Winning the Game of Who Frames the Problem: Debt Ceilings and School Reform

The avalanche of disgust expressed by Americans over the recent debt-ceiling compromise in Washington, D.C. and subsequent downgrading of the national credit rating highlights how perceptions, power and politics determine which problems get fixed and how. Framing a problem is subjective, not objective, and involves power far more than cool, impartial  sifting of facts leading to an evidence-based decision. Those who win at this game get naming and blaming rights.

What happened in this policy controversy?  Most economists and President Obama have said that the major problem the U.S. faces is generating jobs to get 13 million unemployed Americans back to full-time work. To solve that problem, the President sought to raise revenues through a variety of measures including taxing the wealthy to fund federal spending on roads, schools, and other public projects while helping businesses create jobs. Federal spending would put people back to work.

Congressional Republicans, however, framed the major problem as ever-mounting federal budget deficits that had to be reduced through cutting back government programs. The debt-ceiling political struggle became an arena for the GOP and the President to offer contrasting definitions of the problem. As the country hurtled to a default, President Obama embraced the GOP’s view of the problem in agreeing to trillions of dollars of cuts with nary a money raising item in the compromise.  A stark lesson in the power of competing perceptions backed up by hard-core determined Republican votes in the game of framing problems.

And so it is (and has been) in theschool reform game: name and frame the problem and then distribute blame.

For most of the 20th century, the problem (see Mismatch ) was framed as one in which low income minority children were named as being responsible for poor academic performance. Blaming children and their families for school failure dominated elite opinion. After the Civil Rights movement, however, blaming the poor for their shortcomings diminished. Instead, examining how institutions (such as schools) shape individual behavior gained favor among policy elites. The Effective Schools movement in the 1980s showed that educators and community activists could make a difference in raising academic achievement.

In the past two decades, a coalition of CEOs, entrepreneurs, civic leaders, and foundation executives have gone further and reframed the persistent problem of low academic achievement in urban schools by naming and blaming teachers, union protection of ineffective teachers, and lack of teacher accountability for student outcomes. This coalition, with unlimited access to media and top federal and state policymakers, have succeeded in framing  school reforms as good guys who make “no excuses”–the white hats–vying against those bad guys–the black hats–who protect teachers and make excuses, i.e., poverty and conditions outside of schools play a large role in student success.

*Framed in this way, teachers are expected to overcome students’ low achievement, low graduation rates, and low college admissions, regardless of neighborhood and family poverty, poor nutrition, and poor health.

*Framed in this way, getting better teachers into classrooms (e.g., Teach for America) and evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores (e.g., IMPACT in Washington, D.C.) become attractive solutions. Both philanthropists (e.g., Bill Gates, Eli Broad) and federal officials (e.g., President Obama and Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education) have funded these initiatives through large grants and The Race to the Top.

*Framed in this way, teachers are both the problem and solution to minority and poor students’ low academic achievement and the larger social inequalities present in the U.S.

*Framed in this way, teachers will inevitably get blamed when test scores lag, the achievement gap continues unclosed, and graduation rates for minorities remain low.

So far, the naming, framing, and blaming game of school reform is a solid victory for the current political coalition.

What alternative ways of reframing the problem of low academic achievement are there?

Consider that the problem of low scores on international tests–touted loudly and often by policy elites as linked to economic growth–was not due to the quality of teachers or teaching but stemmed from the fragmented governance of U.S. schools and patchwork curriculum. There are 14,000 school districts, 50 states, and federal policies that splinter any coherent curriculum and instruction. Curriculum frameworks and high-stakes exams vary across states. Moreover, there is uneven instruction of state curricula and different teacher education programs for novices to teach the curricula.

The solution might be, as David K. Cohen, suggests unified governance and “a coherent educational infrastructure” where a common curriculum benefits students and teachers.

” If teachers and students used common curricula, for example, they would have more equal chances to teach and learn. Teachers could have meaningful opportunities to learn to teach the common curriculum in preservice or later professional education. And there could be assessments of students’ learning that were valid for the common curriculum, so students could … be tested on what they were supposed to have been taught. Reform should aim to build these key elements of infrastructure, and build educators’ capability to use it well.”

Reframed this way, fragmented school governance and a Rube Goldberg infrastructure over a century old become the problem. Common curriculum and instruction become the solution. Thus, policymakers, not teachers, become the dart board to name and blame.

1 Comment

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One response to “Winning the Game of Who Frames the Problem: Debt Ceilings and School Reform

  1. Pingback: The Global Search for Education: More Focus on Change «

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