Though much has been written about the new reform movement in both traditional venues and the blogosphere from a myriad of perspectives, I’ve come to conclusion that we, as an educational community, don’t really have a good story that provides a cogent counternarrative to the rampant attacks on schools and schooling—a story that “sticks” and resonates with the American public. Locally and nationally, special interest have mastered the craft of telling a good story of/about the “failure” of traditional public schools, and have pushed for legislation and policies in support of charter schools, merit pay, value added measures, the loosening of teacher and administrator certification requirements, and a host of other “reform” initiatives, all under the banner of accountability. Their stories of union-backed incompetent teachers, lack of choice, irritated parents, and the omnipresent innocent student have effectively silenced opposition and have collectively branded traditional public education as a waste of time, money, energy, and effort.
Moreover, the new reformers have also managed to effectively throw any and all of defenders of traditional public schools under the proverbial “status quo” bus, making it difficult to speak in defense of traditional public schools in this country. Indeed, through the use of effective rhetorical wordplay, terms such as” innovation,” “change,” and “revolution” have been embraced by the new reformers—suggesting that individuals, institutions and organization that critique and/or challenge any type of reform are not only obsolete and archaic but (dare I say?) downright “conservative.” Through the strategic use of metaphors and political artistry, the new reformers have framed the argument in terms of choice and innovation (via charter schools, accountability, and merit pay) versus stagnation and mediocrity (via traditional public schools and their teacher union backers). Such “either/or” Karl Rovian tactics are not only brilliantly employed, but have rendered countless educators, researchers, teachers unions, and other concerned parties voiceless against these claims.
What we need is a darn good story, and we need one ASAP. Where we err as an educational community is that we largely fail to tell a good story when we see it, and we too often fail to deliver that story in a manner that is accessible and “real” to a wider audience. We have thousands upon thousands of stories from classrooms, school buildings and districts—real stories from the proverbial trenches—as well as hundreds of “stories” from the research projects and data sets that we collect almost daily. Yet, these stories are rarely told in an effective manner, and by that I mean in a manner that matters to the larger American public.
The effectiveness and brilliance of films like Waiting for Superman, The Lottery, and The Cartel, is that they all managed to tell “real” stories of people with whom the audience can connect. Their stories are “our” stories—human stories—stories of sacrifice, struggle, hopes and dreams. As stories, they connect to larger tropes and archetypes: “good vs. evil,” “superhero vs. villain,” “rebellion vs. oppression” etc. They also connected to audiences on an emotional level. Even if we disagree with the premise of these films, we can’t help but root for the families in Waiting for Superman; we cry when the little girl sheds a tear in The Cartel when she doesn’t get into the charter school of her choice; we chuckle when the little boy in The Lottery dons a coat and tie and claims he feels like Barak Obama. Audiences don’t just “see” these movies, they experience them. They connect to these stories because their message is both contemporary and timeless.
This ability to stir people’s emotions and have people understand and resonate with a particular point of view is precisely the reason why educators need to take a page from the playbook of the new reformers. We need to start telling our stories. But in all honesty, as educators—and especially as educational researchers—we aren’t very good at storytelling. I mean, most of us can deconstruct the heck out of a journal article and/or provide a brilliant critique something from a (fill in the blank) perspective. Some of us can do a mean regression analysis or perform a hierarchical linear model on a large data set. Others, still, can articulate—with “thick” descriptions-- the stressful life of a teacher, or even provide rich accounts of the current accountability climate and its effects on schools, students, and parents. I mean, we are awesome in telling wonderful “academic” stories, but we drop the ball when it comes to telling a good “narrative” story: A story that connects with audiences well beyond the confines and safety of our academic circles. And this is precisely where we err.
We are living in a time when “data” is perhaps less relevant to public policy educational decisions than are gut-level feelings and generally accepted beliefs and stories. We have “data,” for example, on charter school effectiveness/success rates, teacher compensation/merit pay, the success rates of turnaround schools, and the effectiveness of a host of teacher assessment strategies. We also have data on the impact of extraneous variables (race, poverty, gender) on teaching and learning, and the impact of teachers unions on student performance. We have a ton of data! In other words, the data seems to be readily available, yet it would appear that the data doesn’t matter or is being ignored altogether.
The fact is, educational data has become secondary to a good story and the type of “common-sense” reform being promoted by the new reform movement. Therefore, as educational researchers, we need to not only start telling better stories with our data, but we need to tell our stories better than we have in the past, otherwise we’ll always be at a loss when it comes to truly educating the larger American public about the types of reforms needed in schools today.
Guest Blog provided by Gerardo Lopez, UCEA Executive Committee Member, Indiana University