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Radical Scholarship: Living and Learning in Perpetual Crisis

What do the fiscal cliff and Common Core (CC) have in common?

For the answer consider this scenario: An arsonist sets a home on fire, and then risks his life fighting the blaze—but the house eventually succumbs to the flames. The media and the public praise the arsonist a hero, choosing to consider the heroic effort to fight the fire while ignoring that he caused the disaster.

This scenario is not far-fetched and captures exactly the “manufactured crisis” (Berliner & Biddle, 1996) in both the fiscal cliff discourse and Common Core advocacy.

America is trapped in a state of perpetual crisis, and that crisis mentality maintains the public gaze on the self-proclaimed heroic acts of corporate and political leaders without allowing time to consider that the conditions under which Americans live and learn are the result of the decisions of those in power.

Common Core Advocates as the “Rainmakers”

Berliner and Biddle’s unmasking the “manufactured crisis” in education, framed about halfway into the current thirty-year accountability era driven by claims of failure by U.S. public education, is also an accurate characterization of the crisis-of-the-day at the cusp of 2012 and 2013—the fiscal cliff.

The discourse around the fiscal cliff crisis reveals, as Paul Krugman details, a network of masking and misunderstanding, including that political leaders themselves do not understand the fiscal cliff. Krugman offers his sympathy for the blinded and misguided public, distracted by the clueless media and incompetent politicians:

It’s pretty amazing, actually — and again, it makes me a lot more sympathetic to those confused voters, who have much better excuses than sitting governors with presidential ambitions. Why People Are Confused Dean Baker, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, recently caught The Washington Post publishing an explainer under this banner: “Questions About the Fiscal Cliff: Key Points About the Looming National Debt Crisis.’ O.K., if there’s one thing the fiscal cliff confrontation isn’t, it’s a “debt crisis.”

The problem — a political standoff that may lead to damaging austerity in an economy that’s still depressed and in a liquidity trap — has nothing to do with either debt or deficits; the danger would be exactly the same if America had a balanced budget and low debt. So what’s going on? The answer is that the Very Serious People — and there’s nothing as V.S.P. as The Washington Post — have spent years crying Deficits! Debt! Danger!, and staff at The Post can’t wrap their minds around the fact that suddenly it’s a too-rapid fall in the deficit that has those very same people terrified.

It speaks to the state of confusion that all the deficit fearmongering has created. And if headline writers at a major newspaper can’t get it straight, how can you expect ordinary voters to get it?

What can be claimed about the fiscal cliff “fearmongering” is that little effort is being made to assign responsibility for the source of the problems (the arsonists) and to identify clearly what the problems needing solutions are, but a great deal of time and energy are being spent allowing the arsonists to garner praise for not putting out the fire they have started.And thus the same dynamic surrounding the CC: “fearmongering” about the education crisis, no clear assigning of accountability for the policies that have plagued education for decades, and no real explanation of the problems needing solutions (a lack of equity and opportunity in society and in public schools).

Pennington, Obenchain, Papola, and Kmitta (2012) confront the “manufactured crisis” surrounding CC:

Education has historically been positioned as a crucial and often endangered measure of the country’s political and economic standing (e.g., A Nation at Risk, A Nation Still at Risk, The Manufactured Crisis, NCLB). Fulfilling the obligations attached to taxing citizens to subsidize public education for all is a significant endeavor. In order to hold audiences with key stakeholders and forge ways to implement change and cohesive movements in such a sizeable complex context, education is continually subjected to ideological framing….We propose that the CCSS are framed by the metaphors of recovery, stability and security.

Like the framing surrounding the fiscal cliff, CC advocates fail to prove the framing is accurate, fail to connect identifiable problems with credible solutions, but do position responses:

All of these metaphors build an argument on the assumption that our education system currently lacks rigor, is unstable and vulnerable. As with any effective framing argument, opposition to these metaphors sets up a dichotomous counter argument.  If we are not for rigor then we must be for mediocrity, if we are not for uniformity then we must support chaos and of course if we do not promote college readiness then we must want students to fail. Thus the framing presses ideas forward that have not been debated and examined in depth and begs the questions: Does the educational system lack rigor? Is there a large variation in state expectations? Does altering standards relate to international, college, and career success? If so how do we know? (Pennington, Obenchain, Papola, & Kmitta, 2012)

While political leadership and the media reap power and financial gain from the obfuscations around the fiscal cliff, Pennington, Obenchain, Papola, and Kmitta (2012) show that CC advocates also benefit from creating the crisis, solutions, and accountability system:

Ultimately, we call for a reframing of the CCSS from redeemer to rainmaker. Rainmakers are defined by their ability to generate business by using political associations. The need to implement and assess the established CCSS situates those who created the standards as rainmakers for educational publishing companies and educational consulting non-profits they are affiliated with. The added altruistic connotations of the terms foundation and non-profit create an image of organizations aiding education similar to NGOs while they do not reveal the realities behind how the organizations are aligning themselves in ways to make substantial financial gains by making their services necessary for the CCSS. Therefore we raise the following questions, (1) Is education destined to be guided by the testing of national standards created by a small group who profits from the test they are paid to create? (2) What does that mean for historical notions of public education for all with local decision making rights? and (3) Are the CCSS the national beginnings of the corporatization of education?

The rainmakers driving the CC train, just like the fiscal cliff fearmongering, is a tragic distraction. Ultimately in education and society, we are praising the arsonists who create perpetual fires that feed their masquerading as firefighters.

We must stop bending to the manufactured crises as mechanisms for the privileged to maintain their privilege.

In education, the question is not how to implement CC, but how to halt the never-ending cycles of new standards and new tests that distract us from the job of fulfilling the public guarantee of equity and opportunity for each and every person, in their lives and in their learning.

Recommended Reading

Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? Kathy Emery, Susan Ohanian

Setting the Record Straight Gerald Bracey

Manufactured Crisis David Berliner, Bruce Biddle

* Reposted from January 2, 2013

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?:...