If You Want Change, Change the Rhetoric

by Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

In my 30-plus years in education, I’ve seen a lot of changes. Unfortunately, they aren’t changes that have really improved much. Sure, since I graduated with my education degree back in the 1980s (that long ago?), I’ve seen the advent of the PC, the World Wide Web (as it was once known), smart boards and smart phones. These are incredible leaps of technology that have allowed third-world countries to leapfrog analogue technologies of copper wire. These technologies have altered how we retrieve and preserve information and knowledge. What we used to spend in days upon days finding and reading in our academic libraries via paper journals and microfiche we can now bring up on our iPhone in seconds—literally. 

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But a lot of things haven’t changed. Our discussions of education haven’t changed. The argument of the haves and the have-nots has not changed. Our ability to reduce barriers to access and success are remarkably similar. Just last month I posted a 15-year old video of me speaking at a Washington, DC-meeting, where I said about exactly what I would say today. The tenor hasn’t changed. The actions haven’t changed. And perhaps what’s worse is that our expectations haven’t changed—we really don’t expect things to change. We live for the status quo.

I’ve always been interested in the issues of incremental and rational policymaking. That’s not exactly everyone’s go-to issue in the wonk world, and especially in the non-wonk world. But I remember vividly reading Michael Hayes’ Incrementalism and Public Policy while I was working on my doctorate at The George Washington University in the early 1990s. It struck me how little we can do through our decentralized, or as Dwight Cropp of GW would say, our devoluted government system. The sheer weight and those “brilliant” checks and balances of the US political system only allow for slight, minor changes in policy and practice. Only in significant situations, like 911, do we achieve almost universal tolerance and appetite for large-scale change. In that case, Congress voted to take away some of the primary civil liberties of our history via the Patriot Act. We saw much of the extent of this through the NSA in the last few years, over a decade after 911. Not much of a check and balance system, after all, is it?

Except for those extreme situations, we do so very little at the federal, state, and local levels that it should be disconcerting to all Americans. The impact of this is that it allows for other incremental activities to occur, such as the creation and extrapolation of charter schools to save our poor, public education system. I’m not a big fan of charter schools, to be fair. And this isn’t a stereotypical (ok, it kind of is) Republican issue, since Clinton and Obama have equally supported the further evolution of charters. But these and other ideas get developed because we have failed to alter how we talk about change. Educators and policymakers have been hindered by their lack of critique of important social and educational issues. Take away some of the top thinkers on these issues, such as Linda Darling-Hammond and more recently Diane Ravitch, and you don’t have much critiquing from the field. This is one of the reasons I find Senator Elizabeth Warren fascinating, whether you side or not with her, she brings intellectual capacity to a discussion, and not just sound bites and politics. It’s fact based.

People who know me know one important thing: I say what I think and I typically don’t hold back. While I wouldn’t have it any other way, I’m positive it has cost me in my career. I am not sure most people really want to hear the truth. We can see they really don’t want to hear an alternative avenue of thinking. Whether you watch MSNBC or Fox News, the people who watch those shows are the representative choir and they watch because someone on the other side is going to get slammed by either Sean Hannity or Chris Matthews (there’s a cage match for you!).

Historically, I’ve always been a large advocate of open admissions, open access higher education and expanding opportunity for all students, especially first generation and low-income students. That has not changed over the years. However, I have increasingly come out suggesting we have to do things much differently than before and we can’t just “blank check” access to our nation’s postsecondary institutions. The work is truly in the K12 realm to create access, and we can’t fix 13 years of education through a three-week bridge program between high school and college. We also can’t fix it through a freshman seminar or first-year initiative. We can’t fix it though side-bar tutoring and mentoring. These are good things to do for students who are “on the cusp,” but they can’t fix systemic issues that have taken over a year to manifest in an individual who just will not grasp higher education. Similarly, we can’t afford to hand out Pell and other need-based grants to students who simply are not prepared for the work expected of students in higher education. The fact that we have clearly watered down higher education is a clear indicator of how we are dealing with a lower-academic class. To be even more clear, through our open access institutions, we simply let in students that we should never let in to higher education. Period. And if we focused on a broader set of avenues for students from eighth grade on, this would not be seen as a death knell of access, but rather, the opening of true access to our economy and society that doesn’t measure people by the parchment they hold but through their skill and intellect (or their multiple intellects).

But to say these types of things publically is a political gamble because it alienates colleagues who are status quo in their thinking. Access is access so don’t buck the system! Well, the system needs to be bucked and just asking for more of the same is incredibly imprudent for the nation and the individual. It’s funny, because Canadians call me a conservative and American’s call me a liberal. Really? I’m neither, other than perhaps a social, fiscal conservative. This isn’t really about big or small government: it’s about prudently using public funds to propel the nation forward, economically, socially, and intellectually. Are their political agendas tied with these principles? Surely. But not to the degree that people would have you believe. It doesn’t have to be us versus them. We just have come to believe it has to be that way because of the poor underpinnings of our political system. 

I just reread a fabulous 2008 article by William Deresiewicz called The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. Please take the time to read this very well crafted critique of our nation’s Ivy League institutions and how we view education as a whole. He uses terms like “Ivy Retardation” to describe the inability to talk to someone from a blue collar background; and “entitled mediocrity” to describe what elite students become accustomed to. The article is fabulous on several levels, but primarily because it is one of its own pointing fingers back at the institution that helped mold his thinking.

We need more people daring to be critical of what is and point to where we should go. Too many of us critics are really good at pointing out what is wrong without a dialogue about where we should be and how we can get there. I am as guilty as many. But even more so-called intellectuals refuse to critique what “is” because they are scared we will lose what we worked for the better part of a century to achieve. Here’s a message: mediocrity and status quo will force us to lose anything and everything we have gained through the Civil Rights Act, the Higher Education Act (HEA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and on; but it happens incrementally in a way that most don’t really notice, such as in the evolution of charter schools, the loss of teacher’s rights (and excellence), and the loss of control of schools by communities. There are two sides to every story and every argument, but we are letting politicians control where we go because the rest of us are not changing our rhetoric. The teachers unions need to be at the forefront of pushing educational reform, advancing technological innovation, and changing how we prepare teachers for the classroom. They need to be less protective of what is and push towards what should be. We need to find middle ground between the two tails of the political spectrum and push real change in our system. I’m tired of hearing that our public system doesn’t work. Don’t tell me that when I can show you public schools that kick the tar out of South Korea on PISA measures, or when we compare the US to Canada, which is mostly public. Public schools work. They just don’t universally work for a lot of real reasons; some of them financial; others about our inability to make education a priority. And just because a governor says it’s a priority, the truth is in the policies, not their rhetoric.

I would like to see us scale up a better dialogue about where we need to go. It is one of the reasons we held our first Forum on Education and the Economy last year in Florida. It is time for a different discussion. And it is why we are holding our second Forum during EPI’s Education Week this fall in San Antonio.

Let’s throw out status quo and start a better, inclusive conversation about our kids and our society. It starts with how we talk.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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