"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Progressives, and Other Liberals Seeking to Avoid Detection

There is some interesting discussion going on at Education Policy Blog, instigated by a post by Ann Flanagan: GET OUT YOUR POM-POMS: PREP ASSEMBLY.

As a subject that is dear to my own spleen, I have had a good deal to say, some of which has not been universally acclaimed by other readers. John, in NC, took umbrage based on some of my remarks related to the capitulation by liberals on NCLB in 2001. I am posting his comments here, with my response, because his remarks bring to the surface a deeper current that is poisoning the progressive stream of ed reform:
john in nc said...
While Jim Horn's historical perspective is useful, it's certainly a mistake to write off all support by progressives of NCLB as political capitulation. Many school reformers outside the beltway (yes, there are reformers outside the beltway) with long track records as advocates for "disadvantaged students" -- some going back to the 1960s and the birth of ESEA -- supported NCLB because they were convinced, after many years of pushing reforms at the school and district level, that the barrier of low expectations would never be diminished without putting pressure on teachers who harbored such attitudes. Their goal was to force schools to achieve more with students in poverty. Thus the subgroup accountability strategy. These progressive reformers were naive, of course, to think we will ever engineer better teaching and schools by simply issuing top-down edicts (the highway of history is strewn with that roadkill) but they were not capitulators.

Thank you, John, for making an important point about progressives, those not-so-long-ago liberals who have self-inflicted a new label to disguise the visible liberal traits that are ridiculed regularly, along with their fearlessness, by the Right. And in this era of “change,” who doesn’t want to be seen as a progressive, especially if the tag can be helpful in avoiding the political flak that usually follows from taking positions of conscience against those without any?

You must know, John, that it was not my intent to paint all progressives, or liberal progressives (which is it?) as capitulators. Not everyone knew of the Bush/Rove plan to use testing to get to privatization. In the Congress, this includes those who, because of more pressing priorities, didn’t care to know. The bliss of ignorance.

More numerous, though, were those, inside and outside of Congress, swept away by the liberal, er, progressive school of reform based on wishful thinking and self-imposed blindness, which, in combination, yields a most dangerous form of self-delusion. It is the kind of thinking that allows, otherwise, caring individuals to set aside the bigotry of low expectations in favor of the callous and cynical racism of impossible demands (see NCLB proficiency goals).

It is the kind of thinking that ennobles the hapless hope of those who come to ignore the devastation that NCLB has wrought to focus, instead, on the visible-if-you-look-hard narrowing of the achievement chasm between the poor and the privileged.

It is the kind of thinking that allows, otherwise, sensible humanitarians to focus on the handful of poor schools that are surviving the educational genocide, while entirely ignoring the fact that the teachers and students in those lighthouse schools are starved for real education (see Linda Perlstein’s TESTED . . . (2007)).

It is the kind of thinking that encourages its proponents to turn their backs on those children rejected because they can’t hack the 60-hour school work week or because they won’t bow to the philosophy of the KIPP schools, the philosophy that begins and ends with “WORK HARD, BE NICE,” the mantra that is emblazoned on the identical t-shirts that children wear in these model reform schools for the poor.

And finally, it is the kind of dangerous delusional thinking that allows people to come to believe that schools and teachers, top down or bottom up—whichever way you prefer to organize them—can get done what poverty has disallowed for much longer than the brief span of time that we have had tests to tell us what we already knew—had we bothered to adjust our “progressive” blinders in order to see around us.

If all the education reformers were to shift their focus and their influence and their efforts to ending poverty and discrimination, rather than putting band-aids on school books, then the achievement gap, which mirrors the family income gap, would not constitute the economic divide that we must yell across while pretending it doesn’t exist. To extend your own road kill metaphor, John, some of those reformers never even saw the truck coming—they simply thought that bright light was the dawning of yet another beautiful day (see Wilkins and Haycock at Education Trust).


  1. Anonymous10:27 AM

    Fascinating dialogue with *Nancy* Flanagan. Thanks, Jim.

  2. Lovely post, thank you for the insight. If I may, I'd like to add a comment about NCLB.

    The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was, in my opinion, a sincere effort to ensure the availability of quality education in schools with low income populations. However, under its current moniker (NCLB) and in its most recently revised form, it has taken on the personality of the administration to whom credit goes for the latest efforts toward the dumbing down of America. Indeed this latest attempt to shove Skinnerian behaviorist notions down the throats of our children isn't even true to itself. By allowing states to set their own standards, and then rewarding the ones who create the illusion of progress while in fact producing poorer results, the disconnected bureaucrats are encouraging decline. This according to the theory of stimulus/response, propounded by the behaviorists themselves.
    267 days and counting.

    Thanks again.

    Joe Crump