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Maher’s “Real Time” Education Debate Failure Redux: Legend of the Fall, pt. VII

A new slogan has appeared from the ranks of educators who know the new education reform movement to be misguided, uninformed, and powerful: “Those who can, teach. Those who cannot pass laws about teaching.”

This is a parody of the demeaning, “Those who can, do. Those who cannot, teach.” It is this saying that is at the heart of the cultural disrespect that much of the U.S. holds and voices about educators, but the newer slogan, in the second part, hits the key problem with how our schools are run and who takes the blame: The reality is that teachers in K-12 U.S. public education have little autonomy and professional power–and that is even more pronounced today than 40 years ago–but the architects of how schools are run, politicians and self-appointed education experts, have somehow shifted all the blame and accountability onto those teachers who are mandated to implement the misguided policies dictated by elected officials, who are overwhelmingly without experience or expertise in education.


But the problem with education policy and reform debate is much deeper than that.

As I have been documenting in a series labeled “Legends of the Fall,” public discourse about education as it is driven by and reflected in the media is a powerful window into our misconceptions about education and our repeated calls for the same failed solutions over and over. My series looking at the media began with Bill Maher’s Real Time, an episode with John Legend on the panel and a discussion of Waiting for “Superman.”

Just seven months later, I found myself watching the May 13, 2011, episode of Real Time with guests Richard Clarke and Harry Shearer as well as panelists Andrew Ross Sorkin, Michelle Bernard, and Reihan Salam. As usual, Maher invites a spectrum of panelists, which helps make my case that our misunderstandings, assumptions, and chronic blind-spots about education have little to do with ideology.

It appears to me that the majority of Americans from the far Right to the far Left share a puzzling mix of believing universal public education can solve everything (one panelist invoked “the great equalizer” line about public schools) and is simultaneously a complete failure.

After Shearer was brought out, the panel and Maher drifted on a few occasions to education, and here is what was essentially shared among all the panel:

• U.S. education is a failure, especially when compared internationally.

• U.S. entrepreneurs are creating jobs, but many are overseas hires because U.S. citizens are less capable because of the dismal education system. (The evidence for this, by the way, came from a panelist who asked a billionaire/entrepreneur why 4/5ths of his new jobs were not Americans, and the billionaire/entrepreneur claimed the foreign workforce is smarter.)

• Public schools are the great equalizer, and we must focus on educating children living in poverty. (This comment about children in poverty was drowned out by a free-for-all of comments, but seemed to be shared by all.)

• If we really believe education needs better funding, and I could not sense a real commitment to this among the panelists, we would have to make sacrifices elsewhere, such as the military (and I could sense that the panelists weren’t too keen on that idea.)

These are stale and recurring comments that have plagued debate about public education for over a century now. But this discussion was flanked by a comment from Shearer about American exceptionalism that I believe is worth considering more carefully as it impacts the education debate.

First, we have a perverse and compulsive fascination with ranking and competition–both in our schooling and in our culture. We believe that ranking is possible for almost anything, and we trust that rankings are valid, that they prove what they suggest about quality.

Yet, when the College Board clearly and accurately warns against ranking states by SAT averages, every year, the media across the country and politicians publish and lament this or that state’s rank among the rest of the nation.

Yet, when a careful analysis of PISA scores reveals that the U.S., in fact, compares well with the rest of the world, virtually no one listens, and the simplistic mantra about international comparisons, reaching back into the 1950s, remains robust.

Next, while Shearer was arguing that the U.S. is in trouble–and agreeing that a failed education system was partially to blame, if not overwhelmingly to blame–a more important consideration of ranking and American exceptionalism may be the following data from David Morris about where the U.S. does rank number one:

• CEO pay compared to average worker pay.

• Income for top 0.1%

• Military spending

• Prisons per 100,000 population

• Murders per 100,000 population

• Health care costs as % of GDP

• Infant mortality per 1000 live births

• (As a reverse number one, meaning we are at the bottom) Social spending on families as % of GDP

• % children living in poverty, compared to like countries

• % experiencing homelessness from 1990-2006, compared to like countries

These are our exceptionalities, and this is what we want because it is what we tolerate. To be blunt, we have corrosive and negative attitudes–as well as contradictory attitudes–about education because we do not want to face the fact of our country, the inequity and the real accountability that should aimed at the top.

In America, we are a people tragically committed to our rose-colored glasses, refusing to see the evidence that schools will not and cannot overcome the weight of poverty, refusing to see the evidence that repeatedly establishing standards, testing those standards, and holding teachers and schools accountable has not and will not create the types of schools that a free people deserve.

The U.K. has similar concerns about their social inequity and education quality, but their attitude is quite different. See this new release from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation:

“The official poverty figures out yesterday, independently analysed by the IFS today, don’t reflect what is happening now. Nor do they show the potential impact of cuts, growth or welfare reform in the future. The 2% fall in child poverty we’ve seen reflects tax credits changes even further back in 2007 and 2008. But this does show that decisions taken by governments can definitely make a difference. National benefit policy is not the only answer to poverty by a long stretch, but it has to be part of the picture [emphasis added].”

Until the American public and its leaders come to recognize that education reform is a small component of a much larger and more powerful need to reform our social policies, schools will flounder, children will suffer, and the discourse will remain misguided, bitter, and redundant.

But this does not excuse our schools, this is in no way an endorsement of that much uttered “status quo.” Our schools have much they must reform and reform immediately.

But it isn’t adopting common standards, it isn’t increasing testing, it isn’t holding teachers and schools accountable, it isn’t firing bad teachers, and it certainly isn’t listening to anything recommended by Secretary Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, or Geoffrey Canada.

The greatest school reform we need to address immediately is that our schools perpetuate the exact inequities in our society we claim that system can eradicate–broadly reflected in our unacknowledged classism.

The new reform movement is not characterized by innovation, insight, or democratic ideals, but by a “no excuses” ideology that marginalizes the weakest of the weak–children living in poverty through no fault of their own, as exposed by Alfie Kohn:

“In an article published in Phi Delta Kappan back in 1991, Martin Haberman, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, coined the phrase ‘pedagogy of poverty.’ Based on his observations in thousands of urban classrooms, Haberman described a tightly controlled routine in which teachers dispense, and then test students on, factual information; assign seatwork; and punish noncompliance.  It is a regimen, he said, ‘in which learners can “succeed” without becoming either involved or thoughtful’–and it is noticeably different from the questioning, discovering, arguing, and collaborating that is more common (though by no means universal) among students in suburban and private schools.”

Yes, “Those who can, teach. Those who cannot pass laws about teaching.”

It is time to step back and hold the powerful accountable for their claims, their policies, and their motives–with the rose-colored glasses removed.

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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...