Reformster Rhetorical Routines to Watch for in the New Year by Peter Greene from Curmudgucation

By Peter Greene | Originally Published on Curmudgucation | 2018 |On Twitter: @palan57 | Author of Curmudgucation: What Fresh Hell | Syndication made possible through Patreon

By Peter Greene

From year to year in the reform era, a variety of rhetorical angles have ben played. Some have been largely abandoned (e.g. most have stopped claiming that public schools are a disaster because teachers suck, though some still hold onto this particular stick — lookin’ at you, Jeanne Allen).  But some old favorites remain on the playlist, and it’s worth recognizing them when they appear again.

Bait and Switch

This has become hugely popular, and while it played a supporting role in the failed marketing of Common Core, it is hugely popular among ed tech aficionados.

The basic technique is to paint a beautiful picture of a utopian world built on a bright, shiny product– then, while the sparkle is still in their eyes, introduce the customers to what they are actually getting, which is a sad cardboard imitation of the shiny dream.

Wouldn’t you love a school where each child had a teacher who sculpted an educational program perfectly customized to the interests, abilities and pace of each individual child? Well, here’s a computerized bank of worksheets with an algorithm for assigning them to the students. Algorithm-driven mass-produced program-in-a-box is almost exactly the same thing as real personalized learning.

Don’t pay attention to what they’re promising you– keep your eye on what is actually being delivered.

Real Problems and Fake Solutions

As old and beloved as the inability to distinguish between causation and correlation, this argument focuses on selling the problem in order to get an okay for the solution.

Pat: You have high blood pressure!

Chris: What?!

Pat: You have high blood pressure. I’m looking at your test results right here. 

Chris: Aaah! Wait! What are you doing with that chainsaw?

Pat: I’m going to cut off your hands. Because you have high blood pressure!

Chris: How does that help? 

Pat: Look, high blood pressure can lead to all sorts of problems, from eye problems up to strokes. It’s a real strain on your heart. And you can see that the blood pressure cuff shows you have a blood pressure of 160 over 120– and look! It’s climbing even as we speak!

Chris: Okay, so that’s bad. But what good will it do to cut off my hands with a chainsaw?

Pat: Look. You have a serious problem here. Do you want to solve it, or not?

Chris: Yeah, but–

Pat: I guess you don’t think high blood pressure is a big deal. You don’t even believe you have a problem!

Chris: But but but–

Chainsaw: Rrraaaaawwwwrrrr!

Do not be distracted by discussions of the trouble. The important question is, are the proposed solutions actual solutions?

Chicken Littling

Often travels hand in hand with #2, but this is about creating a sense of urgency. Hit its stride first in 1983, with A Nation at Risk, a work that raised the rhetorical stakes from “let’s try to provide every child with a solid education” to “Oh Nossss!!! America will be conquered because crappy schools!!” And the Fall of the USA has ben about a day away ever since. 

Chicken Littling is about creating a sense of urgency. It’s not as popular as it once was; you may recall that charter fans used to say that students couldn’t wait one more day for public schools, until they decided that charter schools needed several more days to get up to speed.

Don’t accept the notion that things are so urgent that it’s better to make an immediate choice than a smart one.

Fight the Status Quo

Anything that has always been in place must be changed, disrupted, blown up, etc. This is the argument that gives us the assertion that public schools have not changed in 100 years, that teachers who have been on the job for decades probably suck, and that all old policies and approaches need to be disrupted. This is the argument that paints all defenders of public education as agents of the status quo.

There are three problems with this argument, First, that practices that have ben in place for decades have, in most cases, been retained because they have been tried and tested.  Second, anyone who thinks public schools haven’t changed in 100 years hasn’t set foot in any. It’s amazing to me how any critics of public education operate on the assumption that nothing has changed since they were students.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, much of the reform agenda is now, in fact, the status quo. Test-centered schools driven by a bad standardized test? That is now the status quo. A champion for the dismantling of public education who dreams of a privatized system– that’s now our Secretary of Education, and, in fact, few politicians or high-ranking bureau rats from either party are full-on supporters of public education. Neither political party stands up for public education. And other reformsters pump millions of dollars into elections an networks of astro-turfy advocacy groups. That’s the status quo– corporate privatizers and their agenda not exactly ascendant, but an inescapable part of the education landscape. Reformsters cannot pretend they aren’t part of the status quo (but they will).

The Value of Choice and the Market

For many reformsters, the argument is no longer about educational quality– it’s about choice, and only choice. For them nothing else has a higher value, and so we’ve stopped talking about which system might provide the best education but rather which system lets parents choose. If parents choose Flat Earth High School or Aryan Race Elementary or a generally lousy school, that’s okay– because parents are choosing, and nothing is more important than that.

This is what Betsy DeVos is talking about when she says we must value the individual student over institutions. Parents must be free to choose (and the market must be free to tell them what choices they are allowed to have).

This is privatization at its worst, because this argument eliminates the idea of education as public good that serves the community and country as a whole. Community and country have a stake in raising well-educated citizens who believe neither that the world is flat nor that whites are the master race. Community and country have a stake in educating citizens who can question and think. Community and country have a stake in a system that educates all students well.

Focus on choice and the market eliminates all of that, even as it removes an entire list of stakeholders in education and says instead, no, only parents are stakeholders. Well, only parents and the owners of the privatized schools. 

There are more than these five rhetorical strategies, of course, but they remain popular with fans of ed reform. Better we should all pay attention and watch for them in action.

Related: Garn Press Education Books

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