Mike Rose: How “School Failure” Narrative of “A Nation at Risk” Has Undermined Public Schools

I can’t bring myself to think of Naomi Klein in the same category as Mike Rose, one of my favorite education writers. They are important but very different writers.  There is one similarity, however.  In 2007, Klein responded to Hurricane Katrina and other natural catastrophes around the world with the publication of a blockbuster, thesis-driven social science analysis, The Shock Doctrine, in which she highlighted the swift takeover of New Orleans’ public schools after the hurricane as the very definition of her idea that a crisis from a natural disaster will often be grabbed as an opportunity by business interests looking for a profit. And this week, Rose explains in a new blog post, that his extraordinary book, Possible Lives, was his own response to a “shock doctrine” crisis created by the inflammatory language of the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk.

Klein explains “the shock doctrine” in the context of what can happen to a public school system when the interests of privatization are pitched as the best response to a catastrophe: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ schools system took place with military speed and precision. Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools. Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4.  Before the storm, there had been 7 charter schools in the city; now there were 31. New Orleans’ teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired.”  (The Shock Doctrine, p. 5)

One person who absolutely absorbed the capitalist possibilities of Hurricane Katrina was a prominent policy maker, who had by, 2010 when he spoke out about it, become our U.S. Education Technocrat-in-Chief, Arne Duncan: “I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and this is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community….” A crisis. A disaster. A time ripe for throwing it all away and trying something new.

In his new blog post—to mark the 35th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, Mike Rose explains that he undertook Possible Lives as a response to A Nation at Risk—to the exaggerated, urgent, fevered language in the Reagan era report’s introduction: “Our schools are mediocre and getting worse, and their sorry state is resulting in an erosion of our economic and technological preeminence. The opening sentences build momentum toward an existential threat, the equivalent of a military attack—brought on by ourselves, by our educational failures.”  Rose continues: “(O)ne hard lesson learned from A Nation at Risk is that the way problems are represented has major consequences.  This issue of language and representation sometimes gets lost in debates about the benefits or harm resulting from specific education reforms, but I think it is centrally important. It was one of the concerns that drove Possible Lives, published twelve years downstream from A Nation at Risk.”

Rose pulls out from the opening two paragraphs of A Nation at Risk the language he describes as framed precisely to generate a sense of educational catastrophe.  He quotes from the opening paragraphs::

“Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world… The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people… If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves… We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

What has followed for 35 years now Rose describes as a response to an existential education crisis created entirely by language carefully chosen and narratively framed to motivate our society to do something radical.  Our response? Test and punish via No Child Left Behind. Grading schools and teachers by their students’ aggregate test scores, including A-F grades imposed by states on their school districts and individual schools. Closing so-called failing schools. And all sorts of school privatization via charter schools, and virtual schools and vouchers and tuition tax credit vouchers and education savings account neo-vouchers—all to give children an escape from their so-called “failing” public schools.

Rose responded to A Nation at Risk‘s manipulation of language and public opinion—intended to create the impression that U.S. public schools were in crisis—by traveling the country for four years, visiting America’s best classrooms, and narrating the promising story of America’s public schools and their teachers. Possible Lives was first published in 1995 and reprinted in 2006. It is one of the most inspiring books ever written about what actually happens inside our public school classrooms.  The fact that classrooms are places most of the public never visits likely contributes to people’s manipulation through crisis-driven rhetoric. While A Nation at Risk turned the public attention to an obsessive examination of outcomes based on standardized test scores and technocratic fixes—stuff that can be easily reported and statistically processed, Rose takes readers right into classrooms to watch how teachers respond to children, how they challenge adolescents to puzzle out and reason, how they design projects that fascinate students and pique their imaginations.

Looking back at A Nation at Risk, Rose summarizes the difference between the language of its introduction—designed to terrify us all if we don’t do something quick—and the rest of the report: “So there it is. 1983 and we are doomed if we don’t do something fast and decisively. Erosion. Decline. Los of Power. Assault. An act of war—against ourselves. Interestingly, throughout the rest of the report, there is little of this apocalyptic language. While the authors continue to make some questionable aims and offer some debatable solutions, there are also calls to boost the teaching profession, to increase school funding, to promote ‘life-long learning,’ and to assure ‘a solid high-school education’ for all.  But few people read the full report.  What was picked up was the dire language of the opening; and—this is hugely important—that language not only took on a life of its own, it also distorted the way many reform-minded folk implemented the (more promising) recommendations of the report.”

Rose references a recent A Nation of Risk 35th anniversary story by Anya Kamenetz on National Public Radio: “Kamentz interviewed several of the authors of A Nation at Risk and found that they did not set out to conduct an objective investigation of the state of American education, but came to the task convinced that schools were in serious decline as global competition was heating up, and therefore their job was to sound the alarm and, as one author put it, get education ‘on the front page.’ They succeeded big time.”

Rose pulls out his own warning from Possible Lives about this kind of language: “It blinds us to the complex lives lived out in the classroom. It pre-empts careful analysis of one of the nation’s most significant democratic projects. And it engenders a mood of cynicism and retrenchment, preparing the public mind for extreme responses: increased layers of testing and control, denial of new resources—even the assertion that money doesn’t affect a school’s performance—and the curative effects of free market forces via vouchers and privatization. What has been seen historically as a grand republican venture (our institution of public education) is beginning to be characterized as a failed social experiment, noble in intention but moribund now, perhaps headed toward extinction.  So, increasing numbers of people who can afford to don’t even consider public schools as an option for their children, and increasingly we speak, all of us, about the schools as being in decline. This is what is happening to our public discussion of education, to our collective vision of the schools….”  Prophetic words from a book written in 1995 and reprinted in 2006.

Rose concludes his recent blog post with this warning: “One of the big challenges we have in front of us is how to maintain momentum in addressing the inequities in our education system but to do so in a way that is analytically and linguistically precise. How can we, to the best of our ability, keep focus on the vulnerable and underserved and do so with a mix of urgency and accuracy?”

I’ll add that in Possible Lives and the rest of his fine books, Rose has not only used language with precision, but also with a sense of compassion and human understanding. He shows us what happens at school—for children and adolescents and their teachers—without emphasizing the preoccupation of the school reformers—the technocratic measures and incentives and ratings that permeate our society and that always situate our schools in perpetual data-driven competition.

Please read Mike Rose’s new blog post.  And consider adding Possible Lives to your reading this summer.