Blame the Schools

[By Kevin D. Vinson and E. Wayne Ross]

The current economic debacle has provoked an enormous amount of com­men­tary regarding blame, bailouts, and big-shot-banker-bad apples. The issue, apparently, is one of faultfinding. Why? Who knows? The answer is clear. Blame the schools. It’s got to be their fault. Always is, of course. Al­ways has been.

How do we know this? Look at history.

In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. The USSR beat the United States. Schools were blamed; they needed reform. This "confirmed" Admiral Hyman Rickover’s description of U.S. schools as "educational wastelands." National se­curity was in peril because of teach­ers’ failure to teach.

But when the Cold War ended and the U.S. "won," American public schools got their fair share of the credit.

Just kidding.

In 1983 the government published A Nation at Risk. It argued that U.S. schools— referred to as a "rising tide of mediocrity"—were threatening the ability of the economy to compete, to wallop the economies of our allies Japan and Germany, globally.

But during the late 1980s and through the 1990s the American economy generally grew even as the Japanese economy wallowed in recession. Political and economic leaders in the United States praised the accomplishments and contributions of American schools.

Just kidding.

Evidently, in these instances the fundamentals of the economy were strong, just not those of schools. Economic and school problems were caused by the schools. Economic and school successes were caused by political and corporate managers. The answer, therefore, was to run schools more like cor­pora­tions. Or like schools in Japan and Germany.

Go figure.

This logic is mindbog­gling. When the economy fails, when society experi­ences any setback, schools and teachers garner the blame. When the economy flourishes, when society experiences any tri­umph, eco­nomic and po­litical lead­ers demand  the credit. Even then schools are reproached for something; something must be their fault. And so it goes.

But today we truly are a nation at risk. Contra John McCain, U.S. fiscal funda­mentals are not strong. Increasingly families face decisions about whether to make mort­gage payments or buy healthcare or send their kids to college, and nobody is bailing them out ("compassionate" conservatism?). So, blame the schools; it’s only a matter of time.

Perhaps it was easy, if unjust, to attack U.S. schools in the 1950s and 1980s for "life adjustment" education, progressive education, self-esteem education or some other "flaw" and to acclaim the USSR for "really" teaching math and science. Perhaps it was equally easy then to scapegoat the schools in the face of perceived security and eco­nomic threats. Elites have always found reasons to promote their own ideo­logical brands of school "reform."

The difference today, though, is that our schools are doing exactly what they were told to do.

President Bush entered office with a "vision" for a "successful," deregu­lated mar­ket economy to be sustained by a plan for schooling based on a scheme first concocted in Texas by Rod Paige, President Bush’s first Secretary of Education and former Houston schools superintendent. That plan, the No Child Left Behind Act, requires as its center­piece a singular focus on state-de­termined, one-size-fits-all curricula and high-stakes testing. NCLB, recall, was a bipartisan "suc­cess" story somehow necessitated by the global marketplace.

Now when the American economy tanks even while American schools are doing just what our leaders asked, what sense can we make of edu­cation and the econ­omy?

Following the logic of the conservative 1950’s and 1980’s, at least three conclu­sions are possible. First, NCLB caused the present economic mess. This, of course, is absurd. But is it any more absurd than claiming that U.S. schooling was responsible for Sputnik or the past economic achievements of Japan and Germany?   

Second, we could leave schooling to educators, parents and students and the econ­omy to politicians and economists. At least that way schools and teachers wouldn’t take the heat for the effects of corporate greed, corruption, tax cuts for the wealthy and predatory credit. The economy might still flounder but the blame could be more appro­priately fo­cused.

Third, we could recognize that the economy has at least as much influ­ence on public schooling as public schooling does on the econ­omy. Instead of using schools to "fix" the economy, we could ask the economy to "fix" the schools. A radical proposal.

We, however, suggest a more modest one; let’s really reform the econ­omy. And let’s really reform schools. Are you listening president-elect Obama? Secretary-des­ignate Duncan?

Or we could just blame the schools. It’s probably their fault. We could run them like corporations. At least they’d be eligible for a bailout.

 Kevin D. Vinson is Associate Professor of Teaching and Teacher Education at the University of Arizona. E. Wayne Ross is Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia and a co-founder of the Rouge Forum. Kevin and Wayne are the co-authors of Image and Education: Teaching in the Face of the New Disciplinarity.


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