Symbolism matters in social movements.  Has the contemporary education reform movement been strategic about using symbols?  I take a look at that in a new USN column.

5 Replies to “Symbols”

  1. Another way to look at this, alternative to the use of symbols, may be the careful use of language and metaphors. The conservative right framed the debate on education over many years and continues to do so with very careful use of language. The other side of the problem is that reformers, who reject a lot of what conservatives have to offer, still argue within the opposing or alternative framework, utilizing concepts like accountability, standardized testing, high stakes, high quality teachers, audit culture, and similar NCLB-speak. Shed the language, the concepts, and then discuss reforms from a new framework.

  2. I think you’re definitely right that the education movement hasn’t coalesced effectively around a powerful symbol. But I think the bigger obstacle to building a movement akin to the civil rights movement is the lack of clear solutions to work toward. As long as the would-be movement itself is splintered between competing and often contradictory efforts we aren’t going to be able to make a lot of progress forward on a grand scale.

  3. Agreed.

    It’s hard for insiders to think from the lens of outsiders.

    The outer circle – regular voters – don’t know what insiders think are “basic” on any policy matter. They can’t define charter school. They don’t know what single payer means. They don’t know the differences in our interests in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

    But it’s hard to “generate” a symbol. I wonder if they need to come about more organically. Rosa Parks wasn’t a symbol when she wouldn’t change seats; others had done the same before her (and indeed 1 got a Supreme Court ruling).

    Her act triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

    Whichever is the first city to have that sort of action, if it ever does…someone there will become the symbol of reform retroactively.

    Steve Barr is closest to figuring this out.

  4. Michelle Rhee (who doesn’t happen to be “white”) is a newly-minted symbol of school reformers. But the face, the voice, and the passion of school reform as a civil rights issue (which it is) is Howard Fuller, and he has been at it for more than a decade.

    The American public may be ill-informed but there are almost daily headlines about the high school drop out rate for children of color, about the embarassing performance of the U.S.A. in international tests, about the shocking conditions in poverty schools (viz., the young lady who was seated with Michelle Obama during the State of the Union address), and on and on.

    I would argue that it was not Rosa Parks or the Montgomery Bus Boycott that launched the civil rights movement, it was the consequences of those actions in Selma and elsewhere that were plastered on America’s TV sets. In effect, inner-city parents are boycotting the public school system whenever they can and wherever they can when they are offered other choices.

    The problem school reformers face is the same one good government proponents do: the public school system and Congress are terrible but my school (or the school I went to long ago) and my Congressman are OK. As long as the vast majority of people feel that way, there is no symbol that can rally them to really get behind school reform.

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