Equity & Diversity Opinion

John Thompson Reviews John Kuhn’s ‘Fear and Learning’

By Anthony Cody — April 10, 2014 5 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson.

It was Texas that led American schools into the valley of fear and test-driven loathing. It was a Texan, Diane Ravitch, who rallied teachers when it seemed like public schooling was condemned to its Alamo. Now, it may be a Texan, John Kuhn, who points the way out of the educational civil war launched by data-driven reform.

Kuhn’s Fear and Learning is humorous and candid when explaining how schools succumbed to bubble-in malpractice. He is as quotable as Ravitch, and as skilled in rallying and inspiring teachers. He also is charitable in a way that creates common ground. By beginning his outstanding book with an acknowledgement of why sincere reformers originally embraced standardized tests, how accountability went wrong, and how few of us are blameless, Kuhn points the way to a new era of school improvement. He closes with common sense and science-based solutions that we can all unite behind.

Kuhn’s wit is crucial to his explanation of education’s culture of compliance - a culture of powerlessness in the face of impossible demands by multiple masters. “The only thing a superintendent needs to know,” according to the conventional wisdom “is how to count to four.” That number signified the votes required for superintendents to keep their jobs. As the education establishment tried to keep its collective heads down and stay out of trouble, they presided over an education system where “poverty wasn’t an excuse; it was an ironclad guarantee.”

When Texas imposed test-driven accountability, superintendents and other educators went along. After all, many were like Kuhn who had done well on standardized tests. In the Texas of the 1980s, as with data-driven educators of the 21stcentury, many “lived in the 99 percentile.” People who liked or loved standardized tests were unlikely to see how easy it would be for testing to subvert classroom instruction. That is just one reason why “we and our students were as meek as lambs led to a standardized slaughter.”

Kuhn is nuanced in diagnosing the roots of conservative and liberal school reform. His career took shape as Rush Limbaugh pioneered the scorched-earth path to political victory. Kuhn admits to nodding along with his friends as Rush bashed the standard malefactors, socialists, homosexuals, welfare moms, and intravenous drug users.” At first, he was confused when teachers were added to the list. But, he knew that his teachers were not subverting family values and sneaking “anything goes urban hedonism” into East Texas. So, before long, he lost faith in the blame-game script.

I saw the same pattern from north of the Red River. In Oklahoma, Texas, and so much of the nation, “educators watched passively as the hit parade of ill-conceived education policies ... were enshrined in our federal and state law books.” I have always believed that our timidity contributed to liberal reformers embracing the teacher-bashing pioneered by Limbaugh. We were focused on staying out of trouble, so that we could just do our jobs, in order to make our modest, best contributions to our students and community.

By the 1990s, “New Democrats” were seeking neoliberal solutions. School reform provided a chance to sound tough, using words “accountability” and “No Excuses” over and over again. Choice-driven reform appealed to the rising power of corporations and new market-driven edu-philanthropies. Accountability-driven reform became a “faux meritocracy.”

Back then, competition-driven reform could be justified as an attempt to bolster the job prospects of poor children of color, even a “civil rights movement of our time.” By the turn of the century, “excuses” were driven out of schools, as liberals joined neoliberals and conservatives in offering nothing but excuses for rising poverty and inequality. As Kuhn notes, “so-called no-excuses reform is in practice all excuses when one leaves school property. In retrospect, it becomes clear that the liberal wing school reform became the “civil rights movement of the timid.”

One of Kuhn’s virtues is the he can chronicle what the various schools of reform have in common and the ways that they differ. Buying into the state of the art political tactics of the Lee Atwater/Karl Rove era of demonizing enemies, reform originated in the politics of fear. Perhaps liberals were terrified that poor children of color would not be able to compete in a global marketplace, just as conservatives worried over the collapse of traditional values, and both embraced teacher-bashing in order to spearhead a movement which would supposedly result in a greater good. “What’s the harm in using fear to sell a product?,” liberals and conservatives seemed to ask, " ... If a sprinkling of fear can grease the skids, does it really hurt to play fast and loose with a few facts?”

Both types of reformers needed to show results. So, standardized testing went from a “tool to totem.” The “off-label application of student testing data” widened the fissure between reformers and education professionals.

Then, the “school reform movement veered bizarrely into a miracle movement.” Propelled by propaganda like “Waiting for Superman,” the new mantra was, “Poverty schmoverty. You won’t find any soft bigotry here.” Reformers became a contemporary version of the old faith healers, as Kuhn explains:

Just as faith without labor could make believers in the prosperity gospel rich, so were learning miracles possible where academic priests held aloft the promise of genius without books, bricks without straw, and lush intellectual humanity without parks or reflection or well-appointed libraries.

By now, the so-called “reform” movement has become a collection of very different interest groups, struggling mightily to not unravel under their inherent contradictions. It includes “the dark side,” or “malevolent vandals tearing away at the foundations of American public education.” A larger number (I assume) of reformers are “well-meaning dabblers.” The problem with those sincere non-educators is that they seem allergic to admitting mistakes. Were they to bring an open mind to Fear and Learning in America, I believe we could move on to a new era of school reform - one that is worthy of our democracy.

What do you think? Does Kuhn offer a way out of the dead end of no-excuses reform?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.