Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Civil Rights and CCSS

It was predictable that Martin Luther King Jr Day would involve repeated invocation of one of the newer mantras in the halls of the Reformatorium: school reform is the civil rights issue of our time.

Like many of the great lies of history, this one resonates because it could be true. It ought to be true.

We really should be moving heaven and earth to provide better education for our nation's poor. But to do that, we would have to ask questions like, "What would it take to help these students succeed in getting a great education?" But instead, we're mounting a sales pitch familiar to any street vendor who ever tried to sell a fake Rolex.

"Look," he says. "Isn't it shiny. Just like a real one. Why should those fat cats uptown be the only ones to have a nice watch? Don't you have just as much right to a nice watch like this?" And once again, the sales pitch ought to be true. Except for one thing-- the watch is fake. It's nothing but a sales pitch and some sparkle.

To be sure, the reformatorium pitch throws in two other wrinkles.

Our CCSS street vendor doesn't just sell to the folks on the street. He's gone to his rich Uncle Sam and said, "Sammy, what you should be doing is buying these for everybody, no matter their race, color, creed or income. You should get one of these for everybody and make them wear it!" And our vendor gets Sammy to make a massive purchase deal on a few million fake Rolexes. And everybody should wear the same make and model, no matter what they do during the day, from hair dressers to steel workers to artists to scuba divers. (Of course, the richest folks, the ones who have authentic, expensive Rolexes already-- they'll quietly demure and Sammy will let them).

There's another wrinkle. Our CCSS street vendors don't really understand watches, and so many of them really sincerely believe that their fake Rolex is just as good as the real thing. It has a face with hands, and the band is shiny. True, the hands don't actually move and the numbers are in the wrong places, but those are just the complaints of so-called "experts" and what do they know. Our CCSS street vendors don't know a thing about what makes a watch work, but they still are pretty sure that their fake Rolex that doesn't tell time is better than a solid Timex that does. And we should all be using the same watch, so Uncle Sammy says give up your Timex.

Look, I'm a middle class white guy who has lived most his life in small town/urban areas. What I know about being black in America wouldn't fill a thimble. But I do know this: the state of schools in our poorest urban areas is shameful. And I also know that from sharecropping onward, our country has a bad history of offering poor African-Americans fake versions of success, one false promise after another, meant only to enrich those already steeped in privilege.

Should we be addressing the obstacles that stand between poor blacks and browns and anyone else, and a good education? We sure as hell should be. Do the Common Core Standards do that? Do rich kids with no training wandering into classroom for a year or two do that? Do charter schools erected in the lot where neighborhood schools have been bulldozed do that? Does the insistence that poverty and its effects are just excuses that will not be accepted (but will instead be punished) do that? No. No, they do not.

When reformers say that education is the civil rights issue of our time, they are telling the truth. Everything that comes after that statement, however, is a lie.

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