When I taught a unit on child development, I would tell a story a professor once told me: : His young son talked up proudly to him one day and announced “Cars are alive but trees aren’t.” “Why not?,” asked the professor. “Because trees only move when the wind pushes them, but cars can move all by themselves!”
The child in the story was not stupid. Indeed, as far as brute facts go, the son was not even ignorance. The child made a natural mistake along the way to develop an understanding of what “living” and “not living” meant.
I say this because I am fascinated by a recent blog post, “The Strange Genesis of ‘Education Reform’- How a Crackpot Theory Became National Policy,” which appeared on Mark Naison’s blog, With a Brooklyn Accent. The first two paragraphs are indicative of the rest of the post:
In future generations, historians are likely to tell the following story. Some time during the early 21St Century, a cross section of the top leadership of American society began to panic. They looked at the growing chasm between the rich and poor, the huge size of the nation’s prison population, the growing gulf in educational achievement between blacks and whites and poor and middle class children and decided something dramatic had to be done to remedy these problems.
But instead of critically examining how these trends reflected twenty years of regressive taxation, a futile “war on drugs,” the deregulation of the financial industry, the breaking of unions and the movement of American companies abroad, America’s leaders decided the primary source of economic inequality could be found in failing schools, bad teachers, and powerful teachers unions.
So much of this beginning is right-on: the understanding of the cross-elite nature of the education reform movement, the deep distress of the political class at the nature of America’s public school, the willingness to take radical measures, and so on.
But the author also thinks the reason for this was a focus on “equality.” While the word equality does come up in the education reform debate, it is a coded word, which means nothing at all like what the author thinks it means.
Within the context of education reform, stakeholders are arranged along three dimensions of force. Employers and parents care about child development; Districts and States care about power; Teachers and publishers care about money. Behind this debate states the federal-academic complex of bureaucrats, researchers, and politicians.
But why in the world would anyone care about “equality”?
The only people who care about “Equality” as an end in itself are those that are weak, and thus are least able to influence the debate.
I suspect people who think “equality” matters in the education reform debate also think “equality” mattered in the civil rights debate. Of course it didn’t, policies weren’t changed out of moral desire. The major civil rights policies (whether rules, laws, or rulings), were made by a cross-section of the elite that supported an interventionist foreign policy and recognized the captive nation of African-Americans provided the only intractible source of nationalist opposition against the Federal government possible in the United States at the time. (For context, the British, French, and Portuguese were being torn apart in the post-war world by the forces of natioanlism, as the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires had already been, and the Soviet empire soon would be.)
America wasn’t the first multinational economic and political union — but the Federal Government also didn’t want to be the follow the British Empire into becoming a broken union.
The day of “states rights” as a force capable of starting a revolution were over by the 1940s. The day of nationalism as a force capable of starting a revolution had begun. Men such as Earl Warren helped lead America’s first attempt at breaking a potential sub-nationalism by interning the Japanese.
Men such as Earl Warren helped lead America’s second, smarter, attempt at breaking a potential sub-nationalism by enforcing desegregation. At the same times, patriots (from the Federal perspective) or quislings (from the perspective of would-be black nationalists) such as Martin Luther King were fetted with honors by the elite for their part in this “awakening” moment.
There were other forces at work too, of course, but those forces were provincial, self-interested, and soon to fall back into the noise of everyday political tumult. On a grand scale, the story of the Civil Rights era is a story of the abortion of a internal threat to the Federal government.
In our own day, the national security of the United States is at risk by our terrible public education system. This is because our broken education system means that our critical infrastructure is run by Chinese (and Indians, and Russians, and other foreign nationals).
When “equality” is used in this debate, it is not used to refer to closing the achievement gap between different groups, or any other nicety that would feel good but not flatter major forces. Rather, it is used in the sense that Steve Jobs used it when he said, “Equal opportunity to me more than anything means a great education” — in other words, nothing at all like addressing economic inequality.
There are other players at work too, provincial and self-interested ones such as teachers or parents, but on a grand scale, the story of Education Reform is the story of an attempt to abort an internal threat to the Federal government.
Let’s hope they — we — succeed.