to clarify the best pathways forward for America’s public schools, which are uniformly deemed to be in “crisis.”

But the most clarifying moment by far actually came after the cross-pontification when an audience member dared to bring up “the conversation nobody wants to have.”

The second video – in three segments (at the end of this post) – was an excerpt from [last] Saturday’s Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC, which had a different intent to be sure but ended up embracing the conversation the Hess-Duncan face-off refused to engage.

In this case, the conversationalists were chief critic of the education reform movement, Diane Ravitch, and a slate of experts and journalists who are representative of a population that the education reform movement is purported to be about – racial minorities.

Emerging from these contrasting videos – the former, an exchange between purveyors of education reform, versus the latter, skeptics of education reform who question its actual results – was a clarifying “aha moment” about a conversation America ought to be having but currently isn’t.

Keeping Equity Out Of The Discussion

Billed as a verbal slugfest over the Common Core and the federal government’s role in education, the back-and-forth between Hess and Duncan started off predictably enough.

Like dueling fog machines, over-stuffed with rhetoric we’ve come to expect from D.C., Hess spoke of “slippery slopes” and “bright lines” while Duncan waxed effusively about the apparent evils of “dummying down standards” and “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Outside the Beltway, almost no one talks like this or imbues these kinds of phrases any significant meaning.

So anyone declining to watch the whole video could be forgiven. But then, you would have missed this…

At around the 0:56:00 mark, an audience member asked, “When are we going to have the conversation nobody wants to have … that we live in a society that educationally and otherwise has policies that favor some groups at the expense of others? When are we going to have a panel that doesn’t consist of white males in suits who have no children who are at risk?”

“The policies that are in action,” she explained, “I don’t have any say in those. How can we believe that the policies that are created are not doing what they are doing, that they are not designed to create a permanent underclass?”

The response that followed from the lectern was hardly what could be called a “conversation.”

Hess demurred to answer the question at all. Duncan launched into a lengthy explanation about how much he “gets” the question while demonstrating definitively the exact opposite.

Duncan began his lecture with an anecdote about a lawsuit he brought against the state of Illinois over funding equity issues when he was in charge of the Chicago public schools. He complained of funding unfairness that ensures “kids who need help the most get the least.” He carped about “a system that exacerbates the funding differentials between the haves and the have nots.”