About John Kuhn

John Kuhn is a public school administrator in Texas and a vocal advocate for public education. His ''Alamo Letter'' and YouTube videos of his 2011 speech at a Save Texas Schools rally went viral, as did his 2012 essay ''The Exhaustion of the American Teacher.'' He has written two education-related books, 2013's Test-and-Punish (Park Place Publications) and 2014's Fear and Learning in America (Teachers College Press).

If you want to find evidence that American schools are failing, your best bet is to look closely at the tortured logic and disingenuous argumentation issuing from today’s education reform movement. If these people were educated in American public schools, then it’s clear: we failed (miserably) to produce measured, ethical reasoners who rightly wield the tools of debate. With education reform—as with modern politics in general—any semblance of a noble, nation-perfecting pursuit of truth has been set aside in favor of the lowly, individual-benefitting pursuit of a rhetorical or political “win.”

Reason has been lost. Logical thought in pursuit of some problem’s actual diagnosis and resolution—in service of the formation of a more perfect society—has been replaced with lesser things: lazy tools like the cherry-picking of convenient details, the gross exaggeration of data when beneficial to the cause, and the petty use of catch-phrases to cow the opposition into meek submission.

Public education critics in the think tank world and like-minded politicians are so adept at misusing data—and voters and journalists so bad at noticing it—that we even see folks unashamedly argue that numbers mean the opposite of what they obviously mean. Case in point: recently in Texas, voters were told that a $5.4 billion cut in education dollars was actually an increase in funding. How is this possible? Obviously it isn’t possible for a reduction to be an increase, but how is it possible that a sane person could claim as much, and with a straight face? First, on the semi-logical level, it’s possible because state funding went up a little while federal stimulus funding (which had previously supplanted state funding) went down a whole lot. A net loss, clearly, but if you only talk about the state funding and don’t mention the federal you can, if your personal code permits, highlight the tiny gain within the gaping loss and come out smelling like a rose. Second, it’s not only possible but actually very easy to pull off something like this because many Texas residents are so fiercely loyal to their party that any half-truth coming from its spokespeople is taken as gospel. Sure, tricking people makes you a terrible person; but there’s little political risk, so what the hey?

Being gullible is a not exactly a sign of an educated man, so there’s that. But the misled aren’t the worst-educated among us, for it surely takes a more deficient formation to end up misleading people than being misled.

Texans were repeatedly assured of the truthy factishness of the “increased education funding” claim by some very powerful state officials. Several of their lower-ranking colleagues defended and repeated the audacious claim, and partisan agitators at the grass-roots level echoed it in response to the wailing and gnashing of teeth coming from public school administrators like me who were watching our actual—not rhetorical—budgets shrink by several percent. Personally, I was much less angry about the cuts than about the dishonesty. I never expected more money for my students, but I did expect more decency of character modeled before them by those claiming the mantle of leadership.

While high-ranking state officials normally can’t be accused of being dumb (and there are high-profile exceptions here in Texas), there remains the possibility—based on their eager falsehoods—that they may be ethically retarded. Ethics isn’t on any modern standardized test because it’s not reading or math, but a well-developed understanding of ethics has been considered a hallmark of the cultivated mind by great societies throughout human history.

In less-partisan epochs in our nation’s history, the kind of black-is-white manipulation of fact that contorts a funding cut into a supposed increase would have been denounced as a bald-faced lie by upright and ethical public servants of either party. Texas leaders should have been stopped from lying to their constituents by their own scruples; barring that, a fear of a good public shaming for disrespecting and misleading the people they serve should have stopped them cold. But in this and many other cases related to modern education reform, politicians and their appointees soldiered on and made claims that deliberately confused an issue for those who trusted them to be straightforward and informative. For a non-Texas example, see the case of Rahm Emmanuel and the Boston teachers.

Amazingly, lying to the voters isn’t a career-jeopardizing move today. We live in a world where orthodoxy trumps honesty. The party comes first; tribe over all, including basic ethics. Even if that weren’t the case, journalists’ and fact-checkers’ own veracity has been challenged to the point where regular folks don’t know who to believe anymore.

Recently Paul Tough and an opinion-writer at the New York Times hit on a rich vein of something foreign to many of us mired in the education wars: perspective. Both of these dispassionate authors concluded, essentially, that education improvement is indeed a vital tool in the effort to improve poor people’s lives, but that it’s a mistake to try to overemphasize it as the primary lever. But that’s exactly what we’ve done in the past decade-plus.

In order to advance the cheap-if-ineffective public policy notion that firing the right teachers will reduce poverty in the USA, non-logic and deception have been elevated to an art form. Orwellian language (StudentsFirst, “no excuses,” Stand for Children) has been marshaled to preemptively emasculate dissent by casting opponents as whiny child-abusers before they even speak up. The trademarked language of education reform is often the intellectual equivalent of greeting an old friend by saying, “Hey Jim, are you still beating your wife, or have you stopped?”

But the illogic doesn’t stop with doublespeak. Education pundits also do their best to cloak their giant assumptions. For example, the popular argument that standardized test “growth over time” should be used in teacher evaluations because “private sector employees are judged on their performance” presupposes that the tests are accurate measures of teachers’ job performance. Not that advocates of this approach care (and not that journalists who cover them care to look it up), but this assumption is readily debunked by the test-makers themselves, who have issued disclaimers indicating that standardized tests are designed to measure student learning and not individual teacher performance.

American thought leaders on the left and the right, in short, are tenaciously obtuse when it comes to analyzing education policy. Maybe we educators are getting our just desserts for putting out a crop of lunkheads capable of such unrepentant mendacity. Compounding the problem, honest journalists and politicians are apparently too unsophisticated to sort actual education fact from think-tank “education fact,” and voters are too intellectually lazy to elect people with a nuanced vision of the world. We Americans are thoroughly conditioned. Candidates grab for dog whistles for one reason: we respond obediently.

It doesn’t help that we only have two real choices, but even that suggests a dearth of the fine intellectual skills needed to prevent our ballots from being the democratic equivalent of a Kindergartener’s fat crayon. We are crude thinkers; because of that, we are subject to crude leaders who institute clumsy systems.

In its 2012 party platform, the Texas GOP explicitly called for an end to the teaching of critical thinking skills. Such a move appears largely unnecessary, as critical thinking already wheezes on the floor here. It’s dying next to castaway classics that once inspired our forebears with ideals like courage and honesty and love, ideals which our culture has traded for imperfect copies like bombast and sophistry and lust. This tragedy is evidenced acutely by today’s voters’ gleeful penchant for electing jingoistic airheads and pathological misleaders, and our embracing every corrupt and self-serving word of those we anointed so long as they belong to the right party.

 

If you enjoyed reading this article by John Kuhn, don’t forget to register for our annual conference where he will be the Keynote Speaker! 

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