Something New Under the Sun

Dear whoever,

Puzzlements. Why all this hooplah about reforms that are clearly not working? If “open education” was dismissed based on so-called science (I never did know what evidence they had), how can this new wave of reform be picking up more steam in the midst of a blitz of data proving it wrong-headed?

Assuming, as I have for some time, that the current “reform” mania around public education is the offspring of not one but at least four, five, et al currents, all alive and well in the political climate of the past few decades, can we actually stop it, or even slow it down by noting that it defies reality—and surely all sound research. Maybe not, but it is worth a try.

Yes, the facts are blithely ignored by quite intelligent and well-meaning people, but maybe a siege of facts will finally get heard. .

Examples of what is ignored:

1) If unions are the problem how come the states with no teachers unions have not shown any evidence of being even as innovative as places like NYC or Chicago or LA where teacher’s unions have been generally cast as the enemies. Maybe what has united many is just the chance to eliminate one of the strongest unions left in America. Having gotten rid of most unions serving the private sector and made organizing new unions nearly impossible, there is only one strong union base left: the public sector.

In the past half century, as Richard Rothstein of EPI has documented in Income Stagnation and Inequality, the percentage of workers who are members of unions is below that of any other democratic modern nation—and less than half of what it was at its peak. Given that most public sector unions are not allowed to strike and must pay heavy financial penalties if they do, their political influence is what they have long been focused on. If they are eliminated as a source of financial help to candidates and above all of organized manpower on behalf of candidates, then corporate money—freed from all constraints by recent court decisions—can truly run public life with virtually no organized opposition.

If we confront far more inequality than at any prior time in our history, and if we truly believed all that anti-communist propaganda about the virtues of a strong middle class, free trade-unionism and free-enterprise, we would be worried about throwing out the first two and resting it all on the third. The centralization of media power in the hands of a few people of international wealth and the internationalization of much of America’s private enterprise also undermines even the liberal pro-capitalist western propaganda of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Everybody but “the workers of the world” seem to have united.

It fits.

2) It also fits a climate of glorification of “individual responsibility,” while in fact, as David Brooks notes in the NY Times, real personal responsibility has been thoroughly trashed. Who paid ANY price for their intentional disregard of the public good in the Wall Street and Housing boom, et al? A lady was executed in South Carolina the other day for plotting the death of her husband. But the death of our economy and the enrichment of a small group of con artists has gone almost entirely unpunished—except the punishment inflicted on the victims.

I liked David Brooks’ column (Sept. 24th) on the “responsibility deficit”. I might even order the Philip Howard book he recommends. Where inequity does not make it a farce, I too want government to lay its hands off. My default position is always one of free choice. But when 2% of Americans hold so much power over 98%, “free,” choice is not free. Brook’s notes that teachers “have to obey a steady stream of mandates that govern everything from how they treat an unruly child to the way they teach.” Then we accuse them of failing to be held accountable!

I am even against involuntary schooling, in the abstract. But in the world we live in I know who will and who will not become educated better to their own self-interests. Maybe with more attention to the potential of “public” discourse we might even begin to honestly talk about what we mean by being held “accountable”—and to whom. Jamie Vollmer (in Schools Cannot Do It Alone), who comes at this from a businessman’s background making ice cream, notes: “We are witnessing a campaign to annihilate the emotional and intellectual ties that bind the American people to their public schools. And it is working.”

The arguments of the disparate forces that joined on behalf of the Duncan agenda—from the strict free-enterprisers to the civil rights activists– needs to be considered. One piece of good news. Among many of those attracted by the idea of “getting tough” on our schools on behalf of the underdogs—especially children of color—there is a shift that I can detect. What we are not seeking is going back to pre-NCLB/Nation at Risk practices, and our arguments need to be clear on this point.

Puzzlements are the beginnings of wisdom, as I begin to unravel this dilemma.


5 Responses

  1. Hello Deborah,I visited your website after reading that Michelle Rhee resigned her post as Superintendent…always hoping that the great educators will survive the political rule – simplicity, cost effective solutions are out there! Now listening to Philip Howard – excellent points.Hope you are well, Marcia

  2. Yes, puzzlement is a good word to describe how I feel about the current outcropping of very vocal, ubiquitous education "experts" who have no or very limited experience in schools and who all seem to be spouting this tough love nonsense. Suddenly these "experts" are the mainstream sweethearts of (pop)ed reform: Most notably: Oprah holding up Davis Guggenheim and Rhee (taught 2 years w/ TFA) as saviors of public educationThe line up of "experts" on the Education Nation program : DC Mayor Fenty, Rhee, Canada (a visionary, to be sure, but with no classroom experience. And for all his amazing work, his primary message when speaking publicly is one of placing blame. weird) On the closing panel they even had country singer, John Legend (he volunteers for a charter school network) speaking angrily about the state of public education. John Legend, education expert? Huh? As far as I can tell, the National education "discourse" has turned into a high profile propaganda fest. But it is puzzling. How and why has this happened? Why, for example, weren't you and/or Diane invited to participate in the NBS event? I thought John Merrow's review of Education Nation was pretty accurate:, his analysis of the event is applicable to most ed reform discussions appearing in the mainstream media these days. We need to get a high profile director/producer (George Lucus? only half joking) to get behind a more balanced film about challenges facing public schools, what good education looks like and how it might be brought to scale.

  3. You excuse the NEA/AFT too quickly and easily, and your suggestion that Public Employee unions are a good thing prove you to be a partisan with, I'm sorry to say, a weak grip on the entire "good thing" concept. Public Employee unions are in the business of Electing their own Bosses, while Politicians are in the Business of Rewarding and Paying Off those who fund their campaigns and Elect them. How, in any way, can this EVER be a "good thing" in anyone's mind? Simple logic and a basic understanding of human nature should make this obvious, no?My personal experiences and understanding (teaching, school board service, contract negotiator, parent, etc.) has proven over and over that Union Thugs care nothing for the quality of the work their members perform. Manipulating Work Rules, Salary Increases, Benefits and Tenure have become their only business. Kids and Edcuation be damned. Oh, and this is not just my experience, but the general "consensus of opinion" I have from dozens of others in close contact with modern American public education.Government interventions (programs) have only served to make it worse, and to reinforce the power unions hold over schools and their taxpaying customers and wards. I wish it were not so, but that is the real world and the government/union complex must be attacked and broken before any improvement will be made. One only needs to follow the travails of California's incredible fall in school quality, while breaking their collective bank with Teacher compensation & benefits increases. As it is, with the degeneration of Teachers "associations" from representatives of a profession (ala' doctors, lawyers, etc.), to nothing more than a Teamsters clone, Teaching Professionals have reduced their perceived status to the same level as truck drivers and dock workers – both honorable pursuits, but not on the same plain as educating future generations. Too bad for us all.

  4. @Marcia, et alia: I think that Philip Howard's TED Talk, while having really great general points about how our country's legal system can be improved, was flawed in regard to his critique of our utterly broken education system. Howard is unaware of the root causes of our education problems.He says in his talk that, "Public agenda did a survey for us a couple of years ago where they found that 43 percent of the high school teachers in America say that they spend at least half of their time maintaining order in the classroom. That means those students are getting half the learning they're supposed to, because if one child is disrupting the class no one can learn. And what happens when the teacher tries to assert order? They're threatened with a legal claim. We also surveyed that. 78 percent of the middle and high school teachers in America have been threatened by their students with violating your rights with lawsuits by their students."He goes on to say, "They are threatening their [teachers]. It's not that they usually sue. It's not that they would win, but it's an indication of the corrosion of authority."This is a Red Herring. He is calling for more discipline in the classroom. This is a "reform" that gets trotted out every few years, or every election cycle. The real cause of student discontent and "misbehavior" is that school authority has been trampling young-human rights, egos, and self-esteem since the creation of compulsory school. No wonder that the kids act out. Small, quotidian acts of civil disobedience. There is altogether too much arbitrary authority, and not enough mutual respect.Many kids hate school and so do many of their teachers. The system has pitted the two against one another. Kids have no voice; teachers have less and less voice as top-down "leadership" (textbooks and tests) takes over more and more.See Ken Robinson's TED Talk: Does School Kill Creativity? and a second talk. He puts the case much milder than I would. Sugata Mitra gives two talks that demonstrate that kids are effective autodidacts.The solution is Summerhill/Sudbury/Albany Free school, etc., and unschooling philosophies. These are tried and true educational experiments. Until stop barking up the wrong tree (in part, by listening to lawyers instead of teachers and students) and we free our children to practice democracy and self-directed education things will only get worse.Sincerely,Shaw

  5. Eumaeus attacks unions for helping elect their own bosses. Excuse me, but isn't that the point of a democracy, that we elect our own leaders?Also, given that corporations spend millions upon millions funding election campaigns, and represent the interests of a tiny minority of the most wealthy Americans. Public Employee unions are one of the only counterbalances to that force and represent the interests of working people.Until we remove the huge power of corporations over their workers, government policy and elections, we need to strengthen, not weaken union power.Are unions perfect, of course not. But the alternative of not having them is so much worse, it scares me to even consider it. Just look at the history of industry pre-union, and what has happened to workers int the industries in this country where the unions have been destroyed.

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