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School Reform as Theatre (Part 1)

The current cat fight between “reformers” and “anti-reformers,” between”no excuses” virtue-crats and self-righteous “defenders of the status quo,” between…well, you know the “good” and “bad” guys. Note, however, that none of these groups is monolithic. Reformer networks vary.  Think ex-Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel or imagine teacher union leader Randi Weingarten working with Green Dot to open a charter school in New York City.

Monolithic networks of reformers may be non-existent but these internal differences evaporate when it comes to challenging dearly-held beliefs. Fighting binds  like-minded people, sharpens differences with opponents, and gets the adrenalin flowing.  Bloggers, journalists, and researcher angry at those who want more charter schools, cherish KIPP, and chase algorithms that promise better teacher evaluation point to the unsavory motives of edu-preneurs (see for-profit charter schools). They scold unaccountable billionaires for funding school reforms or see expanding for-profit charter school and cyber-school management organizations as definitive evidence of privatizing public education.  They use reformers’ motives (e.,g., destroy public schools, make money) to explain the past decade of reform.

Opposing bloggers, journalists, and researchers attack teacher union leaders for resisting efforts to use student test scores to evaluate teachers and uncapping the number of charter schools. Union leaders and administrators protect their vested interests, they say, being more concerned for adult privileges than children learning. As with their opponents, they find explanations for resistance to sensible reforms in personal motives.

And on and on.

Explaining reformers in terms of their motives turn reform movements into battles between individuals and groups, ignoring the larger political, economic, and social structures that influence what people think and do.  That is too narrow. I offer another explanation for the past decade of reform, including No Child Left Behind. These reforms are not motivated by a binary corporate-driven slide into privatization or teachers and administrators protecting their hard-earned  privileges. Instead, school reforms are political theater.

Think of a play you have seen. For me, it was Clybourne Park.  To understand that play I  did not need to know why playwright Bruce Norris wrote the play, although knowing the context of racial relations and housing in Chicago during the late-1950s was helpful. That play–and ones  you have seen—express in their stage design, the words actors recite, and emotions they display certain ideas, social beliefs, and values that we have experienced. The significance of the play lies in how it reflects cross-cutting values and beliefs while expressing raw feelings, often touching us in ways that cannot easily be captured by rational argument,  logic, or statistics.

The connection of comparing theater to school reform is a point that policy historian  David K. Cohen made decades ago:

[S]chools might be seen as a great social proscenium, a stage on which terrific struggles over the content and character of the culture were played out. The creation or adoption of a progressive curriculum [in the 1920s and 1930s] was in some respects a declaration about culture, childhood, and society. These wars were of course serious; powerful forces were arranged in the struggles, they could be won or lost, and the consequences were often far from trivial. But in some measure the materials in the struggles were also theatrical-they were manifestations and expressions important in their own right… waged in the school-theatre.

Consider No Child Left Behind as an instance of political theater. Why, for example, is the phrase “scientifically based research” mentioned 111 times–not a typo–in the law? Why do student test scores have to be displayed by ethnicity, race, and special needs? Why is the target of the law that all students–yes, every single student–test proficient in reading and math by 2014?  Answers to these questions are not in the motives of President George W. Bush or legislators; these central features of the law express Americans’ deepest social beliefs in science and tests as meritocratic instruments for achieving equal opportunity; they signifying modernity, progress, and social justice. These social beliefs get played out on the stage of schools. David Cohen again:

Like theatre, then, laws can usefully be understood in terms… of how they shape moral and emotional expression for an audience…. Like plays, laws can be seen as an encounter between an organized presentation of meaning and an audience. 

NCLB, then, can be explained as a law expressing the larger societal struggle over the growth of income inequality  in the U.S., surges in poverty, and fear of national economic and social decline. Even were NCLB successful by 2014–and it won’t be–income inequality, poverty, and fear of decline will remain unchanged. NCLB, then, is political theater acted out on the stage of public schools.

So what? Of what use is it to reframe the last decade of school reforms from examining reformers’ motives to political theater? The next post answers those questions.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...