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The intellectually lazy use of “status quo”

Cross-posted from the ‘Failing Schools’ blog

status quo: the state in which; the existing state of affairs

The education reform discussion (or debate, depending on who’s talking) is filled with buzzwords and terms, most of which (like “accountability” and “reform”) are meant to sound positive, so that we choose to agree with the speaker. (“Well, I believe in holding people accountable for their actions, so yes, I’m for an accountability movement.”) We know that many of these fall apart under closer scrutiny, but at least there’s an attempt to win skeptics over by appealing to commonly shared values.

But some terms are designed to shame us into compliance with the speaker. “Status quo” is the perfect example of this.

People who regularly engage with school reform issues are well aware of the way powerful people have defined the discussion. If you agree with them, you’re a reformer, and if you disagree with them, you support the status quo, which is meant to suggest low achievement. So far, I’ve yet to find anyone who’s giddy about the idea of school failure or achievement gaps.

But have powerful “reformers” ever stopped to consider what the term “status quo” actually means? And in light of that definition– the existing state of affairs– who is actually defending the status quo in education?

For example, in this morning’s Ed Week article about the Save Our Schools March & National Call to Action, Indiana State Superintendent (and well-connected, would-be beneficiary of certain “reforms”) Tony Bennett took a potshot at those of us who are a part of this grassroots movement.

Tony Bennett, Indiana’s state schools superintendent and himself a former teacher and school administrator, voiced skepticism, however, about the aims of the Save Our Schools march, dubbed SOS. Does it stand for Save Our Schools or Save Our Status Quo? he said. They seem to articulate very well everything they’re against.

He goes on to defend test-based accountability, claiming that it’s vital, and adds that “[w]e are embarking on a journey in education in this country that is a dramatic shift from what we’ve done in the past…but it’s the right shift.”

‘Dramatic shift’? Well, this might have been true when high-stakes testing first became a major feature of education reform, but that push began in earnest during the Reagan administration. Even if you discount the more personal, student-focused sanctions associated with tests, and mark the beginning of this”reform” movement with the passage of No Child Left Behind, that still means that test-based-accountability-as-reform has been the existing state of affairs for a decade. (And the research continues to show that it’s not working.)

Compare that with the goals of SOS March supporters (3/4 of which are, contrary to Bennett’s statement, positively-framed statements of what we are for):

  • Equitable funding for all public school communities
  • An end to high stakes testing for student, teacher, and school evaluation
  • Teacher, family, and community leadership in forming public education policies
  • Curriculum developed by and for local school communities

Working backwards through these demands, we can see that

  • Most schoolchildren– especially ones in so-called “failing” schools– do not exist in any state in which the curriculum they learn is developed locally. While some schools give teachers a lot of freedom regarding what and how they teach, it is far more common that students learn a curriculum developed by faraway textbook publishers. For the really struggling, curriculum choices– from the program’s design and development all the way down to the scripted words coming out of the teacher’s mouth– are made by the companies producing materials for government programs likeReading First.
  • Teachers, families, and communities don’t lead public education policy. Reforms that aimed at increasing our leadership (like the local schools council movement of the late 80s) have been watered-down and undermined as top-down mandates like NCLB have come into vogue, so this also can’t be defined as any kind of contemporary status quo.
  • Of course, high-stakes testing has been the thing for a while now.
  • And while attempts at equitable funding have been made (usually as a result of lawsuits like theAbbott cases from New Jersey, and Serrano in California), by and large it is the decades-old inequitable funding between richer and poorer districts, and richer and poorer states, that can be more accurately labeled the status quo.

So if we do a head-to-head comparison, it’s actually pretty clear that people like Bennett, who promote test-based “accountability” and other punitive reform strategies, are actually advocating for the status quo, since that is and has been the existing state of affairs for quite some time.By contrast, we who embrace ideas like equitable funding and local control of curriculum are pursuing a state of affairs which, in many places, hasn’t existed for years (if ever!).About our First Person series:

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