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Curmudgucation: The Panic Is No Accident

There was a curious piece in Education Week Friday, in which Deborah Loewenberg Ball ponders the question, "Why Is the Nation Invested in Tearing Down Public Education?" 

She focuses in particular on the most recent iteration:

For the past four years, we have been retelling a shared narrative of education crisis and the severe learning losses our nation’s children have suffered as a result of the pandemic.

Well, no. "We" have not been retelling that shared narrative. 

I get the use of the collective "we" (do it myself from time to time), but there are times when it just isn't appropriate, and this is one of those times.

Learning Loss panic has been carefully crafted and aggressively marketed by two groups of people-- the folks who are intent on dismantling public education, and the people who have a vested interest in responding to the "crisis."

As I pointed out back here, it was clear almost immediately. NWEA and CREDO hit the ground running with scary pronouncements about the severity of Learning Loss based entirely on numbers that were completely made up! McKinsey, the consulting behemoth whose entire business model is "Find a crisis and get paid to help fix it," quickly joined the fray. By the time we had actual test result numbers to look at, those same folks had already done business selling pearls to clutch, and the usual public education slammers had their doomsday baloney headline generators warned up (looking at you, New York Times). 

As Ball notes, the fact that US students actually did better than most of the world at navigating the pandemic was largely ignored.

But Ball, who is an actual college professor, education researcher, and head of a teacher training organization, chalks all of this up as "a habit."

Taking a big view, she sees this "habit" tracking all the way back to A Nation At Risk, which is a great place to start, as the "report" is not a careful piece of research, but a paper deliberately crafted and edited to advance one clear narrative--America's public schools are failing. 

ANAR was not borne of some self-critical habit, and the last forty years of chipping away at public education didn't just happen. And in seemingly missing that, Ball seems to be the kind of well-intentioned booster who is just aiming at the wring target:

It should worry us that, as a nation, the United States seems to be invested in tearing down the enormous possibility and promise of public education. In retelling that our children’s opportunities have been irredeemably destroyed, we impair the possibility of collective inspiration for how to move forward.

It should worry us, but it's not that the United States seems to be invested in tearing down public schools--very specific groups and individuals are invested, sometimes literally invested, in dismantling public education. They are, in fact, very interested in deliberately destroying collective inspiration about moving forward, because their own ideas about moving forward take us in a completely different direction, into a country in which it's every family for themselves, your kid's education is your own problem, education is a commodity sold on an open and unregulated market, or education belongs only to conservative christianists. 

What is important now is whether we are prepared to shift how we support public education and the learning of all our nation’s children. Are we ready to begin rejecting the repetition of the crisis narrative and begin building a new story? A narrative that is honest about what has happened—over decades—and where we are now? One that is aimed toward building up, not tearing down? If so, this narrative must center the children themselves and the teachers who labor to support their thriving. It must be one that leads to solutions.

I get it. I appreciate the hope and positivity of this call. But. But but but but but. The crisis narrative is being deliberately and aggressively repeated by folks with big deep pockets, and from their point of view, that narrative does lead to solutions-- it's just that their solutions don't involve public education as we've previously understood it in this country.

There is a huge amount of room for debate about the how and where and why and by whom of public education, and, as with much of our nation, a need to keep finding ways forward because there is no past so perfect that we should be happy to go back to it. 

But not everyone involved in the debate is operating in good faith, and to imagine otherwise is like approaching the 2024 presidential election by saying, "Well, let's just all plan to keep things honorable and decent and not at all ugly." 

The negativity and panic about public education in this country are not a habit, and they didn't just happen, and we'll have to acknowledge that if we are going to deal with the toxicity that has been unleashed. If we keep tripping because someone keeps tying our shoelaces together, the solution will not be an impassioned plea to all pull together and support shoe manufacturers. 


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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...