Indestructible! Nothing Can Stop it! The "Education Reform" Bubble
In 1958, The Blob – a gelatinous B-movie creature from outer space – crash landed in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania consuming whatever poor screaming extra happened to be directed into its path. “Devoid of personality and intelligence,” The Blob expanded relentlessly in Cold War America, moving from the screen to the our “popular consciousness,” becoming something of a “pop icon,” Steve Biodrowski wrote in a retrospective review in 1989. While the film was even horribly dated in 1989, The Blob nonetheless became a modern myth, an archetype capturing the deepest fear of the true American individual: that his unique self would be subsumed, lost forever in a formless, ill-defined mass.
Now, in 2011, we have a new B-movie horror: The Bubble.
Like The Blob, The Bubble grows unremittingly, threatening to obliterate the unique character of the individual. Unlike The Blob, The Bubble is real … and really boring.
Since George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, and still today under President Obama with Race to the Top, it feels to me, as a former high school teacher and current community college professor, like The Bubble – the drive towards standardized-testing, standardized learning, and standardized students – is ever-expanding. It threatens to consume our students’ and teachers’ minds, reducing the complex work of learning – individual thought, creativity, curiosity, empathy, citizenship – into a short list of machine-readable bubbles, that the students fill in, and which fill in the students themselves.
The Bubble standardizes the world, making it appear much more coherent than it really is. The Bubble doesn’t allow for elaboration, for alternative perspectives, for ambiguity, for debate. Rather, with its orderly rows of bubbles, and authoritative, syntactically clear solutions, The Bubble constructs a polished marble façade of truth, a mythology of consensus. And as it moves from the margins of the classroom to its focus, as it becomes central to the classroom experience, The Bubble encourages students to think like it, to reason in black and white terms, to become intellectually rigid, seeing the world as a series of clearly defined pre-selected options, rather the often grey, contested and confusing place in which we live and work.
The Bubble silences debate and speech; it is a quieting force, suffusing the classroom in silence. It centralizes knowledge in the hands of the state, the federal government, and testing industry, taking it out of the hands of classroom teacher, local communities, parents, and ultimately, students themselves, who are increasingly mandated to submit to its authority without recourse, without debate.
The Bubble is undemocratic.
And what’s more concerning is that the new breed of corporate reformers – who are the greatest supporters of The Bubble as a means for “accountability” – are themselves in a Bubble, in an echo-chamber of agreement all but cut off from dissent, and largely unwilling to entertain legitimate critiques of their proposals. For the last year, the “bad teacher” has become an icon of lazy avarice, an antagonist in a corporate media narrative that shows public education in state of crisis, a crisis on par with global warming as the promotional poster forWaiting for Superman suggests, with a cute, attentive kid sitting ready to learn at school desk amidst a bombed-out wasteland. This wasteland, though, is not the poverty caused by mass foreclosures, by outsourced jobs, nor by crumbling social services, by the destruction left in the wake of this Inside Job, but rather, by inept, overpaid educators, and the greedy unions who keep them safe from consequence. And The Bubble, and the reformers who support it, are the saviors.
The plot is about as believable as The Blob.
But this “bad teacher” narrative has been incredibly powerful: it is heavily subsidized by billionaires like Bill Gates, broadcast essentially unchallenged by the corporate media, and tacitly approved by President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (who invited the kids from WFS to the White House). And it should thus come as little surprise, as the New York Times reported recently, this ire against teachers appears to never have been stronger (Mickey Huff and I present our extensive research on the framing of educators (and other public workers) in a chapter in the forthcoming Project Censored 2012 (Seven Stories Press)).
The most vocal critic of The Bubble – in every sense of the word – is distinguished education professor Diane Ravitch, who used to be ensconced in the free-market corporate education reform echo-chamber. After studying the disappointing data on NCLB, she freed herself from the hype, and wrote a best-selling, award winning critique of the corporate reform movement The Death and Life of the Great American School System.
Once outside of The Bubble, though, Ravitch was first actively ignored, and then when she could no longer be ignored, publically flogged. She recounted to me in an email conversation a year of frustration, as her publisher couldn’t get her on a single show to debate with Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, and other corporate reformers. In the seminal event on education reform – NBC’s Education Nation, a week-long infomercial for WFS and free-market education reforms – she was afforded a scant 30-second clip, according to veteran educator andEducation Week blogger Anthony Cody’s interview with her. Once Ravitch did publish an NYT Op-Ed in which she called into question the hype around corporate education reform, she was not engaged thoughtfully, but was bashed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, whowrote that “Diane Ravitch is in denial and she is insulting all of the hardworking teachers, principals and students all across the country who are proving her wrong every day.” Two prominent writers – NYT’s David Brooks and Bloomberg/Time’s Jonathan Alter – both wrote articles singling her out as some sort of fringe voice, a lone dissenter that is sadly misguided on corporate education reform, if only she could see the free-market light.
We’ve heard echoes of this before. “Cut off from dissenters, the [echo] chambers fill with an unjustified sense of certainty,” NPR reporter Brooke Gladstone observes in The Influencing Machine. Gladstone calls this phenomenon “incestuous amplification,” in which the “like-minded,” isolated or insulated from critique, grow increasingly extreme in there beliefs, “marginaliz[ing] the moderates and demonize[ing] dissenters.” The Bubble amplifies the chorus, it encourages ideological harmony, and shuts out or seeks out discredit anyone who refuses to sing along. Gladstone rightly believes this is “an ongoing threat to our democracy,” as we saw vividly illustrated in the Real Estate Bubble, in which unjustified optimism in the free-market, unfettered by earnest critique and dialogue, nearly destroyed our economy.
Unfettered by critique, unaccountable to questions, disinterested in serious debate, The Bubble will expand unchecked and unbalanced, Blob-like, gorging itself on dissenting opinion, a mass of coerced, gelatinous consensus, posing a threat not only to our children’s education, but to our democracy.