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The Perennial Bowel Movement

The u201cback to the basicsu201d movement is here, again. Doesnu2019t this remind you of the 1980s?

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” Karl Marx
The “back to the basics” movement is here, again. Doesn’t this remind you of the 1980s? In response to the overall dissatisfaction with the programs popularized in the 60s, declining test scores and disruptive classrooms[1], Ronald Reagan called us to action. A Nation at Risk warned, “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.”[2]
Not surprisingly, immigration policies and the civil rights movement of the 60’s had dramatically changed the face of America’s schools so the conversation of mediocrity pivoted around how we should respond to racial and ethnic diversity.[3]Kenneth Clark’s study on youth in Harlem pointed to the fact that blacks were systematically deprived of a good education and he cautioned that “unless firm steps were taken immediately, the public school system in the urban North would become predominantly a segregated system…a school system of low academic standards, providing a second-class education for under classed children.”[4]
Although Reagan’s education platform promised that “all children, regardless of race or class or economic status [would get] a fair chance,”[5] corporate America and the military would benefit the most from the Reagan years. Reagan’s budget cuts resulted in mass unemployment and millions of children entered the ranks of the officially declared “poor.” Within a short period of time, a quarter of the nation’s children—twelve million—were living in poverty.[6]
Following A Nation at Risk, there was a rush to design reform programs that could “fix” low performing public schools. The report asserted that lax academic standards were correlated with lax behavioral standards and that neither should be ignored. The general consensus was to get ‘back to the basics,’ which meant to focus on math and reading instruction, teach children to follow directions[7] and establish a common core curriculum that would ‘level’ the playing field. It was in the 1980’s, when E.D. Hirsch, Jr. first coined the term “core knowledge.” After the release of his bestselling book, Cultural Literacy, he established The Core Knowledge Foundation that teaches how disadvantaged children can succeed if they have access to the same knowledge as children from privileged settings. Throughout the following decade, academics debated the question: How much power does a school really have when educating children living in poverty?
None of this sounds very different than today, does it?
Yet, this time we’ve upped the ante. Fueled by a push-back political landscape and a highly publicized 1% ‘takes all’ economy, politicians on both sides of the aisle are anxious to mitigate the swell of the angry poor concentrated in big cities. They know it will take some time to move from reforming schools to reforming the entire system. How else can they completely appropriate public school funding?
Keep the proletariat dizzy. Have you ever run on a treadmill? It’s exhausting but you don’t get very far do you? You stay because in your mind is focused on the calories you’re burning. Parents are running hard on lots of individual treadmills called, ‘Choice.’ Much of their experience can be exemplified by ‘the lottery’ and other deceptive admissions devices that lead most parents nowhere fast. Teachers meanwhile are running too, working that front line dodging the bullets, jumping through Danielson hoops. In the background, an epic recording plays over and over assuring folks that capitalism is what makes this country great. The broadcast is muffled and staticy but tireless. “Choice grows competition, competition improves quality, quality makes consumers happy and business is the backbone of the American dream.” In between each pause, we auto-insert a plea for patience.
Teachers who remember our history are considered difficult because they see patterns. Like little connect the dots puzzles, they share in the cafeteria or in the halls. Consequently, veterans and their union meetings are neatly disposed of. Some teachers are blatantly ignored like the elderly. Others are picked on incessantly or kicked out onto the streets like unwanted guests at a party. They’re replaced by the new teacher, churned out and distributed, heroic jugglers of the new regime. They can handle disgruntled parents with one hand and pander to those with the money with the other— blindfolded! Add the new Common Core to the mix, vast complex units of study doled out like blocks of welfare cheese and we’ve successfully spun half the country’s schools & school districts into a tizzy. This is the dizziness around us. This is what distracts people. And it fuels fear.
Is our greatness not so great after all? Like getting caught in the flush of some great big white toilet bowl, we’re flailing our arms and kicking but it’s swirling too fast. The current is strong and all I can think about is what are we going to do with all this shit?

  1. Thomas, JW (1980). Agency and achievement: self-management & self-regard. Review of Educational Research
  2. Ravitch, D (2000) Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform. Touchstone
  3. Ibid
  4. Clark, K.B (1965) Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power. Harper & Row
  5. Ravitch, D (2000) Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform. Touchstone
  6. Zinn, H (2005) A People’s History of the United States, Harper Perennial Modern Classics
  7. Thomas, JW (1980). Agency and achievement: self-management & self-regard. Review of Educational Research
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