Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

To Change the Education Narrative, Build a Movement

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Fund Our Schools

This morning there was a great segment on the Melissa Harris Perry Show where she interviewed Diane Ravitch about her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.  I’ve had my disagreements with Harris Perry over education in the past. But it’s obvious that she cares deeply about public education. And it’s been clear to me that, even when her guests have largely accepted the frames of choice and accountability and crisis, she has remained skeptical. Given the dominance of the position Ravitch criticizes, it was nice to have a segment where she, later joined by Pedro Noguera and Trymaine Lee, could lay out the critique of the corporate education reform movement and discuss some of the impacts on students.

That said, there was one question posed by Harris Perry that didn’t get addressed, that I wanted to offer my own answer.The question was: how do you change the narrative? How do you change it to one not of generalized crisis in public education to one of a crisis of poverty and racial inequality? How do you put forth the idea, as Harris Perry said, that we know what works, because we provide it to the rich kids, and it’s not charters and vouchers and union busting and tests? How do you challenge the idea that charters are answer when they perform, on average, no better than public schools on the standardized tests that are allegedly the sole measure of success, and yet are able to select the students that test the best?

To change the education narrative, you have to build a movement.  The dominant has been driven by billionaires, and CEOs, and politicians (especially executives). It has largely left out those with the most at stake, and the most first hand knowledge. This has been a top down process. To the extent they have convinced the public, it has generally been that other people’s schools (but not their own, the ones they know) are “failing” and in crisis. The press tends to reflect power, not challenge it. A movement is power, and the stronger it grows, the more influence it will have over how journalists cover this issue. We’re already seeing that things that were once taken for granted are being questioned. It’s hard to make a story about “greedy unions” when teachers are joined by parents and students. It’s hard to make it a story about the privileged abandoning poor racial minorities when the movement is growing in urban centers.

The stronger the movement grows, the less the Democratic Party default position can be a mushy, pro-corporate reform position, and the less the corporate ed leaders will find they can avoid serious controversy.

Ravitch certainly understands this. One thing that comes through clearly when she speaks and in her book is how much inspiration she draws from the movement activity of parents, teachers and students in places like Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle. And she spends a great deal of energy publicizing those local movements, drawing them together, trying to give them hope.

What these people, so many of them, all around the country, are doing is changing what’s possible. They are challenging the idea that there is no alternative, that we all agree on the problems of education, and we all agree on the solutions. All here means, ‘of those who count,’ the elites in both parties, the bulk of the public interest sector, and the donor class. As the scope of the conflict is expanded, the narrative will change.

But it will take a movement.

Update: Ravitch links to the segment in question here.

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Written by David Kaib

October 26, 2013 at 1:46 pm

2 Responses

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  1. We feel that you posed a question and proceeded to waltz around it. “To change the education narrative, you have to build a movement.” Well, yes, of course, but How? (Some) people have been crying out for more involvement from parents for decades, but it has never manifested in anything but dispersed, ad hoc engagement. The NEA is worse than worthless, school boards – which are supposed to represent the voice of the community emphatically fail to do so (most school boards are comprised of around six members with six individual, meaningless axes they’re grinding), and we just don’t see this change “all around the country” you mention. To circle back, there have never been a shortage of small scale, ad hoc movements in American education. We can’t think of any that have been sustainable or scalable.
    Until the expectation is set that superintendents, principals and other administrators bring a higher level of intelligence, integrity, vision and passion to their jobs, and until we change the model of creating school boards from people who know next to nothing about education and leaving oversight to them, we see no possibility for meaningful change.

    Barbra & Jack Donachy

    October 26, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    • I wish it were of course, but I think a lot of people believe that either 1) media reflects popular opinion or 2) media reflects the personal opinions of journalists. I think knowing that this isn’t true and that we have power to change how media covers things is important.

      I see your point that there have always been pockets of resistance and this hasn’t gelled into a national movement. That said, I do think there’s something different about this moment. But whether that shift will happen is an open question.

      I don’t necessarily have the answers on how, but you hint at some. A willingness to challenge those who are supposed to represent us, whether it be politicians, unions, PTAs, etc. is key. FWIW, I’m more worried about corporate influenced mayors driving ed policy without a boards’s input, but strengthening the connections between boards and students/teachers/parents and researchers is very important. Understanding local issues within the larger context of an all out assault on public education (and even beyond that, anything government does for, rather than to, the non-wealthy) is another. For me one of the biggest challenges is getting people in, say, the suburbs of Philly to see that if they don’t join to protect and improve the public schools in the city they will be next. One of these days I’m going to write something a little longer on that.

      David Kaib

      October 30, 2013 at 11:29 am


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