Carnage and Hyperbole in American Education

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source:  Green & Write – January 26, 2017

It is time to stop overdramatizing the present condition of American education. To hear some people tell it, going to school in this country is like taking a subway ride in Calcutta during a smallpox outbreak. In his inauguration speech on Friday, Donald Trump used schools as evidence of national decay:

Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves…But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

Trump’s assertion that schools are implicated in widespread “American carnage” has drawn criticism from some in the education community, particularly teachers and administrators. But what struck me most about the remark was actually how commonplace it felt. This is not because I’ve become inured to the President’s bombast. Rather, it’s because this is the sort of overblown language that has punctuated discourse about education reform for over three decades now.

The Origins and Effects of Crisis Language

The current “crisis” in education can be traced back at least to 1983, when Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education published an explosive report titled A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. The report, designed to rally the American public behind the cause of educational improvement (and also spare the Education Department from Reagan’s chopping block) began by describing the education situation in apocalyptic terms:

Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur–others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

This passage set the tone for the entire report. The report asserted that American schools were a direct cause of the economic problems of the 1970s and 1980s and that the rise of foreign economic competitors in Asia was a direct threat to the American way of life.

This argument was mostly specious. Whether schools contribute to economic growth or not, the fact that Japanese companies were producing better CD players than American companies did not mean that American civilization was in mortal danger. But ever since A Nation At Risk, education advocates—in government and at the grassroots level—have invoked the hyperbole of crisis to galvanize partisans around contentious reforms like vouchers, charters, curriculum standards, standardized testing, and teacher evaluation programs. Take for example, this sample of book and article titles published in the last 25 years, some by education advocates and some by education researchers based at universities:

All of these titles are Trump-like absurdities. Having students take standardized tests is not the same as sending entire populations to their death in gas chambers. But concerns about rhetorical precision aside, language such as this can serve an even more harmful end. It undercuts the credibility of the speaker and also serves to silence others who may disagree. If I do not believe there is actually an “educational genocide,” am I willing to be labeled a genocide denier? I may even agree with the author that standardized testing has harmful effects on children, but am I willing to match my colleague’s emotional fervor or else flunk a potential purity test? When issues become framed in such iconoclastic terms, opportunities for coalition-building and deliberation about school improvement are likely to be lost.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

In his famous book The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey argued that social progress can only occur if members of the American public come together and communicate with one another in a spirit of joint inquiry and deliberation. This requires people to not only speak, but also think and listen.

It also requires people to begin their discussion with a firm grounding in the facts. And several facts about American education cast doubt on the severity of the educational crisis.  This is something all reform advocates (including myself) must grapple with in their work.   For instance, despite all the derision schools have endured, graduation rates today are at an all-time high (83.2%), and the graduation gap between white students and minority students is diminishing. In 1971, the average reading score for 13-year-old students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was 255 points out of 500. In 2012, the average score was 263 points. This is not a sign of carnage. Stagnation, perhaps, but not carnage. All the while, most Americans tend to be content with their schools. A recent Phi Delta Kappa poll found that while 27% of people would give the nation’s education system a D or F grade, 70% said they would give the school their own child attends an A or B grade. Only 9% said they would give their child’s school a D or F grade.

So either Americans are okay with the carnage, extinction, genocide, and stupidification going on in their schools, or the carnage, extinction, genocide, and stupidification don’t actually exist (or at least not in sufficient quantities to garner alarm).

I am not arguing here that American education is a perfect system. Are their parts of our school system that are in abominable condition? Without a doubt (see here and here for an example). Is there room to improve American schooling across the board? Absolutely. I wouldn’t be in this field if I felt otherwise. But until we agree to begin discussing the problem reasonably, and with at least some degree of precision, we can never hope to improve anything. What American education needs for improvement is more reasoned deliberation and less bomb-throwing. Outlandish, hyperbolic language may garner headlines, but it won’t solve problems.

 

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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.