Reform Rhetoric

 Most of the reform proposals start with statements of concerns about accountability, incompetent teachers, low student performance and assumptions that education and teacher education are broken and need to be fixed. More insidiously, they suggest that unions and teachers only care about themselves, not the children, and are the cause of our problems. They then launch into lofty language about how they care about the welfare of our children and nation and that their reforms will improve education. It is often a benevolent, yet paternalistic tone and approach: they care about the welfare of our students and our country and want to give them the educational rights and opportunities they deserve.


It is sometimes suggested that reforms are needed because educators are incompetent, unconcerned, lazy and/or protective of their turf and self-interests. I challenge this language and these assumptions. Within the given constraints and contexts, it is my experience that teachers, education and teacher education are generally doing a good job. I believe portraying educators as deficient and public education as failed is wrong and destructive.


The reform rhetoric often includes statements of how we are the wealthiest and greatest nation on earth, but because of inferior education we are losing our competitive edge and first place status. The need for education to prepare us for economic superiority and global competition are familiar refrains both in state and national reform policy statements. National examples of these themes can be found in reform proposals from before Sputnik to A Nation at Risk to the current No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top legislation.


I would like to briefly consider A Nation at Risk, which was released in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education as an example. This reform document is well known and recent enough to relate and be relevant to current policy proposals, but long enough ago to be examined within some historical context. The dramatic rhetoric in this policy statement is still echoed and influential in today’s thinking and reform agendas. The title itself suggests that the failure of schools and education had put our “nation at risk”.


Like today, it was a time of economic hardships and recession with similar problems caused by corruption and mismanagement in several institutions. Like today, instead of blaming bad political and financial decisions for the problems, bad schools were made the scapegoat for us “committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament” (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983, p. 1).


Unlike today, we can look at what happened after that proposal. Those unprepared children in those failed schools went on to make a mockery of that statement in that the nation and its economy became the most productive in the world in the next sixteen years,  long before any of their proposed reforms could be imposed. Interestingly, while America was in this time of unprecedented prosperity and growth, no statement was made in praise of the schools and their contribution to building up the nation and its economy. In addition, the rhetoric of A Nation at Risk did not lose it power over the people and lives on in today’s mythology of failed schools (Covaleskie, 2011).


These educational reform documents so much conform to our myth of education as the solvers of individual and societal problems and determiners of national wealth and well-being that most people do not even question the logic. Other common themes are that U. S. students do not perform well in international tests, that our schools and teachers have not lived up to present-day needs or have failed us, and, that education costs too much. All of these concerns set the stage for defunding education and imposing rules and regulations on it that rob it of its dignity and power. I will examine more closely later in this blog the state reform rhetoric and policy of Michigan Governor Snyder’s Education Reform of 2011.


About rodclarken

Dr. Rodney H Clarken is professor emeritus, School of Education, Northern Michigan University.
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