What do the fiscal cliff and Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have in common?
For the answer consider this scenario: An arsonist sets a home on fire, and then risks his life fighting the blaze—but the house eventually succumbs to the flames. The media and the public praise the arsonist a hero, choosing to consider the heroic effort to fight the fire while ignoring that he caused the disaster.
This scenario is not far-fetched and captures exactly the “manufactured crisis” (Berliner & Biddle, 1996) in both the fiscal cliff discourse and CCSS advocacy.
America is trapped in a state of perpetual crisis, and that crisis mentality maintains the public gaze on the self-proclaimed heroic acts of corporate and political leaders without allowing time to consider that the conditions under which Americans live and learn are the result of the decisions of those in power.
“In 2008, 2,947 children and teens died from guns in the United States and 2,793 died in 2009 for a total of 5,740,” details Protect Children Not Guns 2012 (Children’s Defense Fund), “—one child or teen every three hours, eight every day, 55 every week for two years” (p. 2).
Tragedy is often reserved for single catastrophic events, but cumulative loss is no less tragic, particularly when the lives of innocent children and teens are placed in the context of daily violence.
In the early years of my life as a high school English teacher—during the Reagan years—I began my journey to being a critical educator as naive but sincere. One of the first steps into creating a critical classroom included my confronting students about race and class.
When I asked students (in a school sitting in the rural South and high poverty) who they believed was on Welfare, they echoed Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” stereotype (although the population of the school included a significant percentage of rural poor Whites). I then offered them the data, showing that whites were on Welfare at the time in far larger numbers than African Americans. While they tended to argue that wasn’t true, despite the data, I also asked them to unpack the more complicated data—African Americans being disproportionately among Welfare recipients when contextualized by racial ratios in the U.S.
This second step led to what was more disturbing for my students—a process I use to this day. I ask students to identify the percentage of Whites in the U.S., and then the percentage of Whites in the world population.
In the 1980s, the approximate ratios were that about 8 in 10 Americans were White with 1 in 10 being African American. Internationally, Whites accounted for a near reversal of those numbers constituting about 1 in 10 people world-wide.
This data disoriented and even angered students. I recall specifically that one African American young lady in my advanced class became so incensed with me after these lessons that she never recovered. Her offense? Growing up in South Carolina at the time, she had lived in a population far more densely populated by African Americans (SC had about 30% African Americans in those years) than the aggregate of the entire country, and she felt my data was some sort of White man’s intent to marginalize African Americans.
During her tenure as Secretary of Education (2005-2009), Margaret Spellings announced No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was proving to be a success based on a 7 point gain in NAEP reading scores from 1999-2005. The data evidence referenced by Spellings was factual as framed, but when Gerald Bracey and Stephen Krashen dug beneath that broad claim, Spellings’ claim fell apart since the gain occurred entirely between 1999-2002, before any implementation of NCLB had occurred.
Lessons embedded in the false claims based on factual data by Spellings include the need to be skeptical about media and political analyses of data, the danger of assigning causation to any data without careful analysis, and the essentially distorting effect of large data points that blur the nuance of more detailed data.
While many educators and scholars have spent a great deal of time and effort to confront the enormous amount of misleading negative claims about education, little attention has been paid to the dangers of praising school success.
“Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”