Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Re-Framing the Public School Debate

“Frames are the mental structures that allow human beings to understand reality—sometimes to create what we take to be reality.” 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 1980’s 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.