The Pomp and Pageantry of Public Education
Facing the upcoming school year with some trepidation, I reflect on the pomp and pageantry surrounding our return and public education’s abysmal record of failure.
The Great Show
In synchronicity, they will stand and erupt in the thunderous applause of approval. Having just offered up some vapid educational platitude like a slab of meat to a pack of wolves, an over-credentialed man in a two-thousand dollar suit will bow his head and pace the stage. He will then circle back to the pulpit and offer several words of thanks before commanding his parishioners to return to their seats. As they are seated, some will invariably dab the corners of their eyes with a tissue. Like a scene out of Pyongyang, the hours-long revelry will continue with flags waving, singing children, ingratiating applause, and an outpouring of emotion.
What is this most monumental of occasions I describe? While you may be forgiven for thinking it a Pentecostal revival, it is, in actuality, the first day of school. But for whom, you ask? Why the institute of public education, of course! A day quite literally referred to by my district as an “institute day,”; one in which all district personnel gathers to celebrate themselves and their institution. It is a time when the spiritual vacuum of secular hearts is filled through euphemistic language describing teaching as a “calling” or the day-to-day professional responsibilities of teaching as “the work.”
These days are part of what I refer to as the pomp and pageantry of public education: celebratory spectacles designed to legitimize these failing institutions in the eyes of her servants. These events, however, are just one part of what maintains the illusion. The other spectacles are primarily designed for public consumption; the smoke and mirrors that obfuscate the public’s understanding of what transpires within their schools. To my dismay, I have concluded that public education is nothing more than one giant facade under which teachers, students, and parents have been hypnotized.
Public Education’s Abysmal Failures
My cynicism is not unwarranted, for if one is to judge public education by the standard for which it exists, it is by and large a failure. With an estimated 82% of schools failing to meet rudimentary targets for achievement, even the educational papacy has expressed signs of disbelief. It is only through misdirection and magic that this institution has survived the wrath of the public. Which, by the way, is its primary goal: survival. “Students first” is an empty platitude. What the institution truly puts first is itself, and nowhere is this more evident in how the school year begins: in celebratory self-affirmation.
For example, take my school district, which continues to celebrate “record-high graduation rates” (77%) while achieving a student proficiency rate of 11% in reading and mathematics. What could other words besides ‘failure’ be used to describe a district that spends an annual per-student rate of $15,468 while failing in its most essential function? Is there any industry that could survive spending a quarter of a billion dollars annually on a service that is only 11% successful? No. Only a bloated public institution propped up by taxpayers and upheld through institutional faith could accomplish this.
Will these realities be reflected in our opening ceremonies? Unlikely. While the district may speak in euphemistic language about growth, every word will be institutionally affirming. Despite a lengthy record of evidence to the contrary, there will not be a single utterance of doubt over the institution’s ability to accomplish its task. On the contrary, we will be told how our fantastic school and her chosen servants are specially tasked with “the work” that lies ahead; delusions mirroring our insecurities.
At one particular beginning-of-the-year ceremony, a spokesman for the district proclaimed, “we are the BEST school in this county!” Now, to understand the significance of this statement, one needs some context. I teach in an incredibly diverse county, home to some of the top and worst-rated schools in Illinois. While not the worst in the state, our district is a contender. So, to make such a statement is such a bold lie that it borders on the pathological. It is, however, indicative of what has happened in schools such as mine. We have socially constructed a new reality that controls one’s thoughts, which influences our speech, behavior, and so forth.
Newspeak in Public Education
To construct a reality that supplanted what teachers experientially knew required a new language. Truth; its first casualty. By intentionally creating an educational newspeak- propagandist language that is ambiguous and euphemistic- the minders of public education have limited our ability to describe reality accurately. By socially policing adherence to this newspeak, they have prevented detractors from using the institutionally threatening- but appropriate- descriptors of reality that risk awakening the public ire.
Most teachers would agree that attendance incentives and grade inflation are some of the most significant pressures of the job. Many schools have resigned themselves that controlling standardized assessment data is a complex, nigh impossible endeavor. Grading data to the contrary can be influenced through the careful exertion of administrative pressure. Ironically, what gets taught in a classroom and how it gets taught- i.e., student learning- has almost become an afterthought, save when quantified and put on parade.
The result of administrative effort to produce “results,” no matter the cost, is grade inflation. Of how grades have been inflated, the most legitimate has been through a practice known as “equitable grading.” Like most educational jargon, what the phrase means is dependent upon who you ask. Still, it generally is argued to be a more fair, objective, and reliable way of assessing and recording student achievement. In theory, this is admirable, but the prescription for “equitable grading” is often nothing more than numerical sorcery.
For example, one “equitable grading” practice involves the “elimination of barriers to achievement” by not “overly penalizing” credit to students that do not turn in an assignment. If this sounds a lot like providing half-credit for nothing, that is because it is, in fact, just that. Grades are thus recalculated so that positive outcomes are more statistically significant. Under this model, an ‘F’ becomes a ‘C’ without any material changes in student behavior or achievement. Despite the claim that this approach has provided a more accurate snapshot of a student’s achievement, it is inconsequential to genuinely objective achievement measures such as those captured by standardized testing. A change without change, if you will.
There are many other hypotheses on making grading more “equitable,” such as the idea that learning and assessment should reflect students’ cultural frame of reference (culturally relevant pedagogy). Or the debunked theory that students possess dominant learning styles requiring “alternative assessments” that measure achievement in alignment with their learning style. I believe that these hypotheses have encouraged teachers to use their classrooms as poorly constructed laboratories in which students are used as guinea pigs to their academic detriment. I have met far too many teachers using “alternative assessments” that allow students to create a ‘rap’ or picture demonstrating their understanding in place of a test or essay.
Thankfully, there have been a substantial number of teachers willing to resist this pedagogical snake oil. Unfortunately, it has not been well received. When those not entirely ready to sacrifice their craft to satiate their school’s appetite for institutionally affirming data have resisted, more coercive efforts have been required. Those efforts are often nothing more than crude attempts to pressure teachers to produce higher grades. Of course, the administration cannot directly tell teachers to turn ‘F’s’ into ‘C’s’; that’s where newspeak is of utility. Through the use of carefully crafted language, principals can communicate the message of “pass more students, or you will be negatively evaluated and fired” in a professionally palatable way.
In all my years of teaching, it was one of the most dismal and desperate attempts at falsifying “achievement” data, and it likely destroyed the morale of a great many good teachers. Destitute morale breeds anger and contempt, and thus teaching efficacy of a great many teachers declined as a result. Economists refer to this as “the cobra effect,” where a policy produces the outcomes it intended to prevent. I still maintain that most “lazy teachers” are, in reality, victims of a system that destroys the human spirit.
Schools’ foolhardy and reckless attempts to control their messaging in light of publicly available assessment data have been marginally successful. Those outside of public education are not stupid and saw through this ploy. Universities, for example, that once relied on GPAs as a reliable indicator of achievement and performance have learned otherwise. It was they who noticed a startling number of incoming freshmen unable to meet the essential competencies required of their first year. So what did these universities do? They began to rely more heavily on standardized testing data to inform their admissions decisions. They used placement tests to decide which course a student could handle, rather than high school transcripts. How ironic it was that the efforts of public education to wrestle the narrative away from standardized testing results ended up creating conditions that made the results that much more useful.
The Show Will Go On
Though they grow rarer with each passing day, there are times I wish I had remained ignorant of what I now know. To be a lover of teaching and learning who has lost faith in public education is to be a ronin, a warrior without a master. What would it be to believe once again? To again feel the glory of basking in one’s inflated sense of self-worth? To rejoice in the raucous cheering for one’s school? To honestly believe the words of educational charlatans, that we are one more policy away from greatness? Ah, the pomp and pageantry of public education make for a great show, and I would be lying if I said I never wish I could be a part of it once more.
As I have learned there are real costs to lies, whether we believe them or not. Whether one chooses to believe or shirk responsibility out of fear, the students ultimately suffer. I know because I was once like them, lost and hopeless amidst the institutional machinery of public education. When I see misery in the halls fighting to survive, I remember how the abstractions of school failure personally feel.
At this year’s opening celebration, I will neither be smiling nor clapping, for it is time for neither. Our schools are in dire straits, and yet they continue to ingratiate themselves with opening festivities, self-praise, and all other manners of wasteful foolery. Students and parents need brutally honest teachers who bring forth their frustration, anger, and criticism to the table. Teachers need to advocate for those they truly serve: the public. I no longer care to hear about “positivity”! Not when 89% of our students are not academically proficient. If the system is too ideologically entrenched to listen, it is rotten and deserves to be dismantled. Perhaps this is what should happen, for, despite my protests, the show will go on.