The role of poverty in what have come to be known as “school outcomes” (or more precisely, test scores) has been getting a fair bit of attention lately at Schools Matter, and elsewhere. Rightly so. At my own school we’ve even been given a reading assignment for our winter holiday, and have been invited to read Ruby Payne’s “Framework for Understanding Poverty” (summary here). This is to prepare us for the indoctrination session to follow upon our return from our break. I’m going to read the book since I opened my mouth at a staff meeting and said that many people disagree with Ruby Payne, and “Would we have a chance to air dissenting points of view?” Take Paul Gorski’s Savage Unrealities or Randy Bomer’s Miseducating Teachers about the Poor, for example. These authors tell us that Payne claims, without any real evidence, that the poor are trapped in a “culture of poverty” and need to be explicitly taught the “hidden rules” of being middle class. I don’t especially look forward to reading this, but I want to be prepared for the meeting, which is part of our school improvement plan after too many of our low-income students did not meet the standardized testing targets last spring.
Servicing the poor is actually a growth industry in our present economy, and it’s been a magnet for school reformers like Ruby Payne and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America. Kopp’s organization was the subject of a critical piece by Andrew Hartman, who contextualizes the whole mess by pointing out:
The organs of middlebrow centrist opinion"”Time Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic"”glorify TFA at every opportunity. The Washington Post heralds the nation"™s education reform movement as the "œTFA insurgency""”a perplexing linguistic choice given so-called "œinsurgency" methods have informed national education policies from Reagan to Obama. TFA is, at best, another chimerical attempt in a long history of chimerical attempts to sell educational reform as a solution to class inequality. At worst, it"™s a Trojan horse for all that is unseemly about the contemporary education reform movement.
It’s exhausting, being on the lookout for all of the Trojan horses that are being wheeled into our schoolrooms these days. My response has been to try to maintain my focus on the kids, and try to ignore as much of the outside noise as I can. But occasionally, one does need to pay attention to it. I was grateful that Hartman closed his article with a reference to Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Miseducation. Goodman prefaces this short collection of essays by telling us that in his criticisms he does not choose to be generous or fair, since modern life has delivered us into an unprecedented set of conditions which have caused much confusion and resulted in the rigid application of old methods which is “grossly wasteful of wealth and effort and does positive damage to the young.” Hartman summarizes Goodman:
In Compulsory Mis-Education, Goodman extended this general critique of the "œorganized society" to a more specific attack on its socialization method: compulsory schooling. Schooling as socialization, which he described as "œ"˜vocational guidance"™ to fit people wherever they are needed in the productive system," troubled Goodman in means and ends. He both loathed the practice of adjusting children to society and despised the social regime in which children were being adjusted to"”"œour highly organized system of machine production and its corresponding social relations." For Goodman, compulsory schooling thus prepared "œkids to take some part in a democratic society that does not need them."
Goodman published Compulsory Miseducation in 1964. His criticisms are still strikingly, and disturbingly, apt. I would like to close here with just this one, more general recommendation – one which echoes a model of educational change outlined today by P.L. Thomas, Social Context Reform: Where to Start. It should concern us all that we are still trying to articulate a framework for progressive education reform, and I offer Goodman’s recommendation as a kind of mission statement for the era of the Occupy movement.
Fundamentally, there is no right education except growing up into a worthwhile world. Indeed, our excessive concern with problems of education at present simply means that the grown-ups do not have such a world. The poor youth of America will not become equal by rising through the middle class, going to middle-class schools. By plain social justice, the Negroes, and other societies have the right to, and must get, equal opportunity for schooling with the rest, but the exaggerated expectation from the schooling is a chimera — and, I fear, will be shockingly disappointing. But also the middle-class youth will not escape their increasing exploitation and anomie in such schools. A decent education aims at, prepares for, a more worthwhile future, with a different community spirit, different occupations, and more real utility than attaining status and salary.
We need to make this happen.