Refrains of the School Critics

Behind the rhetoric lies a contempt in some quarters for the work of public educators by Susan Ohanian

George Packer, a New Yorker staff writer, points to the danger of clarity, observing that seemingly simple and tough-minded words blow out as much smoke as the jargon of the Pentagon of decades past.

Nowhere is this smoke thicker and trickier than in the lingo the corporate-politico-media squad uses when talking about public schools. At first glance, their talk seems plain and to the point: failing schools, caring about education and education as war. In contrast, education progressives befuddle the public with authentic means of assessment,decision-making processes and triangulated learning.

But the simplicity is deceptive. The expression failing public schools has a lot in common with war on terror. After the media parrot these phrases often enough, we find ourselves at war and in the morass of radical public school deformation. Familiarity breeds acceptance. We need to unpack the knee-jerk, smoky phrases to examine the purposes behind the rhetoric we are in danger of taking for granted.

What follows are refrains about schools plucked from the news--not always unique statements but phrases repeated so often they have become jingles framed around a common theme: Make sure the public can’t think about public schools without thinking about failure.

The structure below is designed to encourage people to look closely at the rhetoric used to describe schools. Readers are invited to unpack popular phrases, to think about what is revealed and what is hidden. In so doing, we can keep our own discourse free of the corporate catchphrases.

Refrain: Schools are failing.
Example: We need to acknowledge that our K-12 education system is failing--Our future U. S. competitiveness hinges on fixing it.
Speaker: American Electronics Association Board of Directors, in a report, “Offshore Outsourcing in an Increasingly Competitive and Rapidly Changing World: A High-Tech Perspective”
What It Means: When your job is outsourced, blame the schools. When the dollar tanks, blame the schools.
What It Hides: The only concern here is the bottom line. Corporations ship jobs overseas because that’s where the cheap labor is.
Something to Consider: More than five times as many people die from drugs prescribed by physicians than from the combined effect of street use of cocaine, heroin and Ecstasy, but there is no hysteria about the failing medical system.

Refrain: Caring about education.
Example: “In these times, caring about education means caring about the implementation of No Child Left Behind.”
Speaker: Joseph M. Tucci, chair, Business Roundtable’s Education and the Workforce Task Force
What It Means: The Business Roundtable has been on-message about public schools since the 1980s. The organization has flooded the media with its message and formed a network of public and private organizations characterized by incestuous partnerships, overlapping alliances and common funding sources.
What It Hides: With 8-year-olds vomiting on high-stakes tests, special education students forced to take tests on their age level instead of their developmental level (and their school labeled failures when this doesn’t work), and high schoolers who want to be welders shut out of a high school diploma, caring seems a distinctly inappropriate word here. With care-givers like the Business Roundtable, public schools need no enemies.

Refrain: Education as war I
Example: “ America is engaged in an unconventional conflict that stretches to every corner of the globe. … Our nation, which has prevailed in conflict after conflict over several centuries, now faces a stark and sudden choice: adapt or perish.
“I'm not referring to the war against terrorism but to a war of skills—one that America is at a risk of losing to India, China and other emerging economies. And we're not at risk of losing it on factory floors or lab benches. It's happening every day, all across the country, in our public schools. Unless we transform those schools—by upgrading our corps of classroom teachers for the next generation—and do it now, it will soon be too late.”
Speaker: Louis V. Gerstner, chairman, Carlyle Group, and former CEO, IBM, and founder, The Teaching Commission (“ Bad Schools + Shackled Principals = Outsourcing,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 7, 2004)
What It Means: Noted researcher Gerald Bracey calls Gerstner the “captain of the scare industry.” Here, Gerstner provides a variation on the failing schools theme. Blame the teachers for outsourced jobs. Schools are a battlefield and the teachers are warriors. Referring to education professionals as a corps fits right in with the battlefield metaphor with the first meaning of corps being “a separate branch or department of the armed forces having a specialized function.” The second meaning is “a tactical unit of ground combat force.”
What It Hides: As co-author of Reinventing Education: Entrepreneurship in American Public Schools, Gerstner defined students as “human capital” and urged schools to compare themselves to each other as “Xerox compares itself to L.L. Bean for inventory control.” But it’s the global economy, not public schools, that’s destroying the working class. Corporate greed, not teacher skill, is the problem.

Refrain: Education as war II
Example: Des Moines school officials laid out their battle plans for closing gaps in academic achievement for struggling minority and poor students.
Speaker:The Des Moines Register, “Board Discusses Achievement Gap,” July 14, 2004
What It Means: When corporate leaders make repeated use of a metaphor, the media picks it up. And so do school officials. Warning: When you look at what happens in school as a battle, you’re not far from seeing students as the enemy.
What It Hides: Most people enter education with the idea it is a helping profession, not a battlefield.


Refrain: The knowledge supply chain
Example: “ Companies are reaching even further down the knowledge supply chain, to K-12 teachers and students. … I dream of the day when I can go to a knowledge systems integrator, specify my needs and have them put all the partners together to deliver the people I need.”
Speaker: A presenter at the Conference Board 2002 Business and Education Conference during a session, “The Business Role in PreK-16 Learning: Aligning the Knowledge Supply Chain.” The phrase, knowledge supply chain, also is used by the National Alliance of Business in Work America, a newsletter published in May 1998.
What It Means: Instead of anteing up to train their own workers, corporate America demands that schools supply the personnel specified in their business plan.
What It Hides: Corporate America wants education to be a delivery system. Corporate leaders say they want schools for the 21st century, but their rhetoric is right out of the industrial-efficiency movement of the early 20th century. Now, as then, schools exist as the vehicle for regulating little chunks of human capital.


Refrain: Beefed-up kindergarten academics
Example: Nap time needs to go away. We need to get rid of all the baby school stuff they used to do. (“Time May Be Up for Naps in Pre-K Class,” The Washington Post, March 15, 2004)
Speaker: André J. Hornsby, former superintendent, Prince George’s County, Md., Public Schools
What It Means: In hyper-academic frenzy, kindergartners get DIBELS-tested on their speed parroting of nonsense syllables—instead of singing, dancing, finger painting, block building and hanging from the monkey bars. What It Hides: Developmentally appropriate practices are abandoned in favor of giving the appearance of high standards. Suddenly, 5-year-olds worry they aren’t good enough to measure up to the demands of the global economy. Battling this tide, the admissions office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology asked seniors who applied: "Tell us about something you do for the pleasure of it."


Refrain: Preparing all students for the 21st century
Example: “Today, more than ever, we live in a global economy where competition and technology are changing the workplace and impacting economic success for all Americans. U. S. schools must change if they are to prepare all students for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. This is not a partisan issue.”
Speaker: Edward B. Rust Jr., chairman and CEO, State Farm Insurance Co.; former chair, The Business Roundtable’s Education Initiative; and member National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century. (Testimony before House Subcommittee on Education Reform, March 8, 2001)
What It Means: Rust is right that this isn’t a partisan issue. Republicans and Democrats alike embrace the corporate agenda. When working people can’t find living-wage jobs and their children don’t pass the high-stakes test for a high school diploma, blame the schools. When 50-year-old high tech workers find their jobs shipped to India, blame the schools.
What It Hides: The global economy is a cutthroat slaughterhouse for which corporate America assumes only profits, not responsibility. Despite all the hype, algebra cannot ensure a living-wage job for tomorrow’s workers. As Gerald Bracey and Richard Rothstein have pointed out in their essays, technology often lowers the skills needed for jobs. Moreover, even a casual glance at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’Occupational Outlook Handbook, (www.bls.gov/oco)reveals that retail sales positions account for almost as many jobs as the top 10 fastest-growing occupations combined.
In case you missed it: Sandy Kress, education adviser to President George W. Bush and prime architect of No Child Left Behind, pointed out in his keynote address to the EduState Summit in June 2004: "The Business Roundtable has been at the forefront of the effort to craft, pass and implement the No Child Left Behind Act."


Refrain: Failing schools, failing teachers
“While Orange County recruits top teachers to its F graded high schools, others who could not make the grade are being relocated from the F campuses to schools throughout the county.”
Speaker: Orlando Sentinel (Lead paragraph by Mary Shanklin, “23 F-School Teachers Are Relocated,” July 29, 2004)
What It Means: Under a school grading system, everyone is labeled, including teachers and principals.
What It Hides: The fact students in affluent areas score well on standardized tests tells us more about their parents’ income than their teachers’ abilities. To say teachers in poverty schools “could not make the grade” deliberately obscures the needs of children living in poverty, needs like adequate housing, nutrition, and health care. Richard Rothstein points out that if we want to raise test scores, then we should get the lead out of students’ housing and fix their teeth.


Refrain: The private-sector fix
Example: With its ambitious proposal to reinvent Chicago's worst schools, the city has become the biggest player in the boldest experiment now under way in urban school systems—inviting the private sector to fix what's wrong with public education.
Speaker: Chicago Tribune , “A Bold Experiment to Fix Chicago’s Schools,” June 27, 2004
What It Means: Private-sector incursions into public education are described as ambitious, bold, inviting and inventive. Public school employees are described as failing, inadequate and not making the grade.
What It Hides: Say it out loud: Edison. The private-sector track record is not good.


Susan Ohanian, a former teacher, is a free-lance writer based in Charlotte, Vt. E-mail: susano@gmavt.net. She is the co-author of Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?