courtesy pigtown design
Argumentation today consists of little more than two people taking turns misrepresenting one another’s positions. Gone are the days of Socrates, when the point of a debate was to arrive at the truth. Today we all, like Socrates’ opponents the Sophists, seek only to win the argument, by any means necessary.
I am sure I am as guilty as anyone of setting up straw men and knocking them down with great flair. And I have been known to use hyperbole to make my point from time to time. But I’ve also been on the receiving end of the kind of stick-and-move rhetoric wherein an opponent enthusiastically decimates a position I never took.
Perhaps the most common straw man employed by the anti-public schools crowd is this line and its many variants: “People who say we should fix poverty first and only then can we fix education…” Finish that sentence any way you want: “…are stupid.” “…should be taken out behind the woodshed.” “…have hooey for brains.”
All of those endings–and I apologize for the scatology there–are great. I agree with them. Anyone who believes that education should be completely and utterly neglected until such day as we prove Jesus wrong when he said, “The poor you will always have with you,” that education should allowed to simply fall apart for lack of efforts at its continual improvement until we are able to solve what no civilization in the history of mankind has been able to solve–yes, anyone who truly believes that should have something bad done to them.
Thing is, no one believes that.
Do you hear me, reformers on Twitter?
NO ONE BELIEVES THAT.
Not Diane Ravitch. Not the teachers’ unions. Not anyone.
No one believes that education shouldn’t be improved. And no one believes the improvement of education should wait until poverty is “fixed.”
So stop pretending that anyone believes that.
Poverty is a factor–a big factor–in students’ academic outcomes. You can rail all you want about not using it as excuse, but you can’t will it and its effects out of existence. The more you scream, “Poverty is just an excuse,” the more poverty will still be living in certain neighborhoods and popping kids’ dreams like pregnant red balloons. It won’t stop hurting children just because you insist that its effects must be ignored.
Thank goodness we have these excuse-making teachers around to force us to talk about inequity and poverty. If it weren’t for them, I don’t know that anyone in America would ever mention the destructive force of social and economic inequity. Poverty is unmentionable. But it’s still real, and it still hinders the work of teachers, even though reformers have tried to steal words of compassion and activism from their lips.
One fourth of our children live in poverty. And teachers aren’t supposed to talk about that? As if it doesn’t matter? Teachers should trumpet the conditions of their students before the wealthy and the middle class folks whose votes decide whether those children get help or not. In fact, I think it is the moral obligation of America’s teachers to scream the names of their “excuses” from the highest mountaintop: Sally! Jose! John! Mandy!
The current school reform movement insists that we content ourselves with pretend justice by putting a bandaid of efficiency on the gaping wound of inequitable and unjust social and economic conditions targeted at select American populations. The current reform movement insists that poverty be ignored, kept in a back room when company comes over. And the public school teacher who will not remain silent says this:
“What are you going to do about this poverty that is hindering a proper education for children?”
That isn’t an excuse. It is a demand for sound public policy. Reality stinks sometimes, but the reality is that the “poverty doesn’t matter” brigade is full of platitudes and pomp, but empty when it comes to solving America’s problems.
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