Mind-Readers Among Us!

Per this post from a while back, The American Prospect posted a clarification, sort of, a few weeks ago.

Recall that Richard Rothstein and Larry Mishel wrote recently in a cover story that, Rick Hess and I had written to the effect that we:

“worry that the urgent “competitiveness agenda” could be derailed if we are distracted by a focus on equity-improving outcomes for disadvantaged students. Attention will now have to be turned, they conclude, to further improving the technological savvy of those already primed to succeed.”

Problem is, we wrote no such thing. As Rothstein and Mishel now acknowledge:

Hess and Rotherham now complain that, while their essay stated that the educational goals of equity and competitiveness are in conflict, they did not explicitly say that equity should be sacrificed to competitiveness. We acknowledge this, and are happy to correct the record in this respect.

That’s apparently not enough to get The Prospect to actually, you know, correct the paragraph, just to add a link for “further discussion” to our objection and a fantastic response.

In the course of acknowledging that we didn’t actually write this, buried, natch, beneath a paragraph pointing out all the things we don’t dispute, Rothstein and Mishel argue that I nonetheless must be thinking it! It’s the “clear implication” they say. To be clear, this is notwithstanding that (a) as they acknowledge we didn’t write it (b) I’ve written the opposite and they know this (c) Rick and I actually held an event to debate the issue where again the inaccurate nature of this characterization was made clear and (d) our objection to that characterization now. In other words no textual grounding for the assertion, no context, and two authors saying, ‘no, that’s not what was meant.’ Otherwise, they’re on very firm ground.

In addition to endorsing mind-reading as a legitimate method of policy analysis and journalism, Rothstein and Mishel seem to argue that if I didn’t very secretly think that the equity argument should be derailed by the competitiveness argument why would I raise any tension between competitiveness policies and equity ones since equity is so firmly carrying the day?

Perhaps that would be at least somewhat convincing if indeed no one at all were talking about competitiveness and advanced students and so we were manufacturing a controversy out of absolutely whole cloth. But in fact it’s a complete misreading of the environment today. Sure, in the No Child Left Behind-era equity policies are dominant but you can hardly open The Washington Post op-ed or news pages without reading another piece about how gifted kids are being shortchanged by NCLB. Meanwhile on the Hill there is an ongoing debate about how much No Child’s accountability policies should focus on high-performing students. And, the President recently signed a competitiveness bill. You get the idea, a lot of people are trying to change the emphasis. In fact, in their article Rothstein and Mishel point out that a lot of people are, well, talking about competitiveness a lot. In other words the tension Rick and I document is a very live issue right now and as we show in the article this has been a historical tension and back and forth for the last 50 years. It’s nothing new.

Moreover, one can believe that there is a long-term competitiveness challenge but also see a more near-term equity problem. That happens to be what I believe and think that equity policies should take precedence now when hard choices inevitably have to be made. I worry more about what it means for the country that we tolerate 50 percent dropout rates for minorities than what it means that more Chinese students are going to college. One of those is an immediate challenge for America, the other a generational one. Others, including Hess, see it differently and it’s an important debate to have as a predicate to some clarity in the policies.

The point that Rick and I made in our article is that while it’s easy to say we can just do it all and ignore that debate, there are actually hard choices that have to be made around policies. For instance you can’t hold schools accountable for everything at once. As Rothstein himself has pointed out in other settings a standard can’t be both very advanced and attainable by all students. These tensions are too often misunderstood in policymaking and policytalk leading to confused policies that try to do everything, whipsawing educators in the process.

But, of course, sometimes people just want to confuse. When the RothsteinMishel article originally came out I assumed this was just an overzealous research assistant trying to score points with the powers that be at an organization and a quick clarification would take care of it. Turns out that was too charitable. I’d speculate more about what they’re up to but, alas, I can’t read minds.

5 Replies to “Mind-Readers Among Us!”

  1. Yes, economic issues as an excuse are not going to cut it in this world. Education is the solution to this societies ills and the sole explanatory reason of the economic divide. Some will argue edwonk is throw back to the 1890’s type conservatism, back when people were “truly” accountable to market forces. However, their brand of market based educational thinking is just the way of the future, they are futurist, in the classical vein, they are simply pragmatic in fighting for a new form of educational accountability in the 21st century.

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