Paul Thomas: The High Cost of Marketing Educational Crisis
Paul Thomas points out that the panicked reaction to NAEP scores is just one more version of a decades-long cycle of using the educational panic button to sell products. Reposted with permission.
My foundations of American education course serves as an introduction to public education and our education majors, but the course also fulfills a general education requirement.
The class comprises mostly first- and second-year students, and those considering education as a major or career can be most of the class or very few. None the less, virtually all of them are a bit disoriented when we begin the course reading philosophers—Foucault, Deleuze, and Freire specifically.
I invite them to read some relatively brief passages from all three, warn them that reading philosophy is challenging, and then reassure them that we are simply using these ideas to begin our semester-long interrogation of how we have public schools and why.
When 2022 NAEP data were released, I immediately thought about a few things.
First, with the dramatic coverage of math scores dropping (see HERE and HERE), I told a few friends to brace themselves for the inevitable next step. And it took only about one day for my prediction to happen with an ad popping up on Facebook:
In the U.S., notably since the release of A Nation at Risk (see HERE and HERE) in the early 1980s, the easiest thing to predict is that the education market place is going to profit from educational crisis.
This fits into my second thought, which is the current and ongoing “science of reading” crisis that was prompted in 2018 by Emily Hanford, but was significantly boosted by the cries of “reading crisis” after the release of the 2019 NAEP data (see HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE).
Now, I regret to note, math will be the next over-reaction, as the ad above shows now that edu-businesses scramble to add math to their offering for reading—solutions need a problem, and high-stakes testing is a problem machine.
And the big picture thing I thought about was Deleuze, from the reading I have students consider:
We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family….The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. (pp. 3-4, 5)
“Postscript on the Societies of Control,” Giles Deleuze
Deleuze builds to a powerful and prescient warning:
For the school system (emphasis in original): continuous forms of control, and the effect on the school of perpetual training, the corresponding abandonment of all university research, the introduction of the “corporation” at all levels of schooling. (p. 7)
“Postscript on the Societies of Control,” Giles Deleuze
As a key example, many (if not most) teachers of reading in the U.S. now are being told that their university training was useless, and that they need new training in the “science of reading.” And education corporations are lining up to sell schools that training, a story sold with the “science of reading” label (see about LETRS).
Just to be clear, this is not about the failure of teacher certification or about teaching teachers to teach or students to read; this is about profit through perpetual crisis and (re)training.
And here is the disconnect.
While I carefully help students over the course of a semester examine the claimed democratic foundations of public education (well documented in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and key figures in American education such as John Dewey), we quickly uncover that those democratic ideals are often secondary—or even erased—by market commitments.
So here we are in 2022 still riding the wave of accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing that began with A Nation at Risk and built to George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
As early as the 1990s, however, many education scholars warned that this education crisis was manufactured—essentially a political lie that was bolstered by a media frenzy and a market grab.
The education crisis/education market place dynamic has been in full swing for over forty years now, and the ugly truth is that all of the crisis rhetoric used to justify incessant accountability layered onto a constant process of new standards and new tests is, as Berliner and Biddle documented, manufactured, a lie.
As compelling as it is, we simply do not now have a reading crisis; we have never had a reading crisis.
And NAEP 2022 data do not expose a math crisis.
“Crisis” suggests something new, immediate, and pressing to address.
Student learning has been about the same for nearly a century. Some students thrive (mostly correlated with affluence and being white), many students learn in spite of the system, and too many students are neglected or mis-served (correlated strongly with poverty, minoritized race, multi-language learning, and special needs).
Just to swing back to reading, there is no decade (or even year) over the last 80 years that public, media, and political opinions expressed satisfaction in reading achievement; student reading proficiency has always been characterized as failing, and a crisis.
As we creep toward an election, we need to admit a few things.
First, the market and commercialism matter more in the U.S. than democracy or even freedom.
We not only want schools to produce (compliant) workers, but also have turned public education into a crisis-based education market place.
Take a little journey to Education Week‘s web site and note that flurry of ads for the “science of reading,” for example:
And monitor over the coming weeks; you’ll see more and more addressing math.
Since 2018, media has generated millions of clicks with coverage of the “science of reading,” journalists are winning cash awards and receiving huge speaking fees to discuss the “science of reading,” and education corporations are pulling in millions for software, programs, and training labeled the “science of reading.”
Please take just a brief historical overview since the 1980s. Not a single reform has worked, not a single crisis/reform cycle has been deemed a success.
As Deleuze explains, the point of crisis/reform is to remain always in crisis/reform because that cycle creates a market, and for some people, that market generates profit.
But that crisis/reform cycle has a high cost for students, teachers, and society.
The “science of reading” crisis ironically follows just about two decades after the reading crisis identified by the National Reading Panel and at the center of NCLB—which mandated that teachers had to implement only scientifically-based practices (notably in reading).
That failed (apparently) and the current response is to shout (once again) “crisis!” and demand that mandates restrict teaching to the “science of reading.”
Four decades-plus into a crisis/reform hole and we continue to dig.
Part of me feels sorry for what is about to happen to math, and part of me feels really bad that I hope the coming math nonsense will relieve a little pressure from reading.
But mostly, I hate the lies, political, media, and commercial interests that are eager to shout “crisis!” because in the spirit of the good ol’ U.S. of A., there is money to made in all that bullshit.
Did we need NAEP to tell us students aren’t doing well? (The Answer Sheet)
Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading