Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Soft Bigotry of Baloney

You may not know Michael Gerson's name, but odds are you know one of his most famous pieces of writing-- "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Well, Gerson was in the Washington Post * yesterday expressing his displeasure with the new version of ESEA. At the same time, he was serving up the hard baloney of reformster ideals.

Gerson opens by recapping some of the results of ESSA in a voice that-- well, maybe he's sincere, but it feels as if he's being sarcastic as what he sees as self-evidently wrong points of view, a style of writing that I am somewhat familiar with (game recognizes game).

The whole thing [NCLB] was a mess from the start. Failing schools didn’t like to be labeled failures, because it made administrators feel as though they were, like, you know, failing or something. Many teachers didn’t like the relentless emphasis on testing, which ate into their time for the unmeasurable joys of learning.  

His summary, as he winds up for the main pitch:

The Every Student Succeeds Act is a win-win-win for everyone who counts. Most Republicans are pleased that the federal role in enforcing educational standards has been effectively abolished. Many teachers are pleased to see lower stakes on standardized tests. States and localities are pleased that they can declare all their schools successful, or at least make accountability a fuzzy, gentle, toothless friend. 

And now he launches his point-- "We actually have some experience in how education systems operate in the absence of accountability enforced from above," and they suck. Non-wealthy, non-white students get screwed over and neglected. He quotes Chad Aldeman (Bellwether) saying what most folks already assume-- that under ESSA, some states will do really well, some will stay about the same, and some will start to shaft schools and students, particularly those that are non-wealthy and non-white.

Gerson is worried that such "betrayal by our education system can be more effectively hidden" and notes that "We live in a nation in which gaps in academic achievement between black and white students are large, continuing and disturbing."

Well, yes. Those gaps and betrayals have continued, unabated, unaddressed, and unimproved through all the years of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Duncan's Waiverpallooza. All this reform that was touted as a solution to those very problems-- real problems, pressing problems, problems that as a nation we have a moral and ethical obligation to deal with-- all that reform didn't accomplish a damn thing.

Instead, the non-wealthy and the non-white were descended upon by vulture capitalists, privateers, and all manner of folks interested in pretending to address these issues in order to get their hands on piles of those sweet, sweet public tax dollars. And all that happened as the government pushed the huge lie that all non-white non-wealthy students needed to do was get a score on the Big Standardized Test and the doors of prosperity would be opened to them.

What is missing from Gerson's piece? What's missing is the part where he tells the story of a community where the disaggregated tests scores came in and state and federal officials exclaimed, "Look! This poor minority school is doing really badly! We need to mobilize resources right away, make sure they have everything they need, and work with community members to make this school a success." And then within years, they had done it, lifting up those non-white non-wealthy students to lives of success, and empowering members of the community to become active and effective stakeholders in their community school! Why didn't Gerson tell that story? Because that story hasn't been happening. Name any part of any district in this country that was saved over the past decade by the oversight of the federal government.

Instead, from Newark to Detroit to Chicago to New Orleans, we've seen local stakeholders stripped of their voices and public schools replaced with charters that serve only a few and do no better than public schools that now struggle with the neediest students and reduced resources. Federal oversight hasn't accomplished a damn thing except to enable some of the most destructive forces in the education world, and to enable them on a national level.

Look, I share some of Gerson's concerns. ESSA shifts the school debates to the state level, and many states have already made it clear that they are more than happy to gut public education, particularly where it serves Those People (lookin' at you, North Carolina and Florida). Education advocates are going to have to fight, and in some cases fight hard, on the state level. But to pretend that the federally-mandated test-and-punish privatizing movement of the last fifteen years has yielded any sort of progress is just the hardest kind of baloney.

*In the original posting of this piece, I mistakenly attributed Gerson's article to the New York Times. My mistake. It was the Washington Post.


  1. "What is missing from Gerson's piece?"

    Common sense? Reason? Sanity? Intelligence? Honesty? All of the above?