Why Rural Teachers Can’t Teach Rural Literature

Recently the “standards and testing movement” stumbled in the wake of ever-growing anti-test resistance orchestrated by average citizens.  The stumble came in the form of federal legislation allowing states to decide how much testing they will do in their own public schools beyond a federal minimum.  Pearson and other textbook and testing companies fiercely lobbied to avert the legislation, but to no avail.  The “Every Student Succeeds Act” was a rare example of the fact that democracy in the United States has not yet completely eroded.  But with respect to public education, there is still a long way to go.  Corporations have controlled education policy for several decades, urging legislation that will culminate in ever-larger corporate profits.   They were behind the ideological “take-over” of the federal Department of Education such that the only type of research that receives funding is that which will culminate in ever-larger corporate profits—research that must tie an instructional act or a curricular choice to results on an expensive standardized test.  Corporations were behind the establishment of common standards for everyone, so that they could sell their products from one end of the country to another.

Teachers making their own instructional and curricular decisions are an obstacle to the pursuit of corporate profit.  Everything that can be done to remove professional judgment from teachers has therefore received a hearing and has been given a try.  But what corporations and politicians have discovered is that profit-generating instructional and curricular decisions have left the nation slipping in international comparisons, have left the nation burdened by an achievement gap that is growing after decades of shrinking, have left an outraged public tired of dealing with school-based angst and depression among their over-tested and over-stressed children; in short, their decisions have made a mess of things.  But while Pearson suffered a blow when the Every Child Succeeds Act passed, indeed, its stock price plummeted the very next day, the residual grip of corporate America on the educational fate of children remains strong.

Rural teachers can’t assign rural stories or rural novels because they are not on the tests that students still must take, so rural children grow up with an incomplete understanding of their own rural place or the role that community once played in the well-being of their rural place.  In the absence of that understanding they assume that the lack of economic opportunity all around them is something that just happened naturally, that no one willed it to happen, and no one profited from it happening—both erroneous and dangerous assumptions.

Everyone understands the power of the profit motive in the United States.  Half of a trillion dollars is spent on public education in this country each year.  That’s a lot of money and corporations want a much larger chunk of it.  But what is particularly insidious is the extent to which controlling the curriculum through standards and testing, that is, keeping rural novels away from rural children by making sure they are not in the standards and not on the tests, contributes to the inability of the next generation to understand the extent to which they are victims of policy that enriches some at the expense of many, victims of policy that slowly erodes their own community and others like it, and victims of policy that leads them to believe that in order to be successful, they must leave.  That’s an American tragedy.

About Paul Theobald

Currently a visiting professor of educational innovation at the University of Southern Indiana. Author of the acclaimed book Education Now: How Rethinking America's Past Can Change Its Future. Noted authority in the field of place based education.

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