Last week, Russ Whitehurst (director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC) published an interesting essay proposing a novel approach to standards-based accountability. I’ll summarize his main point below, but what I’d really like to talk about in this post is something that happens in the eighth paragraph of his several-page essay. In two sentences, Whitehurst makes a common rhetorical move that I’ll call “bracketing.” I want to discuss how this move affects our discourse and thinking about educational quality.
Whitehurst expresses concerns about melding the new rigor of the CCSS with the impractical “100% proficiency for 100% of students” approach of NCLB. His novel solution involves a two-tiered accountability system: states and the federal government would be in charge of minimum competency standards, and schools and districts would take care of anything above and beyond the basics. I trust this is a fair, if brief, summary of his article. Now, on to his eighth paragraph…
“Note that my focus is test-based accountability. Other things I’ll not cover here, such as students’ aspirations and soft skills, are important too.”
In his title (“The Future of Test-Based Accountability”), Whitehurst makes it clear that his discussion is about how to use test scores, not about what test scores tell us (or don’t), how they shape teaching and learning, or their unintended consequences. These are all concerns that he chooses to “bracket.”
Careful thinking about the complex issues involved in education reform often requires us to set aside (or “bracket”) certain issues in order to narrow our focus and examine a particular issue in depth. It is certainly defensible, then, for Whitehurst to “bracket” what he considers to be nonessential concerns within the context of his paper.
How does “bracketing” work? Basically, by contracting the scope of the conversation. It is a powerful silencing move because it essentially disallows discussion of the “bracketed” topic. When the same issue is bracketed again and again, in a variety of contexts and discussions, then bringing it up can become difficult… you start to feel like that student who keeps raising his hand to say the same thing. At some point, you begin to sense that the other students are rolling their eyes and getting irritated, and so you decide just to let it go.
This can become problematic in conversations about educational quality when citizens, policymakers, and researchers habitually (almost reflexively) “bracket” the same set of concerns and – this is the dangerous part – neglect to “un-bracket” them. It seems to me that this has happened with the very concerns that Whitehurst “brackets,” concerns about the centrality of test scores in our concept of educational quality.
Recently, Arne Duncan announced a shift in federal policy that involves an unprecedented use of special-needs students’ standardized test scores. Predictably, he “brackets” the same issues Whitehurst does.
Next week we’ll hear from a special educator from Washington, DC, who will argue passionately against Duncan’s “bracketing.” She’ll paint a very real picture of “students’ aspirations and soft skills” and argue that, particularly for special-needs students, the consequences of “bracketing” are just too high.