Radical Scholarship: Legalizing Marijuana Offers Lesson for Changing Course in Education Reform
The role of causality in educational research needs to be questioned on the basis that education is not the same as medicine. As Biesta says: “Being a student is not an illness, just as teaching is not a cure.” (2007, p8) We should never assume that education is a “push and pull” process of simply linear causal relationships.
Tait Coles, Take no heroes; only inspiration.
“Batman has officially been kicking the ass of Gotham’s villains for 75 years,” explains Ryan Kristobak, “and so to honor the Dark Knight, the Warner Bros. panel unveiled the ‘Batman Beyond’ animated short at this year’s WonderCon.”
For long-time and recent fans of Batman, however, the legends of the Dark Knight are complicated by the many versions that exist among the DC comic book and graphic novel universe, films, TV, animated series, and video games.
The Batman Myth has several foundational characteristics and common themes that are nested in the Caped Crusader’s first appearance in Detective Comics 27 in 1940: Batman’s essential nature as a detective and crime fighter, the ambiguous relationship between Batman and the Gotham police department and city officials, and the larger themes about justice that are contrasted by Batman’s vigilante tendencies.
In The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment of the film trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale, the opening scene framing the film also highlights a central message reflecting how justice is traditionally characterized in the U.S. The mayor of Gotham and Commissioner Gordon preside over Harvey Dent Day, named for the district attorney who is killed as Two-Face in The Dark Knight:
[the Mayor is giving a speech being at hosted at Wayne Manor]
Mayor: Harvey Dent Day may not be our oldest public holiday, but we’re here tonight because it’s one of the most important. Harvey Dent’s uncompromising stand against organized crime has made Gotham a safer place than it was at the time of his death, eight years ago. This city has seen a historic turn around. No city is without crime, but this city is without organized crime because of Dent’s act gave law enforcement teeth in its fight against the mob. Now people are talking about repealing the Dent Act, and to them I say, not on my watch.
[the audience claps]
Mayor: I wanna thank the Wayne Foundation for hosting this event, and I’m told, Mr. Wayne couldn’t be here tonight. I’m sure he’s with us in spirit….
Mayor: Jim Gordon, can tell you the truth about Harvey Dent. He could…but I’ll let him tell you himself. Commissioner Gordon!
[the audience claps as Gordon makes his way to the stand, Gordon looks down at his prepared speech and says to himself as he remembers the real truth of what happened to Dent]
Commissioner Gordon: The truth…
[he addresses the audience]
Commissioner Gordon: I have a speech telling the truth about Harvey Dent. Maybe the time isn’t right.
[he puts the speech away in his jacket pocket]
Commissioner Gordon: Maybe right now, all you need to know is that there are one thousand inmates in Blackgate Prison as the direct result of the Dent Act. These are violent criminals, essential cogs in the organized crime machine. Maybe, for now, all I should say about the death of Harvey Dent is this; it has not been for nothing. (transcript found here)
Justice in Nolan’s Gotham reflects the central elements of justice found in the U.S.: the right laws, the right people to enforce those laws, and the evidence those laws are working represented by a growing prison population.
Reagan Era Mass Incarceration and Education Accountability
As I have detailed in Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era, the 1980s and the Reagan administration planted the seeds of both an era of mass incarceration, labeled the New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and the high-stakes accountability era in public education.
The most troubling aspects of both mass incarceration and high-stakes education accountability are that the policies have created, not ended, the claimed problems they were designed to address.
Over the past thirty years, the criminal justice system in the U.S. has filled prisons with a disproportionate number of African American men as part of our most recent war on drugs—despite whites and African Americans using recreational drugs at the same rates.
The current era of mass incarceration has unintended consequences similar to prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s:
Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, made a mockery of the justice system, caused illicit drinking to seem glamorous and fun, encouraged neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permitted government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and fostered cynicism and hypocrisy that corroded the social contract all across the country. With Prohibition in place, but ineffectively enforced, one observer noted, America had hardly freed itself from the scourge of alcohol abuse – instead, the “drys” had their law, while the “wets” had their liquor.
The recent legalization of marijuana suggests a possible social recognition that traditional views of the right laws enforced by the right people and resulting in the right people sitting in prison is the wrong formula for either justice or a peaceful and equitable society.
Along with a growing number of states legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana is a concurrent discussion of releasing prior drug offenders from prison, again suggesting a social admission that the laws we establish create criminals, but rarely deter crime.
Seeking justice must not be separated from seeking equity. If the shift in how people in the U.S. view marijuana signals anything, I think, it shows a broader concern for equity: Just as changing inequitable laws surrounding powder cocaine and crack came to represent an inequitable criminal justice system, legalizing marijuana is yet another effort to move the pursuit of justice in the U.S. toward a pursuit of equity.
Legalizing Marijuana: A Lesson for Changing Course in Education Reform
The war on drugs and the resulting mass incarceration have proven to be the wrong policies for achieving justice or equity in the U.S. Directly, we know that mass incarceration negatively impacts children (see Holly Yettick and Children of the Prison Boom).
But the parallel era of high-stakes education accountability shares the central flaws now being recognized in mass incarceration: high-stakes accountability creates failure in schools, teachers, and students (see FairTest’s Reports: High Stakes Testing Hurts Education).
Under Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, federal and state education policies have remained focused on identifying the right standards and the right tests, most recently Common Core standards and so-called “next generation” tests. Unlike the move toward legalizing marijuana, education reform remains trapped and unable to see the Bitter Lessons from Chasing Better Tests, as Duncan proclaimed in 2009:
Until states develop better assessments—which we will support and fund through Race to the Top—we must rely on standardized tests to monitor progress—but this is an important area for reform and an important conversation to have.
Debating the quality of Common Core and the related tests, however, are the wrong arguments because high-stakes accountability is the wrong policy paradigm just as the war on drugs and mass incarceration are the wrong policies for justice.
Adopting and implementing Common Core as yet another round of seeking the right standards and the right tests will not work. We have three decades of evidence on that approach revealing that there is no correlation between the existence or quality of standards and student achievement (see Mathis, 2012).
The war on drugs has proven to be finding ourselves in a hole and continuing to dig. Legalizing marijuana is dropping the shovel and choosing instead to acknowledge that failure and to try another approach, one more rightly attuned to equity.
This is a lesson high-stakes accountability advocates need to learn.
Common Core and the related high-stakes tests are the wrong approach to equity and high-quality education; they are finding ourselves in a hole we created and continuing to dig.
As legalizing marijuana signals a possible turn to the end of mass incarceration, we need also to end the era of high-stakes accountability in education.
Let’s choose instead An Alternative to Accountability-Based Education Reform.
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