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A Short “Education Reform” Primer for the 2012 Presidential Election

Though politicians bloviate abstractly on the theme of public education, it’s pretty clear that they’re often unprepared to address explicitly their policy proposals or the unspoken ideological assumptions upon which they rely. Sadly, education policy discourse has become vacuous and apolitical. It finds expression in platitudes aimed at dissolving the relationship between individual educational experiences and the larger structural forces that produce, preclude, and inflect them. “Honk for Education!”—a popular protest sign in my neighborhood— epitomizes this sort of depoliticization.

Below is a guide for mapping today’s competing visions of “education reform” and a few modest suggestions for “repoliticizing” the national conversation:

In February 2009 Congress passed a stimulus package (as part of President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) reserving $4.4 billion for “education reform.” President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s initiative, dubiously dubbed “Race to the Top,” currently requires states to “compete” for federal grants through eligibility criteria that tends to subjugate learning to assessment, process to product. States wishing to qualify for federal funds under the program must allow student performance on state-based standardized tests to determine teacher evaluations, effectively, as a means of imposing merit pay. Of course, standardized tests have had a long and well documented history of class, cultural, and racial bias. Not only does affixing a standardized test score to normative forms of student achievement devalue the knowledge of those excluded from the dominant class, race, and gender bloc, but it also introduces a monetary disincentive for those of us who choose to teach in low-income communities and/or low-income communities of color.

The unstated ideology behind “Race to the Top” is arresting. The rhetoric of merit pay seamlessly diverts attention from structural issues of inequity—like rampant poverty or our burgeoning wealth gap—by placing the burden of performance on individual educators whose resources are often substandard directly as a result of structural issues of inequality. “Race to the Top’s” ideological presumption 1) obscures a structural problem by individualizing it and 2) attempts to justify itself through a post hoc fallacy.

States receiving federal dollars under this program are required to use at least 50 percent of the award to provide sub-grants to charter schools and other “local educational agencies” thus siphoning money from already cash-strapped districts. Further, many charter schools are jointly subsidized by corporations like Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo, who, are able to influence decisions made at the curricular level. We’ve all heard the refrain: “But aren’t charter schools better than public schools?” Well, according to the well-respected sixteen state CREDO study conducted by Stanford University, only “17 percent of charter schools studied provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.”

My own research findings suggest that “Race to the Top” funds rarely go to the most economically deprived states. Though this relative-benefit mismatch is self-defeating, it’s rarely discussed. Of the 15 U.S. states with the lowest per-pupil educational expenditures, only 6 have been awarded federal funds under “Race to the Top.” President Obama and Secretary Duncan’s marketized approach to public education elides the reality that poverty is the single largest factor in educational outcomes. I’d argue that poverty reduction and/or social assistance programs like EITC, SNAP, WIC, TANF, and Unemployment Insurance, among others, should themselves be considered types of education policy.

Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford University, recently demonstrated that the gap in standardized test scores (an imperfect model, to be sure) between affluent and low income students has grown by about 40 percent since the 1960’s and is now double the testing gap between black and white students. Class, income, poverty, wealth, and race, to a lesser extent—choose whichever index you like— matter in educational outcomes. It’s difficult to learn on an empty stomach. Real talk.

Mitt Romney has never directly criticized President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative. During the first so-called Presidential “debate,” in fact, it actually represented one of the few policy areas on which they managed to find common ground.  Mitt Romney has assured the electorate that he will “take the unprecedented step of tying federal funds directly to dramatic reforms that expand parental choice” by investing in corporatized charter schools and “rewarding teachers for their results instead of their tenure” by instituting a merit-pay structure similar to President Obama’s.  And the President and Secretary Duncan continue to argue that “Race to the Top” is working just fine by “rais[ing] standards [and] rewarding innovation and positive reforms in local schools.”

But education isn’t in the first order about standards or parental choice. It’s about whether or not every educable child has a right to access the conditions that make a humane, politically relevant, and democratic education possible. Meeting this objective will require us to shift our political worldview from the logic of “individual resolutions to collective social problems (i.e. teachers can solve everything) to an analysis of the socioeconomic structures that conform to the requirements of modern capitalism. A truly relevant and democratic education is antithetical to the supposed dictates of “the market.” If we aspire to a public education that redounds to the benefit of children everywhere, then we first must work to expand what counts as education policy. We must demand that any education policy deserving of national attention include provisions aimed at slashing childhood poverty, hunger, and homelessness.

Reducing our obscene childhood poverty rate of 21.9 percent (16.4 million children)—a notion that neither major candidate nor third party candidate finds fit to mention—represents the first and best “education reform” worthy of the name.

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