Tales Out of School

Stories, Politics, and the Presidential Election

By Mike Rose

Here are some of the stories we tell about school:

The schools are awful, are getting worse, and are undermining our social stability.

The schools are the cause of our difficulties in the global economy.

The schools are caught in the stranglehold of big government, big bureaucracy, big unions.

Schools are repressive, boring, terminally uncool places.

In spite of dangerous, dulling, or degrading conditions, Teacher X triumphs heroically to teach, to rescue, to redeem.

In spite of dangerous, dulling, or degrading conditions, Student X triumphs heroically to learn, to achieve, to go to Harvard.

There is an answer to this devastating school failure, and it is: [fill in with one or two of the following: tougher discipline, higher standards,decentralization, choice, technology, ____.] And once reform is instituted, our schools will a.) return to golden-age excellence or b.) attain unprecedented levels of achievement.

We tell these stories with great frequency, via popular culture, in news media, in political address. They have become commonplace in all sorts of public speech about schools, and with few exceptions (like David Berliner and Bruce Biddle’s recent The Manufactured Crisis), go unchallenged. They have achieved the cultural status of the accepted narrative, folk wisdom, the way things are.

Do our stories about schools do justice to the complexities of reform?

There is some truth to be found in these common school tales. We do an unacceptable job of educating many of our children, poor children in particular. There is a school-economy connection, and it is not necessarily crass or malevolent to consider it. Some districts are politically volatile,administratively paralyzed, or inept, and that surely affects achievement. Some teachers and some students do achieve despite great odds, and there are qualities they possess that we should define and celebrate as heroic.

The problem is that these stories often get told in one-dimension always, fixed story lines that strip away broader social-political contexts, alternative perspectives, contradictory material. A related, and more serious, problem is that these are pretty much the only kinds of stories we hear. They have been defining for over a decade the way we understand schools, articulate their problems, frame reform.

Their influence can be seen, for example, in two important election-year documents: the Republican and Democratic platforms. Part of the dynamic of electoral politics is the crafting of a compelling story, the story a party and its candidates want to tell about America and its future. Platforms present these stories.

The Republican Platform

Reading the section of the Republican Platform entitled”Improving Education” (or the Republican National Committee’s news release on education issued one month earlier), one is struck by the dire state of things:”The American people know that something is terribly wrong with our education system.” One would expect a presidential challenger to depict the status quo as being in need of change, but even so the language is severe the National Committee document uses the word “dilapidation” to describe the public school system. The solution? Choice. Which will bring “nothing less than a renaissance in American education.” There is another reason for the awful shape we’re in: “liberal fads of the last 30 years.” These will be remedied through “discipline, parental involvement, emphasis on basics including computer technology, phonics instead of look-say reading, and dedicated teaching” though no mechanism is mentioned to facilitate these remedies.

In addition to choice, there are two other proactive proposals:a pledge to work for the return of voluntary prayer, and a call “to dedicate one full day each year solely to studying the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

The rest of the recommendations call for the dismantling of the status quo: abolish the Department of Education (to “end federal meddling in our schools”), repeal Goals 2000 and the School-to-Work Act of 1994, end federal attempts to impose outcome- or performance-based education on local schools, and oppose school-based health clinics in favor of “abstinence education”in the home.

We see in this platform many of the tales we have come to tell about school. And these are woven into a broader narrative of academic and moral degradation, wrought by evil forces within the schools and government, and a narrative of redemption, a story of rebirth through choice and a return to basics.

The Democratic Platform

The Education Platform of the Democratic Party, as one might expect from the party of the incumbent, is more upbeat, championing the Clinton administration’s priorities (e.g., Goals 2000, School-to-Work) and recounting its efforts to forestall Republican cuts in education funding e.g., the school lunch programs. “Today’s Democratic Party will stand firmly against the Republican assault on education.”

Education is linked immediately in the document to opportunity particularly to “opportunity [i]n the global economy.” And though things have been going well in the past four years, “[i]n the next four years, we must do even more to make sure America has the best public schools on earth.” The means to achieve such excellence as well as more particular ways to define it are not detailed, though there is brief discussion of high standards, accountability,”good values, strong character, and the responsibilities of citizenship,””[s]afe schools and healthy students,” “good behavior and discipline,””[p]reparing students for jobs,” and technology and “to wire every classroom and library to the Information Superhighway by the year 2000.”

Rather than a narrative of decline and redemption, we have a narrative of success and opportunity. The vocabulary of the Democratic platform is more varied than that in the Republican documents there is more of a sense of the interplay of the intellectual, ethical, and civic spheres of schooling but some of the familiar tales shape the document, though they are given a positive twist to fit the rhetoric of incumbency. There is the school-economy tale and the tale of reform leading to unprecedented achievement.

I don’t want to deny the need to rethink curriculum and school structure or the connection between school and work or the importance of technology, but doesn’t it seem that we need richer ways to talk about schools? Story lines and vocabulary that at least occasionally place school failure in the context of joblessness, urban politics, a diminished tax base, unequal funding, race and class bias. Or a story of achievement that is slow-going and tentative, or a more layered tale of excellence that includes discussion of curiosity, reflectiveness, uncertainty, a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. How about reform narratives that present change as alternatively difficult, exhilarating, ambiguous, promising and that find reform not in a device, technique, or structure but in the way we think about teaching and learning? And how much we need tales of schooling that, in addition to economy, offer a vocabulary of respect, decency, aesthetics, joy, courage, intellect, civility, heart and mind, skill and understanding. For that matter, think of how rarely we hear the good old Jeffersonian civic narrative that places public education at the center of a free society.

Such stories might not lend themselves quite so easily to demonizing and condemnation, to quick fixes, to sound-bite comprehension. They would not necessarily make public discussion any easier; they would probably complicate it, slow it down, make it less certain. But they might encourage other kinds of conversations about the schools. At least they would locate our public talk in the complex, disappointing, messy, promising reality of education in America.

Mike Rose is a professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and is the author of Lives on the Boundary:The Struggles and Achievements of America’s Under prepared (Penguin) and PossibleLives: The Promise of Public Education in America (Penguin, newly released in paperback).