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Re-Framing the Public School Debate

[Editor’s note: This post originally appeared at Crow Man Blues.]

“Frames are the mental structures that allow human beings to understand reality — sometimes to create what we take to be reality.”
— George Lakoff

Do you believe that the American business model applied to schools will produce better teachers and more qualified students? Then your thought process about public schools is probably mired in the myths fostered by the 1980s report, A Nation at Risk, which claimed that the failure of our public schools would eventually lead to our economic decline and inability to compete in the world market. Those findings were driven by a right wing ideology from the likes of CEO’s and business leaders who posed the idea that we can only keep our competitive position in the world by improving our schools.

Time and our current economic situation have proven that those ideas were pitched to open the door for conservatives to take control of the public school debate. And, they succeeded, as that idea took hold, educators and teacher unions at all levels, ceded their leadership in the field to business moguls who despite public acts of helping schools with funding for charter schools and laptops, secretly professed that they want to ultimately privatize the schools to make a lot of money.

Now, we seem to be stuck in the rhetorical frame that public schools are failing despite the facts that indicate a different reality. That frame is the elephant in the room and no one has been able to change our concept to another reality. Schools are living up to the standards we set for them. Today, according to the 2004 Census, more kids graduate high school than ever before. (We need to improve those numbers for minorities, especially Hispanics, but over all those figures are rising.) Around 28 percent of our national population gets a 4-year college degree and in New York State it’s sits at 30 percent. And, based upon 2006 statistics from G-8 countries, we are scoring very well in most categories of reading and math. (Don’t get me wrong, there is still plenty of room for improvement.)

Yet, because the debate is framed around the idea that our schools are failing, those who call for privatizing schools have gained a foothold with the general public in the public education debate. Even though the general public thinks schools are failing, parents consistently think that the schools their children attend are good. The incongruity of that thinking, however, doesn’t seem to make an impression because the picture of failing public schools is so entrenched in the national mind-set.

We also hear, but not so loudly at this moment in our economic history, that the business model should be applied to schools. The belief is that children are revenue sources and schools should be able to generate a profit. How do you increase profit? Add additional revenue sources, reduce expenditures, cut salaries, break the negotiating strength of unions and, of course, eliminate all regulations and standards of accountability. In addition, these business leaders throw in the concept of merit pay as an incentive to teachers so they will teach to the bottom line–standardized tests. It works for businesses, doesn’t it? Well….

To make this all sound palatable to the general public, conservatives have convinced the public that public education has failed the nation and they design schemes that ultimately and deliberately underfund the school system. (Unfunded mandates in NCLB, vouchers, charter schools, home schooling) With unrealistic and ill conceived demands and continuously diverted resources, schools would become nothing but holding pens festering with failure. That’s because conservative school reform movements are akin to the urban renewal efforts that were the results of landlord-arsonists in the Bronx or the fire-bomb deliberately dropped by police in a Philadelphia residential neighborhood to root out a small band of dissidents. Those efforts had the effect of displacing and silencing a noisy, but ultimately, powerless minority for the profit of the few.

Public schools are doing the job they were meant to do. They are acculturating a diverse population that can unite us as one democratic nation with faith in the possibilities of every individual. This last election gave us a glimpse at what that future would look like. Better schools aren’t about a better economy. Improving schools is about becoming a better country. That’s how we should frame future discussions about public education.



  • 1 sm729
    · Apr 23, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    Americans have a tendency not to act until they are actually in the fire. They can be warned that the spark is lit, the fire is growing and the fire will consume their home. Yet until that fire gets too hot to handle, they will stay put. Reactive describes Americans; not proactive. Thus it is a shame that every once and a while they need to be burned. The “Nation at Risk” report had to be written, to light the fire under them. Unfortunately, they acted the wrong way. That’s another problem with Americans. When they get caught in the fire, they jump out of that conflagration to another, rather than trying to figure out why the fire started in the first place an doing something about it.
    Over a quarter of a century ago, when the “Nation at Risk” report was published, the majority of the country was shocked. Why, is anyone’s guess. Given the then state of schools for the wealthiest country in the world, the report could only have surprised people who were wearing blinders or attending the most posh private schools. It was time to take off the blinders and get a complete reality check about life beyond the Ivy Walls.
    It was advantageous that the report made people realize 1) American children were suffering, some much more than others, every day they went to school and when graduating; 2) there was no way that America was going to continue to be a leader in the 21st century, faced with growing global competition, a flattening world, stagnating American ingenuity, and a diminishing leadership pool needed for the upcoming “knowledge” century; and 3) if America continued to let its schools start sinking, it may be impossible to get them out of the quicksand again.
    Sadly, Americans do not face their problems the right way. They like quick-fixes. It is much too difficult to heal the wound for the long run. It‘s much easier to slap a Band-Aid on the cut and hope that it heals itself. (Just look how quickly a stimulus package was put together; not
    one person, including President Obama?, claimed to have read every page before or even after voting on it.) As a result, the same old rabbit was pulled out of the hat–“vouchers for private schools,” or “if you don’t like it here, then just get out.” The second response was the “No Child Left Behind” program, which may have helped some children, but at what cost? Teachers are now paranoid automatons spending most of their day “teaching to the test” and making kids learn facts, so the schools get their money and no one loses a job.
    The other problem in this country is setting priority. How can the education system ever be state of the art when the schools have such low billing? When everything hit the fan several months ago with the economy, it was just assumed that the states would cut their budgets and that education, with one of the largest budgets, would deal with it. Somehow it is believed that there are always cuts that can be made in the nation’s schools. In this country, more people get upset when a $25 million baseball player has to get an MRI for his elbow than cutting $25 million from a school budget.
    “A Nation at Risk” was well-intentioned (and so was NCLB for that matter), but nevertheless flawed. As a result, some schools have made strides since the 1980s and others, especially in the power sections of the United States, are still living in the dark ages and being punished financially for not excelling as much as expected. The report made the government come up with magical quick fixes that did not entail collaborative decision making or long-term strategies. Asking schools to significantly improve dramatically without having all partners—business, social and economic institutions—working together will just spell continuous disastor for the short and long run.

  • 2 will
    · Jun 7, 2009 at 3:35 am

    I became a teacher in 1993 and remember well A Nation at Risk as a prime reading source for then current thought. Reflecting after reading the above post come to a clearer understanding of the power of advertising to institute a reality for those paying the ad men. A reality now evident in the posture of parents towards education, educators and all we have been identified with as representing. Namely a failed public system that no longer serves their children. They are all to happy to blame us for their children’s lack of a positive or at least neutral embrace of learning for more than a majority have become negative producers on campuses and streets mimicking the adult behavior seen in their via invasive behavior altering media, home environments on the brink of ruin as parents attempt to cope with a world beyond their ken. Teachers conference about students with grandparents rather than parents, an indicator of their earlier success in child raring. i am a cynical optimist but we must have all players at this social event and that is not only teachers as the last one stop fixit shop for societal ills it will take all of us to change the pernicious slide in a sustainable people.