How interesting–and ironic–that in the postmodern age that purports celebration of difference, we have instituted the perfect contrivance of homogenized sameness: No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Also ironic is the grim fact that NCLB–the one-size-fits-all, putative leveling tool of the disparate poor and affluent educational playing fields–has merely ended in ghettoizing the most vulnerable children in failing, war-torn schools, hemorrhaging with the bloodied and shell-shocked teachers who’ve seen one too many tours of duty. And, in yet another bitter irony, America’s first black president, along with many other minority leaders, can’t seem to find his voice on this critical matter–even as angry teachers spill into the streets, protesting its manifest social injustices. While one can hardly fault minority leaders for feeling desperation—yes, the sky IS falling–such desperation ALWAYS misses the subtext, the fine print if you will. Perhaps the kindest thing I can say about NCLB is that desperation drove us to it; however, only level-headed policy development will get us out of it. But first there must be open acknowledgement of what NCLB is, but pretends not to be.
Behind the text of No Child Left Behind lurks the conservative fear of unscripted teachers, spreading the godless good news of Renaissance Humanism, that cornerstone of Western thought and culture from whence such godless, human-centered ideas like democracy—and public education—were born. Eventually, the silencing of teachers was conflated with the silencing of public education itself, godless tool of a godless state that it is.
Beware! As NCLB scripts away teachers’ dangerous individuality (yet another godless construct of the Renaissance, Humanist, and Enlightenment continuum) with forced compliance to homogenized, test-driven curricula, don’t miss the fact that it desires nothing less than the quantification, exposure, and politicization of public education’s empirical failure. How brilliant is the use of the empirical data championed by the Enlightenment to silence one of the most egalitarian extensions of the Enlightenment—public education? This NCLB-expedited failure is good news to conservatives, excited as they must be to witness the final death throes of that nasty proponent of freethinking, public education. Simply fill the gaping void with private, parochial-school recipients of public tax dollars and, voila—the playing field has finally been leveled! Or is that flat lined? All but an elite few can now be factored into the fastest growing lowest common denominator in American history: brainless, anti-science ideologues and/or clueless pregnant teens bearing the sacred seed of a fearless leader on a Waco compound. Paging Janet Reno. Janet…Reno. However, without intervention from Janet Reno and her National Guard, what are we to do?
Bad news! Barring some epiphany on the part of our ruling class (and/or a sudden aptitude for predicting basic cause-and-effect reality), the desired end is in sight: privatization of the public domain. Will privatization herald in a new age of postmodern celebration of difference and radical otherness? Hardly! More like a reversion to pre-modern, divine right of the new kings in town: big business and the religious right. Spanish Inquisition – 1; Galileo – 0. Remember, it is NEVER EVER about the children. It’s ALWAYS about the pre-modern ideologies with which the children must be indoctrinated! The Enlightenment’s call to arms is inverted in this anti-democratic revolution of our new Corporate and Christian Kings: “Back on with their heads! Le jour de gloire est reversez!”
And while one has to appreciate the sheer brilliance of employing empirical, data-driven teaching to destroy the empirical, data-driven Enlightenment ideology itself—or what some of us like to call the foundation of Western thought and culture–one might be tempted to predict yet another ironic reversal.
It turns out that few of the best private schools feel all that compelled to script teachers in the ways NCLB has, opting instead to give educators an individual buy in, a personal investment, a stock option—to use the language of our new corporate bosses. The most successful (and costly) college-prep, private schools—as distinct from jack-leg private schools anxious over the doings of Al Gore and Jane Fonda–encourage educators to personally invest in their teaching in much the same way colleges do: by granting creative license to write and implement curriculum grounded in advanced degrees attained in their subject areas.
Those of us laboring away in public schools, where people with degrees in educational leadership are leading other people with degrees in educational leadership, find this private-school teacher empowerment intriguing. In fact, academic independence, a freedom that values the creative intellectual inquiry of well-educated teachers, goes a long way toward explaining why many public-school teachers, with actual advanced degrees in their subject areas, take the inevitable cut in pay and benefits to teach in private institutions. Little wonder these schools produce some of the freest and most creative intellects our nation has to offer. Their product is qualitatively different from the NCLB test-driven, public-school puppy mills. And I’d willingly celebrate this difference if 99% of our nation’s youth were not ALWAYS and FOREVER excluded from it by virtue of its expense. Sorry, but meanwhile, back on planet Earth, we’re still faced with fixing public education.
That’s right. Were it not for pesky issues of exclusivity, pseudo-science and control of women’s bodies, I’d be first in line for the party celebrating all the difference my redistributed voucher tax dollars could buy. However, I prefer to direct my tax dollars towards Enlightenment-based education, grounded in rigorous questioning of everything… including the value of the Enlightenment, itself. Thanks to just such rigorous questioning, many have discerned the dreaded clues of its opposite beneath the text of NCLB: the tired old sameness of one nation, under God, with religious indoctrination and anti-science prejudice for all. Let’s all pause for our moment of silencing…of public education.
So, is it ironic or intentional that America, seemingly terrified of encounters with un-homogenized classroom space, has created the conditions for insuring that this is ALL children will have available in the very near future? Let me resolve this conundrum for you. The proliferation of private educational space will not usher in a glorious, postmodern age, celebrating diversity of intellect and idea but, rather, an increased policing of difference through the unifying and homogenizing forces of pre-modern paternalism, non-critical God-‘n-country patriotism, Phyllis-Schlafly feminism, and Pat-Robertson Christianity. No thanks. Celebration of difference is what Reality TV is for, stupid. I’ll stick to my private celebrations of difference, like watching NatGeo’s The Hutterites, Breaking Amish, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, or Real Housewives of Utterly Commoditized, Bourgeois-Prostitute County.
I certainly WILL NOT be celebrating sheep-fleeced difference, disguising the
conservative wolf’s anti-intellectual, anti-science and anti-women crusade. Oh, and to those of the religious right who hope to further these crusades with the help of my tax dollars, listen carefully: OVER… MY… DEAD… BODY! Like the Enlightenment ideologues of old, who separated church from state for just such occasions as this, I remain vigilant of the other ideologues–in particular, ones seeking representation without church taxation. To those already wallowing in the seminal primacy of everything founding father, I simply say love it or leave it: love our Enlightenment heritage or find a new place to worship your God…without the help of my money! (Oh yeah…and words cannot capture how much I love commandeering the worn out expression “love it or leave it,” reviving and appropriating it to the Humanist argument where it has always belonged–as opposed leaving it to the back of a Certified Civil War Re-enactor’s truck somewhere near Bomb Hanoi, Jane Fonda is a Commie, and I’d Rather be Shooting Yankees.)
What repressive social and political environment terrified Americans into adopting such a repressive national education policy? Well… let’s see. What is lost as students are mercilessly drilled for multiple-choice, standardized tests with practice multiple-choice worksheets? If you answered “trees,” you are only partially correct. Clearly, what America fears most are intellectual teachers, namely the ones who recklessly veer from so-called objective, worksheet knowledge into subjective and potentially godless labyrinths of critical thinking. But… why now? Couldn’t this massive dumbing down have been achieved…earlier?
Perhaps the recent death of the Cold War accounts for at least some of this escalating war on academic freedom. As history uncovers the massive human and economic waste at the hands of Cold War policy, the religious right becomes increasingly edgy…nervous. As Susan Jacoby writes in her work Freethinkers, any “thorough postmortem” of the Cold War must examine the fact that it was underwritten by the religious right… from its inception. Now, this most effective propaganda machine of the religious right has come under some much needed scrutiny. Suddenly at risk of losing control of writing American history, a task that was much easier during the pre-internet innocence of the 1950’s, the right must act quickly to secure breached borders. Now quaint (except to Mitt Romney) Cold War propaganda–always inadequate to the rational juggernaut of the Enlightenment, pursuing its logical extensions into labor organization and—gasp–European-style Socialism–must be replaced with new forms of social control. The galloping steeds (rational juggernaut steeds) of the Enlightenment must be headed off at the educational pass.
As control of information has become more sophisticated, so must the policies of the right. Forcing children to crouch under desks, fearfully preparing for invisible nuclear threats from the godless, anti-capitalist enemy abroad, seems primitive when one can determine what children know, or don’t know, by simply determining the number of multiple-choice worksheets they will encounter? This number is, of course, a factor of race and class, the poor and marginalized, of course, receiving the most. But let’s call it something other than American anti-intellectualism or greedy capitalism, insuring endless supplies of God-fearing cheap labor; let’s call it something positive like No Child Left Behind. Oh, and we’ll need several hundred thousand people with degrees in educational leadership to implement it. The how having replaced the what of education years ago, plenty should be available.
The history of American anti-intellectualism culminates in, but is not exclusive to our much-celebrated “Maverick” who SEEMS to value individualism in much the same way that NCLB SEEMS to value offering impoverished children a leg up. Mavericks seek to privatize everything because they commit the classic error of most historians: conflation of individualistic capitalism (laissez-faire greed) with Romantic individualism and Humanistic individualism. However, only the latter two are worthy of consideration when designing the framework of a national education policy. If there is anything maverick about the Mavericks, it is that they’ve finally found a seemingly foolproof way to lead the sheep to the slaughterhouse of privatization: NCLB. Suffice it to say, if there is an accelerated disparity between private and public education, it is because of NCLB: yes, the prescribed cure is the disease…and in its advanced stages, no less! And while the disease has certainly metastasized under NCLB, it is a disease that found a friendly host in American anti-intellectual culture long before pseudo-Mavericks took the reins, and maybe even before legendary town jock, Brom Bones, chased that scrawny-assed, public-school teacher out o’ town.
However, as long as the apotheosis of private education is upon us, let’s talk briefly about why it might or might not be deserving of canonization. Just as private school teachers are entrusted with much greater freedom in their creative, intellectual journeys than their NCLB-scripted, public-school counterparts, so, too, are their students. Huge disparities exist between range and creativity of intellect in my public-school educated students and the many private-school students I have known. Quelle surprise! Mass-produced teaching to a test in huge, mega-school warehouses produces different results than Socratic circles on wooded campuses, with distant students oaring slivers of boats in gentle morning mists.
The most alarming disparities are in the form of independent thinking and living, what I call the entrepreneurial sense. While I’ve had plenty of public school students go on to become doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs, I’ve had relatively few go on to orchestrate start-up businesses; and yet I’ve observed this phenomenon time and time again with their private-school counterparts. In all fairness, this may have more to do with the semi-independent living of private school campuses than a difference in instruction. Generally speaking, private schools operate more like college campuses than high-security prisons and, hence, produce autonomous individuals instead of Matrix, slime-pod inhabitants.
Of course, one must temper blanket “scientific” assertions about the benefits of private education with a control for the empowering cultural experiences granted the wealthy and privileged in general, with or without the diploma from Andover. Moreover, it’s all but impossible to conduct controlled experiments in which culturally and economically impoverished children are closely monitored for miraculous academic strides forward upon surprise, pre-dawn vertical insertions into Eaton. However, I am a teacher in an extraordinarily wealthy public school, where the fortuitous children of the Fortune 500 are sent, as if on one of those modern mission-trips for the wealthy, to get a taste of plebian public education before being spirited off to their rightful place in the Ivy League. Hence, I have the unique vantage point for making at least a few noteworthy, albeit scientifically questionable distinctions between this set of culturally enriched students and the equally enriched private student. In a surprising inverse twist on the parent-choice debate, many of my students tell me public school is a parental choice, in this case a choice which has more to do with desired exposure to all-American experiences like football, cheerleading, dance team and drunken senior trips to Aruba than the result of any bitter economic necessity. Hence, comparisons between private and public educational outcomes are only possible because I can dispense with the usual problematic skewing factor of superior cultural enrichment through travel, sailing, skiing, rowing, summer camp, music, theater, musical theater…and designer drugs pilfered from a trophy-stepmom’s medicine cabinet as she vainly attempts to cope with the downside of being a sex slave with a Louis Viton handbag. Both student populations have access to all of the above, plus the upper-class panacea of two, college-educated parents at home–often working in spite of the bountiful trust fund awaiting them upon successfully kissing Grandpa’s ass for forty years. In this rare opportunity to control for cultural enrichment between test populations, subtle yet important differences between the private and public product are discerned.
First, with the exception of George W. Bush, I’ve known relatively few private-school students to run completely amok, becoming drunken, coked-up frat boys by winter of their freshman college year. The ones with half a brain have grasped that if one is to live long enough to come into the huge trust fund, some measure of self-preservation is required. Again, many private-school students learn self-discipline and personal responsibility from early experimentation with semi-independent living…and thinking. Often they’ve been given greater voice in designing core course work and electives—school choice within school choice, so to speak. Even my wealthy public school addresses this need for personal responsibility by providing kids with freedoms I never witnessed in my previous incarnation as Savior Teacher to the inner-city. My wealthy students are given an unusual run of the place, freedoms not possible in behemoth, public-school warehouses, where rigid, high-security protections from the inculcated violence of the streets becomes ironic preparation for the prison life that lies ahead. However, both situations stand in stark contrast with private-school students whose early exposure to self-discipline and personal responsibility spills over into a radical creativity that fosters entrepreneurialism.
Finally, private-school headmasters, as well as the vast majority of private-school teachers, have advanced degrees in something other than educational leadership, most notably in core content subject areas. Imagine if you will, a principal who has earned a PhD in some area of the Humanities and who directs shockingly avant-garde school plays in addition to his administrative duties…and you will have imagined the headmaster of the most prestigious private school in Birmingham. If you’ve ever seen a principal of a public school with that pedigree, I’d love to hear from you. As I discovered upon applying for, and not getting a job at Baylor, many have multiple advanced degrees and move around to different posts… as needed or desired. Fun…and challenging! Because schoolmasters, deans, and private-school professors are usually scholarly academics with PhDs in something other than education, they can more effectively model a lifelong love of learning.
On the other hand, public schools feed from the trough of undergraduate education majors, who, at least back in my day, took fewer courses in their subject area because they had to take classes in things like Educational Measurement and Evaluation—the how notably replacing the what of teaching, explaining the why, in my twenty-five years in public schools, I never once attended a professional-development workshop that explored content. Instead, I moved through endless summer workshops on clickers, beepers, computer programs, and, of course, the ever- popular how to frame student questioning to look more like that of the TEST. In short, as public education flounders around in educational theory and NCLB paperwork, spending ridiculous sums of money on the magic bullet that will solve its myriad problems, private schools gobble up most of the supremely well-educated academics and then make some small effort to get out of their f’in’ way.
Not so for the career-minded public-school servant. His or her rise to the top looks very different from that of the private-school employee. Thus, as Nietzsche might say, unfolds the “human, all-too human” career trajectory of the public high-school principal: the undergraduate degree in education with some sketchy content emphasis in history; five-to-six years in the classroom as the “popular, all-too popular” history teacher; extra-curricular coaching combined with “easy, all-too-easy” night-school degree in Educational Leadership; promotion to vice principal in charge of discipline; promotion to principal; and finally promotion to superintendent. Conversely, the private-school headmaster is a published academic with content mastery in at least one discipline valued highly by Western culture before it crumbled. No accident, then, that public schools focus all of their faculty professional-development time talking about HOW to teach, while private schools seem intent on addressing the ever-challenging WHAT to teach. After all, what else IS there to talk about with a degree in Educational Leadership?
In the end, it’s a sad but interesting commentary on American culture that our most urgent educational concern is how to most efficiently homogenize the space of public education. Instead of insisting that teachers have advanced degrees in their subject area, we opt instead for the mindless scripting of their every word and gesture around tests that determine salary and future employment. In other words, instead of entrusting the future intellects of our youth to actual intellectuals, we’ve chosen the anti-intellectual route of efficiency and homogeneity. We back production over induction. We pass out the multiple-choice workbooks, shape the Socratic circle into a box, bubble it in and shove it through chattering Scantron machines. The Race to the Top is nothing more than a race to the dregs of homogenized sameness. Take a big swig because, hopefully, that well is almost dry.
In the final analysis, all Cold War conspiracy theories left behind, No Child Left Behind may just herald another be-careful-what-you-wish-for moment in the history of American education policy. Would that it were our only instance of failed national education policy due to naïve or wishful thinking…or, more aptly, the inability to follow a bouncing ball to its bitter cause-and-effect end. Education policy, national and local, is full of such moments…perhaps because it’s usually authored by non-teachers with an anti-intellectual axe to grind, terrified that students might encounter teachers who are different, i.e., who can think. Hence, virtually anyone with a high-school diploma believes herself qualified to weigh in on policy decisions affecting teachers and students. In my county system, the local hair dresser on the school board just lowered the educational job requirements and cast the deciding vote for the new non-Ph.D. superintendent; having mastered subject-verb agreement, she knows what it means to be an educated American as well as anyone. Never mind that racism and anti-intellectualism undergirds virtually every decision; damn it, that’s our Ichabod-Crane hating, anti-intellectual heritage! In the zeal to “level the playing field” through uniform, quantifiable, measurable, and excessively-tested standards, No Child Left Behind has left behind our most valuable resource in America—un-homogenized school spaces in which magic happens.