The Education Reform Debate and Horse Blinders
In the US education reform debate, which is dominated by rhetoric about competition and school choice, it's easy to feel like our policymakers are wearing horse-blinders. As Salon's Michael Lind writes, we know what policies produce strong public education systems in countries like Finland and South Korea, so why do so many US policymakers and education officials chose not to adapt those policies to use here at home?
It's because complicating a debate and undermining long held assumptions has become taboo, Lind says. He calls the phenomenon the "Overton Window." People can only hold so many ideas or frames of reference in their head at any one time thereby limiting the scope of debate. It's why we think that the American education system has been failing and floundering for decades. In truth, it's succeeding wildly for White middle- and upper-class students, who score at the very top of international comparisons. It's our poorest students and our students of color who can't succeed in this education system because they are systematically denied access to the educational resources and opportunities they need to succeed. Unfortunately, that narrative is too complicated, Lind says. "It's cheaper and easier to blame public schools for most or all social problems than it is to solve the problems of poverty, unemployment and broken families."
And our limited tolerance for challenges to that narrative also keeps us from recognizing better solutions. Finland and South Korea get the result they do through more equitable funding for their public schools and better access to high-quality teachers and educational opportunities for all. Figuring out how to adapt and promote those policies here in the US is far more complicated than simply falling back on the narrative that privatization and market choice solve all problems. Pushing the responsibility of educating our children into the private sector lets the rest of us off the hook in the public sector.
"Inasmuch as grants, media attention, etc. depend on staying within the narrow current frame of debate, education experts might endanger their livelihoods by waving their hands and pointing to what actually works elsewhere in the world."
As a result:
"The American conversation about educational reform goes, in effect, like this: 'In order to compete with countries like South Korea and Finland, we should completely ignore what they do in achieving superior education results, and indeed do the opposite. Instead of copying what works abroad, we should remodel our K-12 system along the lines suggested by libertarian theorists at the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, even though no successful foreign country today or in the past has ever based its educational system on anything remotely resembling what those market utopians propose.'"
Read the rest of Lind's column here.