Saturday, March 14, 2015
Canaries, Schools & Poverty
Let's step back from public education itself for a moment. Look at the bigger picture.
The economic engine of the US is messed up. Call it conspiracy, policy, oligarchy, or just a bad turn-- the poor are being left further and further behind, and the rich are consolidating their own piece of the pie. The shared energy and mission of the country are fragmenting, and more and more people and communities are sinking into poverty. But this is a long, slow process, and it wouldn't show up everywhere at once.
What might be a leading indicator of the growing corrosive and destructive power of poverty? How about schools-- the common good that is supposed to be provided by all citizens for all citizens.
Public education is the canary in the coal mine, an early notable indicator that something is wrong, that something toxic and damaging is in the air. And of the public schools, those that are already weak and poor, least able to stand the shock and the strain, that are most bowed under the weight of poverty will start to falter first.
Now, when the canary starts to falter and fall, that's a sign that something is wrong, that we need to get the people out of the mine or more fresh air into it.
But suppose instead we had a bunch of people who said, "No, what we need to do is work on resuscitating the canary! We need to hire canary doctors and develop new canary breathing programs." Those would be the reformers. They are not wrong about the distress of the canary, or the need to do something before the canary dies, but it's a huge mistake to ignore the conditions that are killing the canary in the first place. All the respiratory therapy in the world will not save the canary if we don't get it some oxygen and get rid of the bad gas poisoning its system.
The Data Overlords want to run extensive tests on the canary. "Let's measure its oxygen intake every five minutes. If we keep measuring, it should start breathing more freely." When questioned on that point, they simply reply, "Look, this is the same oxygen intake test we use for those canaries up on the surface in the special gilded cages. Why shouldn't these mine canaries get to take the same test?"
Charter operators just want to bring in other canaries. "Your canary is weak and stupid and has a bad attitude," they say. "What we need are these fresh new alternative canaries. Once we get those canaries in there, they will breathe so much better than your dumb canary."
Meanwhile, the profiteers are in talks with the mine operators. "If you would just unleash the power of the free market, we could make a delicious and profitable canary stew."
When some folks try to push the idea that pumping oxygen into the mine could help revive the canary, some reformers cry foul. "What's the matter with you? Don't you believe this canary can breathe? Do you think this canary isn't good enough to survive!"
Meanwhile, the canaries continue to die and air in the mine becomes more and more toxic, until not a canary or an eagle or a full grown human could hope to survive there. The canaries absolutely deserve attention and assistance, and we absolutely have an imperative to keep them alive. But if we don't find a way to replace the bad air with good, to sweep out the lung-clenching methane of poverty and bring in some oxygen, we'll just be stuck in endless cycle of canary rescue, complete with arguments about how to rescue the canary, who should rescue the canary, and whether or not anyone can profit from rescuing the canary. All the while the bad air spreads.