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In K-12 “Education Reform” Debates, Blind Spots, Blind Spots Everywhere

Welcome to a new week. With all the snow and cold outside, it seems like a good time to pause and reflect on the big picture of improving K-12 education. Which takes me straight to a Thursday thought piece by Andy Rotherham, titled “Education Reformers Have a Big Blind Spot.”

What is the big blind spot? The subtitle spells it out: “The people trying to fix today’s public schools were overwhelmingly good at school themselves.” As I see it, the piece raises two key points for discussion: one directly and one indirectly.

But first, allow me a brief moment of personal privilege to note that it’s been a full 2 years and 3 months (back when I was still 5 years old) since Rotherham has appeared on the blog (which by the way, highlights a report that speaks directly to Harrison School District’s powerful Effectiveness and Results program). The long hiatus is over.

Rotherham’s salient point is well taken. Oftentimes our K-12 education policy debates are conducted through a somewhat narrow lens of experience, largely by those who attended and persevered through a 4-year college, and in some cases, also have obtained advanced degrees:

For instance, their own school success leads many advocates to see being good at school as a binary thing: You are or you are not. So shuffling poor students into vocational education is seen as good for them on the assumption most won’t be college material anyway. This is seen as admirable realism rather than a kind of prejudice.

(How this all applies to a kid at the cusp of a K-12 education rather than a survivor of postsecondary learning, I don’t know.)

While a danger no doubt exists that students can get tracked into career and technical training rather than liberal arts college prep, based on misguided assumptions about race and poverty, we also see in Colorado a danger on the flip side of the coin. They may assume certain students aren’t cut out for college, or they may assume that college should be for (mostly) everyone.

Some high school students’ aspirations may appropriately take them into Vocational / CTE, and they’re looking for more relevance in curriculum and programming that opens that door. So rather than just latch on to the “college-ready” part of Career and College Readiness, are we doing enough for many of that large bloc within the academic middle? Here’s hoping for more solutions to fill that gap.

Meanwhile, Rotherham’s column subtly raises another issue. The headline writer tags “education reformers” with having the alleged blind spot. But the only example cited of this misplaced focus is none other than Diane Ravitch, who consciously resists the education reformer label and a large chunk of the reform movement itself. But it goes even further.

Militant opponents of change in K-12 — not necessarily a particular kind of change, mind you, but just the idea that significant changes are needed — latch on to Ravitch’s heavily Romantic, light-on-research assertions to challenge those whom they call the “Corporate Deformers,” a clear and direct twisting of the reform label.

Yes, headline writers “gonna” write. Perhaps the title should have begun with “Education Reformers, Critics,” or even just “Education Reform Critics.” The challenge of how to identify groups and ideas in the broader debate about K-12 policy lingers on.

Sometimes it’s good to step back, ask questions, and check our blind spots. We all have them, after all. And sometimes it goes for those who are checking others’ blind spots, too.