Waves and fields in ed reform

Larry Cuban, always provocative, suggests that perhaps the wave of “business-inspired school reform” has crested — though he then makes a skeptical response to his own proposal.

As evidence that the wave is headed down, he cites such developments as

the slow-motion retreat from the punitive No Child Left Behind law in …the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), increasing evidence that National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores have leveled off and even fallen, a growing “opt-out” movement of parents objecting to standardized tests, and increasing public awareness of non-school factors strongly influencing students’ academic performance..

and the “growing recognition”  that the efforts to import  ‘business “best practices”‘  (whatever those are) into education,  including using test scores to judge teacher effectiveness, have mostly disappointed (or failed).   As a result, Cuban suggests, we’re hearing a lot less about “privatization” than we used to, though he is too good a scholar not to declare many caveats.

Cuban hopefully suggests that the next wave that’s building is a “progressive” one, focusing on the “whole child.” So mote it be!  What straws does he see blown in this direction?

Growing clamor for installing “social-emotional” curriculum in schools, less testing, and more online instruction, “personalized” learning, and integrating technology into daily lessons  suggest the outline of another effort to re-focus attention on more than test scores in judging school success.

Well. I know that some people who advocate these developments are doing so with wholehearted commitment to the welfare of the children and the society whose future they are.  I work with such people, and occasionally have been among their number. But I am minded of two other forces at work, of long standing in American life, whose effect is to shape what goals and what solutions are seen as desirable, reasonable, or even thinkable. Drawing a metaphor from physics I think of these as “fields,” and more specifically “vector fields,” which exert directional force on susceptible bodies entering them.

Educationalization.  The first “field” of long-standing is mentioned by Cuban already:  the tendency to “educationalize” social problems, that is, to hand to schools the responsibility for solving social problems that society doesn’t want to deal with more directly (or effectively). A tough-minded discussion in this article by David Labaree informs much of what follows, and provides references for further reading.

Labaree argues that “education” has been tasked with solving problems in social mobility, race relations, public health, international economic competition, civic virtues, drug abuse, etc. when the evidence suggests that schools are not well designed for social engineering on this scale, despite the massive investments of time, treasure, talent, and materiale that are made each year.  Labaree suggests that perhaps it’s time to see the Education Sector as doing exactly what we want, rather than what we say we want.

In a system such as ours, which values individual liberty more than the public good and which values the freedom to accumulate and dispose of property more than the benefits that derive from greater equality, the most direct mechanisms for resolving such problems have already been removed from the table. (pg 452)

In practice, this means that much of the agenda that has been (hopefully or otherwise) added to the work of schools can not really be successfully addressed, though it does mean that schools can function as scapegoats for the continuation of social or economic problems.  Labaree again:

At best we are willing to accept what schools can do as sufficient.  So we accept educational opportunity as a proxy for social opportunity and multicultural textbooks as a proxy for a multicultural society. At worst, we can always blame schools for getting it wrong and then demand that they redouble their efforts to reform themselves in order to reform society. (pg. 453)

The Market.  The other “field” that shapes educational fads, choices, constraints, and experiments is the American faith in the power of market forces to create and improve all things, and in recent decades it has become more important a factor than the older notion that ‘business knows how to get things done,’ the “efficiency gospel” that has spawned so many innovations in governance, management, and other facets of educational activity.

In a way, the “educationalization” field has made education (and its funders and overseers) more sensitive or available to the operation of the market “field,” because the market is all about innovation, change, and “disruption” — well suited to an enterprise in  a constant state of reform, with policy churning so quickly that “proof points” have to replace research.  In this country, it is truly seen as a panacea.

The market thinks in terms of products, consumers, and producers, and is infinitely inventive in segmenting markets and targeting the segments, speaking more and more personally and directly to each purchaser, or influencer.  Thus, where Larry Cuban sees a retrenchment from “privatization” talk, I see a process which renders privatization more or less irrelevant, because the market can “personalize” knowledge and learning, and has the technology to do the marketing research, cultivate the consumers, deliver the products (and the endless upgrades), and do it all over again with the next gen stuff.

Of course, there are many educators, inventors, developers, researchers, parents, and policy people who are earnestly focused on human processes of learning, teaching, and the interplay of individual and social growth — but they are working within the two fields, whose force they must always be reckoning with.  I wonder how things will look, which waves will be lifting us up or curling down upon us, in a year, 5 years, a decade?

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