I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Why Are Progressives Wrong On Education?

Longtime readers know that Digby, proprietor of the blog Hullabaloo, is one of my role models. Aside from being wicked smart, she manages to find just the right mix of snark, wonk, and earnestness in her prose. She's also a shrewd judge of talent: adding David Atkins to her blog is one of the best moves she's ever made. So Digby's endorsement coupled with Atkins's own volume of work are more than enough for me to trust his reporting.

Why the prelude? Because Atkins wrote a very important piece about a meeting he and a few other progressive bloggers had at the Democratic National Convention with Howard Dean, the former DNC chairman, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. I already wrote about Atkins's insightful observation about the usefulness of narrative in countering the corporate reformy movement; now I want to get to the meat of the meeting.
Howard Dean expressed his support for Randi as the most progressive union leader in the country, and expressed his anger at those who attack teachers without having any idea what is going on in public schools. Pre-K from 0-3 years old was a major focus of his early remarks: it's hard to teach kids who are severely damaged in the first place. Dean also said that he worried about private for-profit charter schools because they end up the same way that private prisons do. Metrics were not a problem in and of themselves, but we have a long way to go before we have really good ways of evaluating the quality of a teacher. I think he's right on all these fronts. [emphasis mine]
Oh, dear. Where to begin?

Contrary to Dean's assertions, American school systems have been evaluating teachers for decades; that's not the problem. Teachers have been and continue to be perfectly capable of regulating themselves, just like every other profession - as long as they are given the chance.

Besides, there is no evidence that our schools are overrun with bad teachers, and there's no evidence that we are letting gobs of awful educators infiltrate the ranks of the teacher corps on their mission to destroy America. Yes, we do have some think-tanky nonsense that attempts to show that "teechers are getting stoopider" (guess what - they aren't).

But the real issue is that even though we know teacher quality can vary, we have no viable policy on the table for improving teacher quality on a large scale. The corporate reformies say they want better teachers, but what they propose is absurd. Merit pay works as well as the magic wands of fairies. Teacher evaluation using standardized tests works as well as rolling dice.

So the problem with Dean's statement is that he is buying into a reformy framework: the data we are collecting from standardized tests will be useful when we finally figure out what to do with it. And its utility will not be found in program assessment or student assessment: standardized tests are really all about teacher evaluation.

This is very, very bad: when one of the smartest political operatives in the progressive wing of the Democratic party is buying into the premises of the corporate reformy movement, it should sound a wake up call for all of us fighting for public education. Even Howard Dean is being led astray.

Who's responsible for this? Atkins continues:
On the issue of firing bad teachers, Weingarten said that the "reformers" did raise a needed question of the protocols for firing inferior teachers. Dean noted that most people don't like to fire people, but it's also important to hold the administrators accountable for not stepping in quickly to take action when teachers aren't doing their jobs. [emphasis mine]
Hold it - this was a "needed question"? Why was it "needed"? Because, as Diane Ravitch points out, American students are performing better than at any time in history. And when you control for poverty, American students are at the top of the world. Our largest education problem is that 1 in 4 American children live in poverty - the worst rate in the developed world. And nothing predicts a child's educational achievement better than whether he or she lives in poverty.

Yes, we can always continue to improve teacher recruitment, training, and evaluation; but saying this is "needed" is like worrying about the inflation on your tires when your transmission is falling out. Weingarten should be challenging this in front of Dean, not acquiescing to it. Atkins continues:
On the subject of charter schools, Weingarten cautioned that it's not even about charters anymore, but rather vouchers, similar to Medicare and other issues on which the Right is pushing similar systems. Dean said that charter schools shouldn't be rejected out of hand, but tighten the rules so that they can't cherrypick, and that the public system should learn about the innovations coming from them. Dean brought up the successful charter schools being run by AFT as an example of this phenomenon. [emphasis mine]
No. No, no, no, no, NO! It most certainly is about charters, dammit!

Look, I think I see where Weingarten is going here, and I admit it's clever: people hate the idea of Medicare "vouchers" so much that even the Republicans are staying away from the term. So why not make a parallel construction between Medicare vouchers and school vouchers? It's a nice move - yes, keep that.

But giving up on the critique of charter schools is a very bad idea, because acknowledging charter "successes" acquiesces to the reformy idea that schools will be saved by "choice." And it's critical to building our narrative to get people to understand that charters are merely the illusion of choice. They exclude far too many children to be scalable, and the "successful" charters are largely autocratic, corporatized factories that segregate students and encourage shallow thinking and narrow curricula.

I wouldn't have nearly the problem with charters that I do if their cheerleaders were honest about what they are doing. But they're not: these people continue to use charters' "success" to push a narrative that poverty can be overcome if we just fire a few more "bad" teachers and get the evil unions out of the way. This is a narrative Weingarten should be fighting; but, if we are to believe Atkins's reporting (see why I wrote that first paragraph?), she isn't.

Now, here's the thing that's going to surprise some of some of you: Weingarten is not to blame for this. How do I know? Because - and it really pains me to say this, because I have great respect for the man - Howard Dean was already in the tank for corporate reforminess.

An example:
It was about individuals that can change lives. The interesting thing was I think it fit really perfectly with your generation. I think your generation isn’t interested in politics — people at Yale are, but not in general. I think most people in your generation seek to change the world by living in their communities or someone else’s community – Teach For America is a perfect example. I once said to my son, “do you really think that dropping untrained people in a classroom no matter how smart they are for two years really can make a difference?” He said, “Look at it this way Dad — most charter schools in this country are started by TFA graduates.” That’s an example of change from the bottom up. I think that’s the hallmark of your generation. [emphasis mine]
Poor Gary Runbinstein is probably being rushed to the emergency room after choking on that. Here's another one of Dean's embraces of reforminess:
During a recent television appearance, former Vermont Gov. and Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean said “charter schools are the future” and suggested that the charter school/teacher union “battle is coming to an end.” [emphasis mine]
Dear, lord, what is possessing this man to embrace reforminess? Well, it looks like blood is thicker than policy:
Gentle reader, today’s Vows section did not disappoint. One of the featured nuptials involved a young couple who met at Yale and then saw their love blossom while Teaching for America in the city that is the greatest laboratory for education innovation today–New Orleans.The bride has since decided to dedicate her life to teaching in an urban public school to abandon the teaching profession after two years and attend law school at UPenn (which really is an Ivy). The groom (who graduated with honors from Yale–sip) founded a nonprofit to advocate for charter schools in Philadelphia, because, as we know, charter schools in the City of Brotherly Love have been all but forgotten in the rush to dismantle the public schools and hand them over to charter school operators. 
But no New York Times celebration of love would be complete without a distinguished pedigree. The young master happens to be the son of the one-time presidential candidate Howard Dean. Reader: I will allow you to toast to the happy couple yourself. Just don’t forget the mimosas. [emphasis mine]
Aw, crap.

And so it goes. Howard Dean's kid is a charter cheerleader. Barack Obama sends the girls to a private school that eschews standardized testing and drill-and-kill, even as he sells Race To The Top. Arne Duncan graduated from the epicenter of Dewey-style progressive education,yet he is Obama's choir leader in singing the psalms of refominess. Cory Booker is a wholly-owned subsidiary of one of the biggest education profiteers in the nation. Andrew Cuomo excludes teachers from making education policy. Dannel Malloy wallows in reforminess; so does Deval Patrick. Rahm Emanuel is at war with teachers and unions.

Sweet lord, is there anyone in the Democratic party who is on our side?

Let's be clear: even the most progressive wing of the Democratic party is reformy. Which leaves the teachers unions with a choice: work with the least odious of the reformies, or withdraw from the political world entirely. Well, we saw what happened when the teachers union in Illinois pulled out of politics, and it wasn't pretty. On the other hand: maybe a strike is what is needed to finally get some respect from the likes of Emanuel.

But I don't like the idea that we have to take it that far on a national level. I'd like to see us get proactive and stave off any more confrontations with people who should be our allies. I want us engaged with these people. I just don't want them to keep going unchallenged.

Which brings us back to Randi Weingarten. Many of you - people I respect and admire - are pissed off at the woman. I don't have a problem with anyone telling her what they think she's doing wrong; she's a big girl, and she knows her membership is frustrated and demoralized. We have been taking it and taking it for years now, and things are only getting worse. Part of her job is being accountable to her members for that. As I've said before, I respect that Weingarten is willing to listen to and answer her critics within the teaching corps.

But Weingraten's critics need to understand something: she and all of the teachers unions are walking a very fine line. We can't let these right-wing, plutocratic robber barons win political power, and we can't let them win the "reform" debate. But those are not necessarily the same objectives. Withdrawing support for reformy Democrats is a dangerous game that could potentially shut us out entirely. We can't afford that.

Yes, I want Weingarten to push back harder when Dean buys into a reformy talking point; but I do not want her to push him away so far that we lose him completely. Because where else are we going to go? I think it's fair to say that Randi Weingarten is in an impossible position: we ought to acknowledge that before bludgeoning her.

That said: the current situation is unacceptable. What are we going to do?

Stand by...

ADDING: Well. (h/t Susan Ohanian)

ADDING MORE: You-know-who, America's most famous mediocre teacher/administrator, leads the "lefty" reformy charge. Stand by...

AND SOME MORE: Now we're talking.


Deb said...

Boy Duke, you have sharpened your skills for the back to school season - and just in time. I was talking with a friend in Chicago recently about some of this and the Dump Duncan campaign -- which I have no trouble with at all. But her answer was sobering - getting rid of Duncan will not solve the problem. The Koolaid is being drunk by all walks of political life these days and the marketization of public education is entrenched in both political parties. Grassroots support for a paradigm shift is essential - we have to stop this trend at every level and speak up every time there is another example of their bad policies. The unions are stuck between a rock and a hard place to be sure. I do not want CTU to have to strike, but if they do, I will be supporting them 100% because they are striking for all of us - not just teachers - all of us who want to protect public education.

Duke said...

Thx my friend. We have a big fight ahead - glad we are on the same team!