New Perspectives, Same Voices: The Echo Chamber of Education Reform

(This was originally an email which I sent to Civic Ventures, a political advocacy group (think tank?) based in Seattle, which also produces the Pitchfork Economics podcast. Because it got so long, and because it reflects my general thinking on education, I decided to post it here.)


My name is Kermit O, and I’m an educator in Philadelphia, as well as an avid listener of the podcast. The recent episode with Diane Ravitch was extremely important, as was Nick’s article in the Atlantic. I immediately thought: everyone needs to hear/read this – and you can bet it will come up in my next staff PD.

Pitchfork Economics: Educationism (with Diane Ravitch)
August 6th, 2019

But then I thought, who’s really gonna hear or read these things? Certainly the fact that it was tweeted by Barack Obama will expand its reach, but generally it will still be people, like me, who are already attuned to the impact of income inequality on everything, people already primed to have these conversations.

I know Civic Ventures does work on the policy side of things, but what I kept hearing, implicitly, was that it was up to “woke” wealthy people like Nick, and their wealthy or politically connected circles to fix the problem. What, I wondered, is even my role as a teacher, if schools aren’t really the issue? What do you see as the role of my students, their families, other teachers, and community advocates? To hold some line while other people work toward solutions?

Well, of course not. It seemed to me that if ultimately we’re advocating for a fair and just democracy, then the best thing I could do would be to civically engage and activate my students to advocate on their own behalf. But before that, because my students come from poverty and trauma, to be a reliable, safe adult in whom they can confide, who provides some stability which may be in short supply, who encourages them that they are more than their circumstances. Not in a “bootstraps” way – but by helping them to understand the systems that obstruct every path toward their liberation.

I am lucky, because this Fall I will be at a school where I have the freedom to steer my curriculum toward that end. The neoliberal “data driven” model in most public schools doesn’t allow that. Having worked in those kinds of schools most of my career, I have learned firsthand what happens to teachers who push back against that system. I’ve been both with and without Union protection and seen ferocious backlash.

Soon after I listened to the Ravitch episode, I started reading this book:

This passage, from early in the book, connected me back to the point Nick and Ravitch were making:

Schools reflect our political economy. The fact that schools are funded by local property taxes ensures that students who live in poor communities receive an education that will maintain, and, in fact, widen the gap between the über-rich, the rich, the rapidly shrinking middle class, the working poor, and the poor. This system renders schools ineffective in providing poor students any type of real social mobility. (Love, p. 17)

This in turn made me think about how it was Diane Ravitch on the podcast and not Dr. Love, and what that meant. Kudos to Ravitch – and Nick – for recognizing their decades of misguided thinking. I mean that sincerely.

But that whole time, there were other voices, on the margins of academia and the political sphere – pushed there by the relentless power of the status quo and those who uphold it – who were already making the case Nick and Diane only just came to understand. There were teachers who understood it, even if they didn’t have the vocabulary or the platform to make the case, or if they did, were quickly buried by the neoliberal demands of the system and punished for noncompliance.

Why do we keep hearing from the same people? Why do we have to wait for the wealthy or elite or well-connected to have a change of heart, and then promote them, they who did so much of the damage, rather than finally giving a platform to those who had been sounding the alarm for years? Those who had been working *against* the abuses of the neoliberal establishment?

When 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates are writing their education platforms, who are they consulting? People like Ravitch, no doubt. While that’s better than an Arne Duncan or Michelle Rhee, it keeps on the margins those important voices, who have spent the past decades advancing the position the “Reformed Reformers” have only recently embraced, adding to it much nuance, practical experience, research, and vital intersectional perspectives. The “right people” just aren’t in the room when these platforms are being designed, which is why progress is slow to nonexistent. 

So I come back to the question in my subject line, for you all at Civic Ventures. Who is your audience? And who do you hope to impact? If the latter is much larger than the former, what does that mean? To me, it reflects the thinking that only the well-connected or well informed few will have a seat at the table where the decisions are made. Which I feel is antithetical to any serious push for democracy.

Where does this thinking leave me, as a solitary educator? Now, to be clear, I am not idle or isolated. I am active within the “radical wing” of the teacher’s union, where we advance positions that look at the bigger picture, and argue from a baseline of racial/social/economic justice. But this often means battling against our own, the deeply entrenched status quo upholding “mainstream”, who prioritize our pay and benefits – important, yes – but at the expense of everything else we know is important.

It leaves me trying to equip my students with the knowledge and skills to fight a morally bankrupt system. But I feel like these different efforts play out in well-insulated silos. What would happen if policy makers and influencers were aligned and in close communication with those of us “on the ground”?

What would happen if Pitchfork Economics had Dr. Bettina Love as a guest rather than Diane Ravitch? What would happen if Civic Ventures had even one black face on the team – someone like Jesse Hagopian right there in Seattle – who works from a racial justice perspective?

What would happen if Nick interviewed with The Breakfast Club, where his message would be heard by more of the people you all seek to impact? There he would also be relentlessly scrutinized by people like Charlamagne, Envy, or Yee, who are going to ask the sorts of questions regular people might have, if only to clarify some of the more opaque aspects of economics discourse. They might critique Nick’s position from an angle he may not have considered, because he literally does not have access to it as a wealthy white man. If this seems far-fetched, or unworthy of Nick’s time, ask why people like Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Andrew Yang have seen fit to appear on the program.

Again, who is the podcast for? And is that audience truly the best positioned to bring about the change we need?

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