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

Thursday, December 01, 2011

"Paddle Your Own Canoe"?: A Case for Education

"Paddle Your Own Canoe"?: A Case for Education

Wilbur Rockefeller-Swain and Eliza Mellow Swain, twins, are the central characters in Kurt Vonnegut's autobiographical novel Slapstick. Alienated by their appearances, ostracized by their parents, and misunderstood by nearly everyone, these siblings are assumed to be intellectually challenged, but are in fact brilliant—although their brilliance depends on their being together.

Dr. Cordelia Swain Cordiner, "a woman [with]...three doctor's degrees and [who] heads a testing corporation which bills three million dollars a year" (p. 100), is charged with examining Wilbur and Eliza, leading to her plan to test them both, but separately. Dr. Cordiner offers this to the siblings when they ask to be tested together:
"In case nobody has told you, she said, "this is the United States of America, where nobody has a right to rely on anybody else—where everybody learns to make his or her own way. "I'm here to test you," she said, "but there's a basic rule for life I'd like to teach you, too, and you'll thank me for it in years to come."

This was the lesson: "Paddle your own canoe," she said. "Can you say that and remember it?"

Not only could I say it, but I remembered it to this day: "Paddle your own canoe."
Hi ho. (pp. 102-103)
Vonnegut's novel from 1976 never intended to speak to the most recent round of education reform debates that now dominate public and scholarly examinations of U.S. public education, but that is in fact what Vonnegut has done with his portrait of the twins and the decision to judge them both by tests in isolation.

At the heart of the scene above, Vonnegut has exposed the essential conflict that exists between the cultural myths in the U.S.—rugged individualism, pulling ones self up by her/his own boot straps, and a rising tide lifting all boats (or canoes)—and the stated and ideal purposes for universal public education.

A Case for Public Education: Democracy, Autonomy, and Empowerment

Like Dr. Cordiner, the current crop of self-proclaimed education reformers—Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and entities existing like people, TFA and KIPP—both endorse and reflect the cultural myth of the rugged individual. Unlike Dr. Cordnier, this same crop of so-called reformers have either no or little experience or expertise in the field they seek to reform, education—driven as they are by ideology only.

Since the new reformers have access to both exorbitant funding and positions of authority, they also have gained control of the education reform debate, thereby marginalizing educators and scholars as "anti-reform" or "using poverty as an excuse."

While Dr. Cordnier's "paddle your own canoe" is intended to ring hollow to readers of the novel, the new reformers' same dependence on empty slogans persist: "No excuses," "poverty is not destiny." And when educators, scholars, and researchers offer evidence to refute the slogans, the true experts and advocates for universal public education are themselves marginalized, demonized, and even silenced.

Since the new reformers are framing the education debate, and thus framing the positions of those who speak against them, we must be careful to identify fairly what those educators, scholars, and researchers who are advocates for public education are endorsing.

In The Answer Sheet, Pedro Noguera offers a solid foundation for what public education advocates are in fact arguing:
The research never suggests that poor children are incapable of learning or that poverty itself should be regarded as a learning disability. Rather, research suggests that poor children encounter obstacles that often adversely affect their development and learning outcomes.

To ignore this reality and make bold assertions that all children can achieve while doing nothing to address the outside-of-school challenges they face is neither fair nor a sound basis for developing public policy, as I wrote in a recent issue of the Phi Delta Kappan Magazine.

Despite compelling evidence that education policy must at least mitigate the harmful effects of poverty on student achievement and child development, most state and federal policies have failed to do so. However, there is growing awareness among a number of educators, mayors, and policy advocates of the need to do so based on the realization that a great deal can be done to counter the effects of poverty on children’s lives and their education. Mitigation is not the same as solving a problem, but it’s nonetheless an important strategy.
Ultimately, as Noguera argues, "American policy makers and reformers must be willing to accept the obvious: School reform efforts can’t ignore the effects of poverty on children’s lives or on the performance of schools."

Yet, reformers such as Duncan, Gates, and Rhee along with TFA and KIPP do, ironically, ignore poverty by directly including it in the slogans that toss aside the need to address poverty.

And, thus, here are the foundational ideas that must drive education reform, if our goal is universal public education as a commitment to democracy, autonomy, and empowerment:

• Student learning that is measurable and observable is often misleading, is always complex, and is more fully a reflection of a child's life than of that student's teacher or school quality.

• Thus, the primary and most pressing reform needed to address education is social reform that alleviates poverty, that restores equity to the lives of all Americans, that insures children access to health and eye care, to food security, and to excellent social institutions such as libraries and schools.

• Then, and parallel to social reform, we must reform school and teacher quality. But that direct education reform must not continue to dwell on implementing a national curriculum, increasing testing, intensifying teacher accountability, and pursuing education alternatives (such as charter schools)—all of which offer solutions that misrepresent or miss the root of our educational problems. (Student outcomes are not suffering from a lack of standards, a lack of testing, a lack of teacher quality, or the absence of competition or innovation.)

• That school reform should include raising teacher professionalism through teacher autonomy and scholarship, broadening the curriculum and breathing life into learning as discovery and experimentation, increasing student engagement in learning by shifting the responsibility and choices about learning to the students and to holistic experiences with content, reducing dramatically our dependence on tests/grades and ranking, and shifting the role of government in public education away from direct control of schools to funding only.

• Teaching and learning, as well, must be embraced as a communal and collaborative effort—not a competition and not acts endured in isolation.

Schools narrowly and education broadly must not be reduced to preparing a world-class workforce or the next project for billionaire hobbyists, relentless self-promoters, or lifelong bureaucrats. An education is an essential right of a free people committed to human dignity and the promise of democracy and freedom.

Those of us who advocate for universal public education respect the diversity of humans, including the recognition that the pursuit of excellent education is a process and not a goal to be completed.

Universal public education as a social mechanism for democracy, autonomy, and empowerment is an experiment; it is not a policy, and not something that can be mandated or brought to fruition merely by a slogan, and it must not any longer be a political football for badgering each student to "paddle your own canoe."


Vonnegut, K. (1976). Slapstick or lonesome no more!. New York: Delta.


Stephen Krashen at Schools Matter

Susan Ohanian

Diane Ravitch

Adam Bessie at The Daily Censored

Joe Bower

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