Our unhealthy obsession with education

I confess I’m really not that interested in education policy, per se.

That said, one needn’t be an expert to scoff at a legislatively forced reorganization of a local school district when the process was spearheaded by an aspiring career politician obsessed with getting into Donald Trump’s Republican Congress, and then guided by him and a former casino executive whose good fortune stems in no small part from the bad fortune of area video poker addicts.

But even within that reorganization process, and in other less scoff-worthy initiatives, there are many public-spirited people committed to finding and implementing state-of-the-art ways to improve education in Nevada. Those people are interested in education policy, per se, and work hard to do what they think will make it better, and for that they deserve respect.

I, by comparison, am not up to date with whatever is trending in education policy. In fact, I suspect I’ve only slightly more familiarity with the proficiency vs. growth debate than Betsy DeVos.

But again, I’m really not that interested in education policy, per se, because I find education policy tends to address a symptom and not the cause. Education policy is important. It can also be an unhealthy distraction.

Ongoing education stories in Nevada include but are not limited to: the effort to “weigh” funding to account for additional needs of specific students;  the state’s attempt to hand certain public schools over to private charter school firms; the (still mostly ignored) explosive growth of the charter industry generally; the aforementioned state-forced reorganization of the local school district; and the voucher scheme. Charters and vouchers are fundamentally driven by market ideology (“choice”) and its accompanying hostility to organized labor, the latter also an undercurrent in district reorganization. Of course nearly every education issue in Nevada is debated on the rarely challenged premise that the public school system is “failing” to prepare Nevada students for … drumroll please … the exciting jobs of tomorrow.

Given Nevada’s long-held commitment and fervent dedication to being one of the most stingy states in the nation when it comes to funding education, it is hard not be to sympathetic to the charge that if public education has failed, it was “failed on purpose” by those who would like to outsource schools to the private sector and crush unions in the process.

But even if you buy the findings of the for-profit testing-industrial complex (itself often financially affiliated with other tendrils of the school “reform” industry) on which public school critics rely while bashing unions and pushing the proliferation of public school outsourcing, is it really public education that has failed?

For decades, studies, and more studies, and still more studies have confirmed the obvious: No factors more consistently and reliably predict a student’s educational success than the income, occupation and education level of the student’s parents or guardians; that is, the student’s socioeconomic status.

Or as respected researcher David C. Berliner (who does care about education policy, per se) put it:

As educators and scholars we continually talk about school reform as if it must take place inside the schools. We advocate, for the most part, for adequacy in funding, high quality teachers, professional development, greater subject matter preparation, cooperative learning, technologically enhanced instruction, community involvement, and lots of other ideas and methods I also promote. Some of the most lauded of our school reform programs in our most distressed schools do show some success, but success often means bringing the students who are at the 20th percentile in reading and mathematics skills up to the 30th percentile in those skills. Statistical significance and a respectable effect size for a school reform effort is certainly worthy of our admiration, but it just doesn’t get as much accomplished as needs to be done.

Perhaps we are not doing well enough because our vision of school reform is impoverished. It is impoverished because of our collective views about the proper and improper roles of government in ameliorating the problems that confront us in our schools; our beliefs about the ways in which a market economy is supposed to work; our concerns about what constitutes appropriate tax rates for the nation; our religious views about the elect and the damned; our peculiar American ethos of individualism; and our almost absurd belief that schooling is the cure for whatever ails society. These well-entrenched views that we have as a people makes helping the poor seem like some kind of communist or atheistic plot, and it makes one an apostate in reference to the myth about the power of the public schools to affect change.

Nevada education “reformers,” particularly influential ones who have ties to or are products of Teach for America, push “choice” as a means of providing opportunity to everyone, not just the wealthy. It is one of their strongest arguments. It is a calculated strategy, a branding tactic, that echoes national school choice leaders’ frequent claim that “choice” is “the civil rights movement of our time.”

They are also very fond of saying every student can succeed, that “poverty is not an excuse.”

And those same advocates, both in Nevada and nationwide, along with their allies in government, are also adamant that there must be accountability.

I won’t reiterate Nevada’s socioeconomic realities – one fourth of workers making on average $10.86 an hour, etc. A lot of it is included in the piece I published on evictions the other day. Nor will I belabor the reality that the most common jobs of tomorrow will be like the most common jobs of today – low-paying, low-quality and precarious as hell. The point is this: The factor that most influences educational outcome is not education policy, but socioeconomic status. The ever-cheery TFA kids are right: Poverty is not an excuse for poor educational performance. It is a cause. The leading one, in fact. Sort of the 800-pound gorilla of causes. Want to debate whether public schools have failed? Fine. Go for it.  But there is no doubt that market economics have failed to provide working families with decent incomes.

So the question for education reformers is: Who do we hold accountable for that?

Meantime, if Nevada genuinely wants to start ameliorating the core issue responsible for poor educational performance, Nevada could, hmm, let’s see … raise the minimum wage, enact mandated sick pay, curb flex labor abuses, create affordable but well-paying, quality systems of child and elder care, expand public housing programs, expand public transportation programs, reform a justice system that hits the poor hardest, provide low-income people with financial service alternatives to predatory payday/title loan shops, and help Nevada families refinance student loans. For starters.