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Minnesota 2020 Journal: How Conservatives Create an Ed Crisis

January 28, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Conservatives claim public schools are failing because greedy teachers are failing to teach. It’s a highly emotional, seductively resonant argument that creates both villain and problem. There’s just one problem: it’s false. Conservative policy advocates are manufacturing a crisis, finding failure in a forest of success.

I’ve spent a great deal of my life in and around education. I’ve been a K-12, undergraduate and grad student. My mom is a teacher. My grandmother taught in a one-room school. My sister is a Dean of Students. I have school-aged children. I’ve worked in higher ed. I’m deeply familiar with education’s structure and systems.

Through it all, I’ve learned two essential lessons. First, education is an extremely labor-intensive business with no shortcuts or quick fixes. Second, and this is perhaps the most critical, I know that I don’t know squat about education. What I have, like everyone, is opinion shaped by limited experience. Conservative policy advocates are manipulating our perspectives, purposefully undermining public support for public education.

We are all education experts because we’ve all been to school. We have complex relationships with learning, largely rooted in our student years. I can unhesitatingly identify Walnut Grove High School’s 1977-1981 shortcomings. Yet, time, experience and maturity have given me a considerably nuanced perspective on my student experience, blunting earlier judgments.

Conservative educational policy messaging wants me to feel angry. If I’m angry then I readily lose my balanced perspective, making it easier to assign blame. Angry people don’t think rationally. They’re more likely to lash out in frustration which is conservative policy’s goal. Defunding costly public schools is more easily achieved in anger than in rational calm.

“No new taxes” conservative fiscal policy seeks to minimize the wealthiest Minnesotans’ tax burden while simultaneously permitting public investment’s benefits to accrue to that same population. This is pure greed. It’s a tough pitch to most Minnesotans who’ve traditionally benefitted from public investments in education and community services. Selling the unsellable, conservative policy advocates have mastered the magician’s art of misdirection.

Magicians create illusions, suggesting supernatural reasons for entirely conventional outcomes. The trick works because participant attention is shifted, however briefly, disguising an action. While the performer’s skill is important, the performer’s capacity for creating a compelling narrative is essential. A successful illusion hinges on a compelling story supporting the illusion by misdirecting the audience’s attention.

Conservative public school critics have masterfully positioned the “bad teacher” as the source of every educational shortcoming. It’s a triumph of inductive reasoning. It’s also a fallacy.

Inductive reasoning is the process by which generalized conclusions are drawn from limited specific observations. Too much weight is assigned to too few examples, leading to a false or inaccurate conclusion. Conservative policy advocates use this mechanism to give ineffective teaching greater negative outcome responsibility than the actual numbers merit.

Here’s how this argument works: In my high school, I had a bad teacher. In your high school, you also had a bad teacher. Therefore, all teachers must be bad teachers because you and I, in different times and places, had a bad teacher. This argument overweighs my perception of a bad teacher while minimizing the positive experiences I had with most teachers. By working to maximize a minority experience, conservative policy critics amplify fallacious reasoning. Suddenly, all teachers are reframed as bad teachers when nearly every teacher is, in fact, a good teacher.

In many regards, Minnesota education is a victim of its own success. Reflecting changing, turbulent times, we keep raising our expectations of our schools. We understand, all too well, that the world isn’t standing still. We need our schools to prepare students for a highly competitive, global marketplace future.

Contemplating the conservative attacks on public schools, let me suggest a different interpretive framework, supported by educational outcome data and by anecdote.

Minnesota public education is succeeding brilliantly. In return for a very modest public investment, Minnesota receives a highly productive, impressively capable work force. Minnesota public school students are better, smarter and more prepared than any previous generation of students. Minnesota’s teachers are uniformly the best teachers that Minnesota colleges have ever produced. They do more with fewer resources, in a complex, changing learning environment, than any generation of teachers have ever achieved.

We’ve been tricked into believing that a few problems negate extraordinary achievement. This misdirection highlights the difference between conservative and progressive educational policy. The conservative approach posits failure, finds it, then scapegoates teachers and undermines schools as policy responses. The progressive solution works problems, builds data to support insightful analysis and diligently seeks improved outcomes.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, particularly in education. But, I know a conservative boondoggle when I seek one. The conservative insistence on an educational crisis, combined with regular school funding cuts, creates a wholly predictable outcome: Minnesota schools won’t be able to educate kids for the future before them. Minnesota’s school challenges are real enough. We don’t need manufactured crisis complicating the situation. Only strong public schools will move Minnesota forward. Without a first-rate education, Minnesota will slide backwards, away from prosperity.

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  • Alec says:

    January 28, 2011 at 9:18 am

    Great article. You also have to look at the flip side of our universal 13 apprenticeships in public education. Most, if not all, of the policy makers, curriculum creators, legislators, and especially teachers were successful in their apprenticeships.

    This gives a lot of them the false impression that what worked for them is what works, period. Most of the “reforms” are not reforms at all, but reconfiguring how we taught things 40 years ago in the “good old days”. Disregard that in the good old days they were saying that education was failing too, but it worked for those who are now leaders.

    So, we have reformers who don’t really want reform. They want to change how the human resources office works, but that has little to do with education reform. They want isolated teachers in their isolated classroom kingdoms competing against each other, just like they had in their day.

    Real reform breaks the isolation. Real reform works. It takes time though, and isn’t as flashy as firing an entire staff.

  • Bill says:

    January 28, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    I have said this before in a post to MN2020:

    I am proposing that the problem with “poor performance,” on tests which compare American students to the world, is our culture’s basic goal orientation. 

    American young people have been “taught” that making as much money as you can, as quickly as you can, by whatever method you can, makes life so much easier. When you have money, you can affect everything around you, even if you are not smart.

    Wealthy people can automatically have a certain hierarchical regard and have an elevated platform to speak from.  Their opinions are generally heard before and above the middle class.

    Smart people can also have a certain amount of respect and have their ideas solicited.  This depends, of course, upon who wants smart peoples’ theories about anything.

    It’s really all about the money.  Like star collegiate athletes, most young people will go professional as soon as they can.  “Show ME the money!”  Who cares about test scores?  What do tests have to do with real life anyway?

  • Leslie Hittner says:

    January 29, 2011 at 8:06 am

    Educational policy is crazy. We speak of “educational choice” and we encourage many choice options: magnet schools, charter schools, STEM schools, etc. and then we force the students from these diverse environments through a funnel of rigid “standards” in an attempt to make them all come out looking the same. The result is a rich educational “raw material” at the input end and a boring puree of graduates at the narrow output end. In the intervening mashing process, we lose curiosity, creativity, originality, and rational thinking; but by god they can take a standardized test!

    And strangely, what we fail to do in “conventional” educational environments is prepare our students to become responsible citizens in a democracy. And after many years of that failure we are beginning to reap the results. Citizens do not understand the importance of their votes with national election voting percentages dropping 7-10 percent in the last 50 years. Carrying out the functions of national defense is no longer considered a responsibility or duty of the citizenship. And finally, our politicians enter their careers from extremely polarized belief-based positions and do not understand that the process of legislating is best accomplished by compromise and rational thinking.

    As a society, we are locked in a frenzy of testing for reading and math and science “proficiency,” but we are reading less, calculating less, and fighting over evolution.

  • William Pappas says:

    January 29, 2011 at 8:55 am

    The entire conservative argument is disingenuous.  First, they are not concerned about the under achieving at all.  This growing disparity cuased by the awful reallocation of resources to the wealthy in nearly every phase of our society and manifesting itself in expanding poverty with resulting poor school readiness in lower class neighborhoods should be the primary object of reform.  Instead, conservatives point to this result of the concentration of wealth in the upper class and consequent growth in poverty(widening achievment gap) and invent another cause: poor teachers and their unions.  This allows them to mount an attack on teacher salaries as too high.  It enables them to demonize unions as the force behind it.  This was necessary for conservatives to advance their completely illogical argument that reducing teacher training, education and eliminating licensure while supplying alternative pathways to teaching would vastly improve the teaching profession.  By reducing training and qualifications salaries could more easily be reduced as well.  Without a college degree requirement and the accompannying debt it carries starting teacher salaries could be lowered below the poverty level, making tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy (lost revenue for schools) just that much easier to enact.  John, you deconstruct the way they went about it well.  But as usual facts get in the way of conservative’s arguments while Minnesota’s K-12 education system speaks for itself in producing college ready graduates.  These college ready graduates are the envy of most every other state in the country.  Unfortunately, led by Pawlenty, conservatives have failed to mention this for eight years.  That is unforgivable!  As an ambassador for business growth Pawlenty has been atrocious.  Our greatest asset, our work force, has been sacrificed for political ideology and misguided policy bullet points.  Can anyone forget Sherry Yoecke, Pawlenty’s first Education Commissioner, who attempted to dumb down and politicize grade content while inserting religion into the schools and emulating the educational systems of Louisiana and Alabama.  That was conservative logic at work.  She left in disgrace.  We can’t allow our efforts to improve our schools as well as reduce the achievment gap to be directed by politics and ideology.  It has to be fact based and proven successful.

  • Bill Graham says:

    February 1, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Teachers work harder and apply more skill to their jobs than a great many public servants.  The wrong questions are being asked as we try to analyze reasons for the school achievement gap.  No other group knows as much as do classroom teachers about what’s right and wrong with our schools. Given the prevailing top-down style of school management, however, teachers too often are left out of public discussions of school reform.  Teacher organizations have not insisted that teachers be brought into these discussions.  By standing on the sidelines of the issue, teachers have been made the butt of public frustration and the lies of conservative politicians.

    We may be losing our public schools.  Teachers should insist on having their voices heard in the public forum.  If they don’t, the far right will succeed in destroying public education.

    Bill Graham
    Burnsville, MN

  • Lyelle Palmer, Ph.D. says:

    February 3, 2011 at 11:06 am

        Since teachers and unions contribute mostly to the democrats (often the largest contributing group), teachers are targeted through demonizing.  This strategy is intended to generate opposition that already boils under the surface in local discussions since many families are paying for both private/ parochial school tuitions AND pay taxes to support the public schools.  Most of us have experienced a bad or disappointing educational experience or
    teacher.  This one bad experience festers over time, overpowering the many good memories (just the way the mind works).
        The greatest irony of education is that teachers, amidst a constant flow of needy children, underfunding and various crises, personally subsidize the system through heroic contributions of time, money and effort focused on the students. Nobody enters an educational profession for the money.  Teachers subsidize our 10,000 school systems, but not for the money.  The teachers are not the problem, except that they create an illusion that their local system works.
    Teacher pay is not a major problem; but poverty is dismayingly persistent and increasing (N.B.: We ain’t seen nothin’yet!). 
        Please go to elementary schools and see the undernourished and hungry pupils surviving on school breakfasts and lunches.  Teachers sometimes place food in pupil backpacks for weekends with vacant pantries.  Talk to teachers and administrators, then talk with school board members to discover what makes up their personal agendas. 
        Public school systems deal with the 80% of pupils left in the population after the students in home schooling, private and parochial schools have gone.  Think about the service this 20% gifts to state taxpayers (reducing the state per-pupil contribution by 20%).  The remaining public-school population thus contains a larger proportion of students with special needs. 
        The John Birch Society clone think tanks have one agenda, and that is to create distrust, opposition, and votes by publishing highly-biased white papers, articles and books using selective evidence to support viewpoints that are surprisingly un-American (upper crust advantage, punish/exploit the poor, corporate welfare, nutrient-deficient factory foods, environmental disregard, and traditional American distrust of eggheads (teachers, professors, scientists, etc).
        The No Child Left Behind act was the crowning achievement of the effort to arouse opposition.  The rising annual formula for meeting annual progress standards was a recipe for forcing every school in the nation to fail eventually.
    We have the opportunity in the revised bill to assure that the NCLB testing makes a positive difference.  A bad system can be made to work, and a good system can be made to fail.  We get to choose, but local citizens must be truly informed and engaged in discussion.

  • Alec says:

    February 3, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    Yeah, I loved how Arne Duncan visited the state with Kline. They were so concerned about our achievement gap. Our underprivileged students were high on their priority list. Our poor kids were so important to them that they visited a school in, ..... Lakeville.