Monday, January 10, 2011

Against revolutionary folly

Here's a bad argument: "No serious change can happen without full-blown revolution.  Until we change our whole economic structure, no important reform will be possible."

If I heard that once in my college years, I heard it a hundred times.  Maybe half the people who tried it out meant to align themselves with Marxist analysis, and the rest were offering some other form of radical thinking.

If I heard it a hundred times, I never believed it once.  I knew too much about the forward march of individual liberty, abolition, voting rights and civil rights.  I knew too much about how Jim Crow fell, and too much about the strategies of decency and solidarity that were even then eroding both white rule in South Africa and communist rule across eastern Europe.  I knew much too well that smart and steady work by committed individuals can indeed generate worthwhile change.

I haven't heard that revolution-or-bust rhetoric much in the last two decades, but I have heard something close.

The argument that comes close says this: "Schools can't change student performance unless we eliminate poverty and racism first."

The Washington Post published a piece today that tries that tired approach.  This time, Robert Samuelson points out that American white students do about as well on the PISA test as largely white countries like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  Then he adds that our national weakness can be traced to the weaker performance of other American children, especially those who are black and Hispanic. His argument is that:
These persistent achievement gaps demonstrate the limits of schools to compensate for problems outside the classroom - broken homes, street violence, indifference to education - that discourage learning and inhibit teaching....What we face is not an engineering problem; it's overcoming the legacy of history and culture. 
Yet again, the claim is that educational progress is essentially impossible without radical change to other institutions.

The problem with that position is that it ignores the data.  It cannot account for all the examples of schools that deliver student progress right in the teeth of the poverty odds.   It cannot escape the systematic evidence that key changes in instructional practices can raise achievement and narrow those haunting gaps.  And it cannot explain how other countries, many with ugly history of their own, are successfully changing their futures by changing their education systems.

This kind of argument looks erudite, but it's ignorant.  It sounds sophisticated, but it's crude and false.  It mimics past version of revolutionary talk remarkable well, and its case for radical despair is just as mistaken this time as it was in decades past.

The way to defeat this sort of willful despair is by doing the work they say is impossible, educating the children they say are doomed, and building the society they say is out of reach.

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