Accountability Opinion

When Did This ‘Consensus’ Form?

By Deborah Meier — April 29, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Where are the tea-partiers when I need them? Debate about revising ESEA is truly irrelevant—key changes have been put into place without anyone voting on anything! No single departmental decision has ever been made that so invades what was once considered wholly local powers than the Race to the Top. (Except, of course, going to war without authorization on occasion.)

I was reminded of this by a piece FairTest sent me: “Did Congress Authorize Race to the Top?” by Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst in Education Week. It deserves attention, but it’s hard to know whether any education or political reporters will pick it up. Whether it’s a constitutional law issue or just an abuse of power, I don’t know. But what more precious freedom has been stolen away under the cover of “it’s voluntary,” “we didn’t force it on you,” etc.? It’s true that as a teacher I reminded students that no one ever “has to” do anything; even with a gun pointed at our heads, we have a choice to make. Still, we know that holding a gun to our heads is really depriving us of a lot of leeway in exercising our freedom. What comes to mind are all those other jokes—but especially the one about the freedom to sleep under the bridge. (I’ve a terrible rote memory, and I can’t remember the details.)

At a time of dire financial woes that are pounding away at our school systems, the Race to the Top policy—(I was about to say legislation!)—is a strong lure. Personally, it doesn’t seem to me to be enough to lure me away from exercising my rights, but it is surely helpful to those who actually agree with it and are not so picky as to worry about who is dictating to whom.

It reminds me of anther ploy that I run into a lot in the print media. “Everyone agrees,” “a consensus has developed"—sometimes followed by a quote from the head of the union as the sole dissenter. I don’t recall there ever being a discussion, so where and when did this consensus form around getting rid of “traditional” public schooling that rests on local communities? When did we have a discussion about the larger moral issues that “seniority” represents in general, not just in schools? Or due process? Why do we presume guilt, not innocence, when someone is arbitrarily sent to the so-called “rubber room”? Or, who should decide what curriculum and pedagogy to adopt—or reject? Or, how we should judge schools or teachers...not to mention kids! Who decided that algebra would be a gateway skill to possessing a high school diploma (and thus entry to almost any job)? Who decided that private, for-profit managers should take over large portions of public education—including replacing entire former public school space? Who decided that the representatives of teachers don’t represent them—but are just “labor bosses”? Who decided that Ivy League-educated students fresh out of college will be better teachers of our kids than experienced graduates of the non-elite universities?

These “agreements” at which “we all” have arrived are always dangerous. They creep up on us unaware. The heart of democracy, and thus of the citizenry it needs, rests on our being alert to such shenanigans. We ought to be teaching kids the subtle clues that a strong citizenry needs to respond to before it’s too late to do so.

There has been no agreement—neither among experts nor lay people—about these large educational issues. The new “consensus” has, in fact, largely ignored the “expertise” that exists and is the product in great part of powerful “lay” people. Furthermore, the decisions at issue are not mere “technical” ones, but have a huge impact on society that could and should not be determined by expertise alone. Experts can and should inform our discussion, and everyone (including business leaders and corporate foundations) has a right to an opinion, but the decisions we are talking about are precisely the kind that democracy has “traditionally” assumed that the “lay” public should decide.

Yes, I feel that I’m repeating myself. That’s in part because I’ve been increasingly overwhelmed by the feeling that I’m Alice in Wonderland. So I go over and over the same terrain looking for the flaws in my own thinking! But in my recent travels—as well as at that astoundingly well-attended symposium we held in New York City—I find that I’m not alone. Nor that it’s only us educators and teachers with our narrow “self-interest” who are stunned by the speed with which this new phony consensus has appeared on the scene. Polls haven’t been very helpful, for me, in figuring out how “alone” I am or am not. And, of course, when I travel my audiences tend to be selectively on my side. Poll questions that I’ve seen are hard to read—as they usually don’t reflect the reality that I think we are facing. I’d love to see some “focus group” studies that deal with what the larger public makes of its new consensus.

The means and ends of school reforms are connected. The “way” we conduct schooling affects the way we conduct other matters of public life. Schools prepare us as much by “how they work” as what they require us to know. If we treat our older and more experienced teachers as dispensable (not worth two new, young, would-be teachers) we are saying a lot to our youngsters about what we value; if teachers are fired without due process, we are providing a very powerful curriculum to kids. When we say that a score on a particular test is the measure of the woman, and surely more “real” than what the adults who know you might say, we are engaging in an instructional act—influencing how young people value themselves and others.

And on and on.

Enough for now, Diane.

Deborah in Wonderland

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