Friday, June 22, 2012

Attacking Education

So, in case you haven't heard, the College Board has started a campaign to make education a focal issue in the upcoming presidential election.  The most visible piece of the campaign is a display of 857 desks on the National Mall representing the "857 students who drop out of high school in the United States every single hour, every single school day, according to the College Board" (NY Times).

They don't seem to be calling for much, specifically.  The website for the campaign,, says that America's schools are falling behind the rest of the world, etc., etc., and asks candidates to provide "real, tangible solutions."

And, so, great.  It seemed pretty harmless, if ineffective, to me.  And the statistic about dropouts seemed rather a random one to choose--I mean, I imagine that dropouts happen for a variety of reasons that are not necessarily correlated to the quality of graduates we are producing, which seems to be their biggest concern. . . . I didn't really think much more about it.

Diane Ravitch, on the contrary, got upset, heaping "shame" on the College Board in her blog.  And I was confused.  Because they are, at least, calling attention to education and asking, though in a vague and round-about way, for less rhetoric, kind of, right?  I understood it was ineffectual, but I didn't get the vitriol. 

I was about to chalk it up to D.R.'s perpetual state of outrage. (Sometimes I wish she'd be more moderate, you know? Arguments lose their effectiveness, and arguers their credibility, when they refuse to honor the positions of the other side to some extent.)  And then, I read the comments.

To start, several readers had expressed the same unexplained anger at the College Board's actions.  Blah blah.  I chalked this up to my being a tourist in a comment community.  I do not have the context to understand unstated (because unnecessary to reiterate) assumptions.  

Eventually, however, the College Board responded, and D.R. replied.  Finally, I started to see her point:  It was that they had called the education system a failure and that kind of rhetoric is unhelpful at least and dangerous and damaging to educators and thereby the education system at worst.  D.R. notes:
"Considering the massive budget cuts and layoffs, considering the challenges that students today live with, considering the negative actions taken by many states towards teachers, it is amazing that our schools do as well as they do.
Nations that want good schools pay for them. I hope that the next College Board advertising campaign will call on the nation’s governors to stop cutting education funding to give tax breaks to corporations."
A reader/commenter added some helpful counter-statistics (with sources! and links!) and a nice sum-up of the argument against the CB:
The facts seem to negate the panic your advertisement and your quote of talking points invites.  
The problem, as it always has been, is poverty, lack of governmental support through tax dollars, austerity budgets, and lack of political will . I wonder if The College Board plans on addressing these issues through you PR campaign? 
I guess I had to have it really laid out for me.  And maybe D.R.'s blog is intended for a closed community and can afford, generally, to resort to short-cuts and things-left-unsaid.  But I wish it didn't.

I tend to agree with most of what she calls for, and there aren't many people championing the need to address poverty as part of education reform.  So I wish she was a bit more careful in her argumentation.  

Also, her argument in the comments addresses the lack in the CB's campaign, rather than an affirmative misstep. ("I hope that the next College Board advertising campaign will call" etc.) Her post would have been more effective had she held off on the vitriol and provided some suggestions in the first place. 

I feel like this is one of the places where the education debate (and many other debates on important issues) goes off the rails.  We polarize unnecessarily.  The College Board's campaign has opened up a space for discussion, implicitly asking what we should really be talking about.  It opened up a space for some of the quieter voices to step in and be heard.

The College Board, whatever else they have done in the past, is now asking for real debate.  Rather than criticizing the decor of the room, or the wording of the invitation (how much longer can I strain this metaphor?), let's get in there and talk.  

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