Fear and Learning in America - Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education
reviewed by Ariel Tichnor-Wagner & Lora Cohen-Vogel - January 29, 2015
Title: Fear and Learning in America - Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education
Author(s): John Kuhn
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807755729, Pages: 176, Year: 2014
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John Kuhns most recent book, Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education, is a vibrantand sometimes hyperbolicdefense of public education. It is a timely contribution to the contentious national dialogue taking place around the current crisis in education and the profession of teaching. Kuhn argues that conservatives have propagated an educational crisisbuilt on data suggesting that students perform poorly on standardized teststo instill fear in Americans that our public schools are failing and Americas teachers are to blame. This has scared Americans into believing that the solutions are privatization and firing teachers, rather than addressing underlying issues of student poverty and school funding inequities.
We have seen this solution play out in recent events. Citing the retention of grossly ineffective teachers, the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled in the Vergara v. California (2014) case that Californias teacher tenure laws violated students rights to an education under the state constitution. A few months later, the November 3 cover of Time magazine (Aoki, 2014) stirred furor among public education advocates with its depiction of teachers as nearly-impossible-to-fire rotten apples, strengthening the narrative that bad teachers are at the root of a broken public education system.
The narrative that lays blame for a national emergency in education on the American teacher is hardly new, and, according to neurobiologist George Lakoff, draws on two key strategies from the conservative playbook: repetition and the evocation of fear. In The Political Mind, Lakoff (2008) argues that conservatives intentionally use repetitive language, images, and symbolsin this case, of failing schools and bad teachersto activate and strengthen pathways between neural synapses in the brain so that we automatically connect specific language to negative emotions. Conservatives specifically use fear-evoking language to imprint the mantra that our schools are failing, along with the dire consequences for students and the nation, into the public mind. Further, Lakoff (2008) contends that the bad apple metaphor targets blame to an individual villain within an organization. This allows the organization to continue its regular mode of operation, and ignore what Kuhn argues are the systemic problems of poverty and declining school budgets.
According to Kuhn, a self-described former card carrying member of the religious right (p. 8) critics have turned against public schools and their stupid, underworked and overpaid (p. 8) teachers because they dont want to acknowledge that the problem is poverty. Battling poverty is an expensive proposition and one that requires the redistribution of wealth. To fight back, he turns their tactics against them. Not only does Kuhn expose the fear-evoking frames of the education reformers, but he also uses emotion-evoking imagery and stories of his own to tell a counter-narrative: Maybe it isnt the teachers fault (p. 21). He does what Lakoff (2008) begs progressives to do: to construct the frame and to assign names, so that the phenomenon can be talked about openly (p. 133) and to say it and say it and say it. With power. With vigor. In unison (p. 146).
From the first chapter, Kuhn makes the attack on teachers and public education personal. He shares his story of how hea school administrator in rural Texascame to be an outspoken public education advocate. He introduces what he thinks the real problem is with public education: that high stakes, test-based accountability systematically sets up poor schools to fail because they are underfunded. Chapters Two through Eight lay out Kuhns arguments against the scare tactics used to convince the American public that schools are failing. He problematizes a testing cultureone that uses tests in ways he argues are not valid (i.e., value-added scores to evaluate teachers). He rails against corporations looking to profit off of school reform and the credulity of a media that refuses the motives of public schools suspiciously eager condemners (p. 4).
His language is vivid and sometimes hostile. He uses names like White Hats and Black Hats to differentiate between reformers who are compassionate for children and those who are in it for personal, economic, or political gains. Furthermore, some metaphors are a bit hyperbolic: e.g., in Chapter Two, Kuhn compares A Nation at Risk to Japanese internment camps during World War II. That might be the point, howeverto scare America about the scare tactics being used to justify education reformers.
His final chapter provides recommendations to counteract what he calls the failed prescription of accountability and business-driven reforms. Many stem from the problems of poverty, inequitable school funding, and misuse of standardized tests that he outlines in prior chapters. Kuhns suggestions include pre-K for children living in poverty, removing property wealth as a factor in school funding, and rejecting accountability formulas that do not mathematically factor in school context.
Yet these recommendations leave the reader wanting more. If property taxes were to be removed from a districts funding formula, what funding stream would replace them? If contexts are inherently unequal, what should be done about it? Do states have an obligation to provide wraparound services to underfunded districts that serve large populations of students living in poverty? Perhaps Kuhns best recommendations are those in the Appendix, which lists activist organizations at the national and state levels, journals, blogs, and websites that educators and community members who want to speak up for public education (and against privatization) can follow or join.
At times, it was difficult to follow how each chapter logically connected to the next, and how sections within each chapter fit together. Adding to the somewhat disjointed organization, Kuhn intersperses vignettesfrom his days as a missionary in Peru, and his job as a teacher and administrator in rural Texasthroughout each chapter. Some of these stories poignantly reveal the adverse effects of testing on his high school students; other anecdotes uncover the realities of poverty and prejudices faced by immigrant students that hampered their ability to perform well on tests. Yet, on occasion, it was unclear how certain vignettes, particularly stories from his time in Peru, directly connected back to his arguments about the direction of U.S. public education.
More emotionally-charged than research-grounded, Fear and Learning in America is not a book for graduate courses in education, unless course objectives include political argumentation and rhetoric. At its core, this is a book written by an educator for educators and others who yearn to get on with solving the root causes of poverty. In this sense, Kuhn provides voice for those charged with educating our nations studentsand a counter-narrative against the demonization of the American teacher.
Aoki, K. (2014, November 3). [Cover image]. Time, 184(17).
Lakoff, G. (2008). The political mind: why you can't understand 21st-century politics with an 18th-century brain. New York, NY: Penguin.
Vergara v. California. Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles. 27 Aug. 2014.