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Radical Eyes for Equity: What I Believe: Education Reform (And SOR) Edition

Many educational philosophers have set forth relatively brief “What I Believe” statements, such as John Dewey. Also common is asking perspective teachers to express their beliefs about teaching, learning, students, assessment, etc.

Teachers are disproportionately practical and often balk at discussions of educational philosophy. But I argue that if we fail to express and examine our beliefs in the context of our practices, we are apt to behave in ways that contradict those beliefs.

As well, many of the important people in educational thought are consistently misunderstood and misrepresented (Dewey becomes the caricature of “learning by doing,” for example, the simplistic project method confronted by Lou LaBrant); therefore, the need to state in direct and somewhat accessible ways exactly what someone believes can be important, especially in the context of public discourse and debate.

As a critical educator and scholar, I find myself often an alien in almost all discussions and debates on education, not finding a home with any mainstream ideologies. Folk on many sides accuse me of being on the other side, and much of the debate is mired in false assumptions and accusations.

Many years ago when I was speaking in Arkansas about my then current book on poverty and education, some nasty “no excuses” advocates significantly misrepresented me in Education Next. Despite the author admitting the characterization wasn’t fair, the false attack remains in the article to this day.

That pattern of false assumptions has repeated itself in the “science of reading” (SOR) debate in part because SOR as reading reform is a subset of the larger 40-year accountability reform movement that I have long opposed: Fix the students by fixing the teachers, and fix the teachers by fixing the programs they are required to teach (with fidelity or as a script); all policed by standardized tests (that we know are biased by race, class, and gender).

The problem for me is that I oppose both the status quo and that standard reform paradigm, and my position garners me false attacks. The position, however, is expressed well in a work I co-edited almost a decade ago: Social context reform: A pedagogy of equity and opportunity.

The description of that work, I think, has an excellent and brief explanation:

Currently, both the status quo of public education and the “No Excuses” Reform policies are identical. The reform offers a popular and compelling narrative based on the meritocracy and rugged individualism myths that are supposed to define American idealism. This volume will refute this ideology by proposing Social Context Reform, a term coined by Paul Thomas which argues for educational change within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food, higher employment, better wages and job security.

Also in our Introduction (which you can read here), we included a couple foundational paragraphs from my blogging in 2011:

“No Excuses” Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of her/his making. As well, “No Excuses” Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which … effort will result in success.

Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security. (Thomas, 2011b, emphasis in the original)

Mainstream education reform is in-school only, and it makes demands on individual students and teachers, seeks the “right” instruction, the “right” program, and the “right” tests. It feeds what I consider to be racist and classist ideologies such as “grit” and growth mindset because everything depends on individual choices, standards, and behaviors (poverty, they say, is an excuse).

Simply stated, until social and school inequities are addressed, in-school only reform will always fail and continue to feed the crisis/reform cycle we have been mired in like Groundhog Day since A Nation at Risk.

When I show that SOR is a deeply misleading and doomed-to-fail reform movement, I am not endorsing the status quo; in fact, I have been fighting the literacy and school status quo since August 1984 when I entered the classroom.

I don’t really believe, I know that US society is criminally inequitable for children, amplified by social class, race, and gender.

I also know that formal schooling tends to amplify, not ameliorate, that inequity—and one of the greatest forces perpetuating inequity is the education reform movement grounded in accountability based on standardized testing.

I also know that petty adult fights about the “right” instruction or the “right” programs is always at the expense of a much more important question: How can we serve the needs of each and every student both in their lives and in their learning?

The false choice being presented between the status quo and education reform is a distraction from the work we should be doing (a distraction like the manufactured religion in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle).

Both the status quo of formal education and the education reform movement are the work of authority, not the sort of radical change children and democracy deserve.

In the immortal words of John Mellencamp: “I fight authority, authority always wins.”

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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...