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Trickle-Down Administration: Education Reform in a Culture of Distracting Outrage

A pattern of education crisis and outrage has characterized the education reform debate for nearly 150 years.

“One of the strange things about our politics is the disconnect between what sorts of things lead us, collectively, to express outrage and what sorts of things we don’t notice,” David Kaib begins in an examination of outrage centering on a marijuana Op-Ed by David Brooks, adding:

I’m thinking specifically of how a statement can set off outrage while the background behaviors, activities or policies that the statement expresses or seeks to justify do not….

I think this dynamic is a product of two things. First, a great deal of our politics concerns people’s motives and character, which are largely unknowable, as opposed to assessing their actions on their own terms. So when someone says something, potentially revealing their intentions, it seems powerful. Second, and I suspect more importantly, it’s hard to get upset about long-standing, entrenched conditions. We do better trying to oppose some deviation from the norm, or at least, things that are understood that way.

Kaib, I think, is confronting a socio-political and popular tendency to express outrage only at outliers and mistakenly within a cult of personality—all of which offers a powerful lens for reconsidering how teachers, scholars, academics, and public school advocates can better respond to the education reform movement.

For example, Anthony Cody shared a school memo that details how a school is instituting restroom policies “[i]n order to maximize student learning and reduce the loss of instructional time”—including justifying the policies in part by connecting the restroom guidelines to Common Core standards:

Have students fill in the “time out” and “time in” and then turn the pass in to the teacher when finished. This will help them practice the CCS of telling time with both digital and analog clocks.

First, restroom policies are a nearly universal norm of traditional schooling; thus, the likelihood that this memo will spur outrage is greatly reduced, per Kaib’s point above. However, one aspect of the policy does achieve outlier status (connecting the practices to CC) so we may anticipate outrage focusing primarily if not exclusively on that—reinforcing Kaib’s central argument that the norm of institutional and hierarchical control will remain mostly unchallenged.

Now, let me illuminate this further with an anecdote from my own career as a high school teacher. While I believe the memo above is a powerful artifact of many elements found in traditional schooling worthy of our outrage, I also think we must continue to see how policies manifest themselves in the day-to-day lives of students, teachers, and administrators.

I grew up in a small and deeply conservative (read: racism, classism, and sexism were norms and thus unexamined) Southern town in rural upstate South Carolina. After attending high school in my home town and completing college fewer than thirty minutes away, I returned to my alma mater to teach high school English for 18 years.

That school had when I was a student and continued while I was a teacher incredibly rigid and authoritarian policies for student behavior and dress. Many stereotypically strict private schools paled in comparison.

Included in those school rules (by the way, students had to pass a school handbook test at the beginning of each year) were restroom policies that mandated automatic demerits for any restroom visit during class (implicit in such rules were arguments similar to the new policies in the memo shared by Cody—protecting instructional time). The school had a demerit system connected to an in-school suspension structure governing these rules.

One year, I taught a young man who was an elite student and athlete (athletes were under a double set of extremely rigid and harsh guidelines, meaning any school infractions tended to be replicated and intensified by their coaches). During class one morning, this young man stood up quietly, walked to the trash can near the door, and then vomited (almost noiselessly) in the trash can before returning to his seat.

Once I realized what had happened, I calmly told him he needed to go to the restroom. He very politely explained he couldn’t risk the demerits.

And so let me stress here that while the new restroom policy shared by Cody and the student’s behavior in my class may appear to be outlier examples within perfectly normal and reasonable in-school policies, I must contend that they are neither outliers nor reasonable.

A comment, I believe, at Cody’s blog post helps make my case. Sarah Puglisi posted this response to the restroom policy: “Said Admin will no doubt pee as needed.”

For classroom teachers, and all workers under hierarchical structures, Puglisi’s comment is a succinct and powerful point. Let me return to my student who felt compelled to vomit in my trash can and remain in class to avoid the automatic (and I’d add “no excuses” and zero tolerance) punishment he was to receive for a situation beyond his control: The principal who sat as the personification of authority over this policy chain had his own bathroom in his office.

In the context of Kaib’s examination of distracting outrage and Cody’s exposing new restroom policies connected with CC, I want to stress several important points related to the central threads of the education reform debate:

  • We must be willing to highlight and then confront the norms of traditional schooling within which education reforms are being implemented. To continue to argue that CC is separate from high-stakes testing or simply a matter of implementation fails to acknowledge the growing evidence that adopting new standards and requiring different tests have never changed and continue not to disrupt many powerful ways in which schools function. The restroom memo is not an outlier; it is yet another artifact of how normal practices and new policies do not disrupt each other but inform and maintain the status quo.
  • Beware the hypocrisy of authoritarian and hierarchical structures, particularly as they include children. I think it is no exaggeration to compare how adults are allowed a different level of dignity in their restroom needs compared to the restrictions controlling the children under those adults’ care with the lack of accountability experienced by those imposing intensifying accountability mandates on schools, teachers, and students. The norm of accountability being inversely proportional to the hierarchical chain must be confronted in the education reform debate—not as a series of disconnected moments of outrage, but as a measured recognition that this norm is dehumanizing and incompatible with democratic ideals.
  • We must elevate the voices of teachers and students as we consider the claims and policies promoted by a social and political structure that is driven by leadership without public school teaching experience—not simply because that leadership lacks that experience but because the claims and policies are contradicted by the real world of teaching and learning.
  • We cannot afford to address social and educational issues as unrelated. Race, class, and gender inequity exists in society and is replicated in traditional schooling (for example, school discipline inequity as that mirrors the continuing era of mass incarceration). Our outrage must be at systemic policies and practices, and not diluted by targeted outrage at isolated events only, allowing an outlier mentality to suggest racism, classism, and sexism no longer exist, or can be easily overcome by in-school-only reform.

A pattern of education crisis and outrage has characterized the education reform debate for nearly 150 years. The result has been that education reform looks like the conditions of an overcrowded Emergency Room. While ERs often achieve laudable outcomes under stressful conditions, medicine is certainly better administered within a preventative care model.

The conditions of an ER are likely beyond our control to eradicate; people will continue to experience traumatic injury.

Our schools, however, need not be ERs. If we are willing to step back from crisis/outrage and then change the larger norms that tend to go unnoticed, starting with norms that are dehumanizing, as Kaib explains, we can reform our schools in ways that respect the basic dignity of children as well as honoring larger social commitments.

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