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Thompson: Remembering "The Promised Land," Then & Now

LemannI've already shattered my New Year's resolution, which was to pay less attention to education topics of the day and reflect more on big picture issues, such as what does the failure of data-driven school reform mean, and what are its lessons for the inevitable next cycle of school improvement.  But every day brings fascinating new research and political stories, such as  Michelle McNeil's Success for All Again Wins Big, and Loses, in I3 Competition. And now I find myself replying to Alexander Russo's posts from last week.

Russo cites two great journalists, LynNell Hancock and Nicholas Lemann, and he calls on education writers  "to remind yourself about what it takes to examine education issues fairly and dispassionately, with nuance and complexity and prepared to have your mind changed." He then says that "there's far too little of that going on right now," implying both sides of the education wars betray the conventions of scholarly research.

I followed Russo's links and found no evidence for such equivalency. Hancock's Uncommon Ground recalls Anthony Lukas' masterpiece, Common Ground, on racial violence in Boston. Both Hancock and Lukas challenge the simplistic assumptions of a "naive time," and wrestle with the great horror that can be released by racial conflict.  Hancock describes the cavalier attitude of school reformers toward this history, "National school-reform notions from our last decade still wrap themselves in the rhetoric of civil rights. ... The preferred means to the end are now top-down management tools: rating teachers, adding layers of tests, closing failing schools, creating a scattershot collection of privately-run public charters in their stead."

Similarly, Lemann's Schoolwork  criticizes reformers who portray "the reliable villain, in the form of the teachers’ unions, and a familiar set of heroes," including Geoffrey Canada, Wendy Kopp, and Michelle Rhee. Lemann criticizes the way that reformers (who. I believe, borrow from Karl Rove, whose methods he had previously explored) take details out of context to fit their neat story lines. He challenges their "unproven assumptions" that tenure hurts students and he cites the potential of more conventional approaches, such as Success for All, that show it is not necessary to blow up the system.

Thinking about Lemann reminds me of The Promised Land, and seeing Lemann in action twenty-something years ago. 

The test-driven school reform movement is notoriously unconcerned with education history and dismissive of social science.  It has been reckless in playing the "race card" against educators who have different opinions regarding the best methods to close the racial and economic achievement gap. Russo is correct that both sides can be intemperate in their language, but that does not mean the so-called reformers and their opponents have been comparably thoughtful in using evidence regarding the substance of complex issues.

Twenty-something years ago, I attended an academic conference where historians lambasted a youngish journalist, Nicholas Lemann, for having the temerity to venture into our turf.  Lemann would be discussing his new book, The Promised Land. Then and now, I admired Lemann's account of urban poverty.  I was dismayed by the rudeness of academics who seemed obsessed with the fact that Lemann was not one of us.  I was equally impressed by his grace.

On the other hand, historians were defending their turf, not venturing into journalism and making a snap judgment that it should be destroyed (as accountability-driven reformers have since done to the educational "status quo.") We were trying, in fits and starts, to extricate ourselves from the era of "history with the people left out." We might have been overly defensive, but historians listened to outsiders like Lemann and Lukas. We incorporated their vivid personal stories into the old-fashioned historical method.  Today's historians now combine scholarly precision with the narrative styles of those great journalists. In other words, our traditional respect for debate, even when it was overly agressive, worked to the benefit of academia and students.

And, that is the lesson for the next generation of school reformers.  The way to help poor children of color is not to blow up the conventions of educational discourse.  We must create public schools where all children can benefit from the clash of ideas. It would be nice if we could also tone down the political rhetoric, but that is another issue.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.     

 

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Russo's tactic is called "false equivalence" in the world of media criticism (Lemann's and Hancock's world).

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