Sides in Polarized Education Debate Reflect Different Moral Frames

George Lakoff is the cognitive linguist who has published a series of books (Don’t Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics, for example) about how people think about issues of public policy.  People don’t form political opinions, according to Lakoff, by examining empirical evidence.  They don’t evaluate how particular policies and programs are really operating in their communities or in the nation or the world.  Instead they vote their core values as those values are incorporated into the meta-narratives—frames—by which they understand how the world works.  Lakoff writes: “The debate is not a matter of objective, means-end rationality or cost-benefit analysis or effective public policy.  It is not just a debate about the particular issue…. The debate is about the right form of morality….” (Moral Politics, p 169)  If you want to speak to someone’s heart—and therefore that person’s vote—you must evoke the moral frame by which they understand how the world works.

On Monday, in her Washington Post Answer Sheet column, Valerie Strauss published a thoughtful piece along these lines from Arthur Camins, who examines the moral assumptions and values of those who promote creative disruption in education as the key to innovation.  (This blog has considered the issues around education policy based on the theory of creative disruption here.)  Camins wholeheartedly agrees with Lakoff about the role of values and morals in decisions that affect education policy: “It appears that the battles over what counts as better for education in the United States will be decided, not by the relative strength of evidentiary arguments, but instead by who most successfully claims the moral high ground.  Public acceptance of policy prescriptions does not turn on technical determinations, but on values identification and moral judgments.”

Camins believes today’s school “reformers” value individual merit, hard work, and motivation via competition and filter their understanding of what’s possible and how to get there through this lens: “Success (defined as beating the competition), reformers appear to reason, is influenced by competitive advantage, which derives from application of fixed capacities (some have it, and some do not) that are motivated by extrinsic reward.  As a result, policies focus on hiring and firing able teachers rather than on developing them.  ‘No-excuses’ charter schools filter out those who do not fit in or have the ‘grit’ to struggle through… Individualism and a failure to consider more equitable socio-economic structures lead reformers to an inequality vision that is extraordinarily constrained…. increasing the chances of some students to escape from poverty.  Reformers accept inequality in the United States, with its vast wealth disparity and competition for limited resources and rewards as inevitable, if not motivational, in an unquestionably superior system.  Hence, evidence of limited impact of charter schools, their tendency to increase segregation and the apparent folly of firing a few presumably ineffective teachers in order to have systemic impact are not viewed as problematic.  Systemic impact was never the goal.  What they envision passing through their filter is improved chances for some motivated children who with a stronger education will have a competitive advantage over the rest of the children stuck in schools that simply cannot be improved.”

Camins writes, “Maximizing competitive advantage represents a core value, while disruptive innovation is a moral choice about means, in which moral certainty about achieving goals excuses the collateral damage of getting there.  This vision accepts inequality as inevitable, if lamentable.”

Camins believes we must examine the moral issues behind the policies if we are to have any hope of correcting the damage of today’s school “reform.”  “An alternative core value is maximizing economic, social and political equity.  These values support an effort to alter the current structures to create an equitable society.  Such values lead to different moral choices about means, including ensuring a public education system in which: all students are known, valued and respected by adults and peers; all students develop their talents and expertise to be successful in work, life and citizenship; and, policy and decision makers are answerable to the public in order to ensure the common good.”

About today’s school “reformers” Camins writes: “I have little hope of dissuading these ardent reformers.  I do hope that shedding some light on the nature of their ideological filters will influence public perception and undermine the credibility and traction of their policies.”

I urge you to read and consider Camins’ thoughtful piece.

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3 thoughts on “Sides in Polarized Education Debate Reflect Different Moral Frames

  1. I didn’t see the words “profit” or “financial windfall” or, as Wayne O’Leary succinctly puts it, “There’s gold in them thar hills.” in Camins’ comments. I think the author gives the so-called reformers too much credit by even attaching the world “moral” to their ideology. Isn’t the bottom line of this movement quite simply if American education can just be turned into a business, there’s a humongous amount of money to be made, and nowadays, ma’am, that’s all that counts in America. Again, from the writing of Wayne O’Leary, “surveys…indicated that traditional public schools were still substantially outperforming “superior” charter schools. But so what? Money was being made, and that’s the important thing.”

  2. @Rick Johnson, I think that the monetization of education as you describe is the cumulative and culminating result of the moral framework described in the article and is the explanation for the economic disparity in our country today. The ultimate and measurable proof of competitive advantage is the accumulation of wealth and explains why the uber-wealthy continue to amass money even though it does not change their personal situation one whit. The whole thing is one high-powered, high-stakes game and the rest of us, most especially education and the children at this point, are simply the playing pieces in the game. The ed reformers that stand to benefit financially are the embodiment of this philosophy; the rest are delusional. I think, in the far distant future, if there is still empirical research, there will be a wonderful sociological study of the mass behavior of people and the molding of political thought through the 20th and 21st centuries and the influence of ever-present media in influencing it.

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