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

Friday, May 11, 2012

Janus: God of Politics?

Janus, of Roman mythology, is the source for the first month of the calendar year, January. But Janus is also a two-faced god, thus developing a negative connotation with hypocrisy and deception.

In 2012, and notably in the context of the education reform debate, Janus would rightly be the god of politics. Throughout President Obama's term as president, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has personified the two-faced political leadership that plagues education policy. While Duncan couches his speeches in the discourse of civil rights, laments the focus on high-stakes testing, and pronounces teachers the most important element in the learning of students, Duncan simultaneously promotes policies that increase social and educational inequity (charter schools), coerces increasing the frequency and high-stakes power of testing (Common Core State Standards, value-added methods of teacher evaluations), and perpetuates directly and indirectly de-professionalizing and demonizing teachers (Teach for America).

Duncan's two-faced strategy for using public appeal to mask his bully politics also includes a central caution in the political leadership guiding education policy: a lack of experience or expertise related to education.

This federal double tragedy of educational leadership—the two-faced leadership by the inexpert—is also characteristic of state-level educational leadership.

Janus-faced Leadership and Education Reform

Like Duncan, State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais (South Carolina) has no K-12 experience or degrees. Zais's background is in the military and he holds advanced degrees in social psychology and organizational behavior. Yet, he sits in the primary educational leadership position in SC under a fellow-republican governor—both of whom have financial and political support from school choice advocates, charter advocates, and the usual laundry list of neo-conservative education agendas.

Also similar to Duncan, Zais receives virtually free passes from the media, allowing the Janus-faced patterns to continue. Consider "State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais: Schools need more flexibility, fewer regulations."

In this Post and Courier (Charleston SC) news story, the leading paragraphs pose a picture of Zais that is powerful and compelling:
"State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais sees too many state and federal regulations limiting local educators’ decision-making ability and stifling their creativity. 
"He wants to give more control to local schools, and he’s told the state’s district superintendents to let them know if there’s a policy getting in their way. 
"'You can’t legislate flexibility or innovation,' he said Thursday in an interview with The Post and Courier. 'You only can remove the barriers. What I want to do is remove the barriers.'"
Further, Zais's suport of charter schools is couched in that "he disagrees with the traditional one-size-fits-all model of delivering education." And "[h]is No. 2 legislative priority involves protecting teachers and administrators from the threat of frivolous lawsuits related to their intervention in school incidents."

Throughout the news article, none of Zais's claims or connections are challenged, however, and not a single claim is placed into any context—such as the policies he has promoted. At the end, however, a small crack appears for those willing to see it:

"He said those visits have shown him that schools are like people in that they’re all different. It’s also reaffirmed his belief that poor kids can learn, he said. 
"'The difference between high-poverty schools doing well and high-poverty schools not meeting the needs of children is not the demographics of children or the education level of their parents,' he said. 'The difference is the competence of adults in that system,' from the school board on down to teachers."
Zais espouses the "no excuses" ideology driving federal and state education reform. But making statements such as "poor kids can learn" implies that some people reject that poor children can learn. Then, if we read carefully, Zais's next comment targets who those non-believers are—"'adults in that system,' from the school board on down to teachers."

And there you have it.

From Duncan to Zais all across the U.S., the public is being bombarded by coded Janus-language: poverty doesn't matter in the education of children if only the teachers would do their jobs.

Again, this message is coming from leaders who have never taught a single day in their professional lives, careers primarily in contexts that have almost nothing in common with teaching and learning: political appointments, the military, life-long politics, business.

The public and media, then, must start challenging the discourse and measuring the policies against the evidence.

If teacher quality and professionalism are the most important factor in our education system, then supporting TFA (uncertified and inexperienced recruits) fails to match that need.

If poverty doesn't matter in educational outcomes, then the "no excuses" advocates shoulder the burden of evidence to support that claim, including an explanation of how children's lives outside of school can magically be set aside by simply walking through the doors of a school, including an explanation of how not a single "miracle" school has proven (once examined) to be miraculous, including explaining the logic behind how to close an achievement gap through the school only without denying middle-class and affluent students the same experiences as children in poverty, and including some careful explanation why we don't ask the medical profession to close the health gap between the poor and the affluent simply by having their patients walk through the doors of their offices and hospitals.

If autonomy is what our schools need, then the "no excuses" advocates need to explain why increasing mandates for the public schools while increasing the commitments to charter schools does anything other that increase the lack of competition since public and charter schools are functioning under different rules, rendering any comparison useless.

Not a single claim or policy being promoted by the "no excuses" leaders is supported by evidence, logic, or the experiences and expertise of educators.

"No excuses" leaders are functioning entirely on Janus-faced discourse that masks flawed policies beneath compelling and misleading claims.

Currently, Zais, who holds two advanced degrees, is calling for changing teacher pay scales to drop, in part, raises for advanced degrees; his argument is that advanced degrees aren't correlated with increased student achievement.

Yet, Zais is also promoting increasing charter schools (not associated with increased student achievement) and merit pay (not associated with increased student achievement).

This is Janus politics at its worse.

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