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

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

When Elite Pundits "Do" Education

So, apparently, Davis Guggenheim has a new movie coming out cheering on charter schools; Tom "Suck On This" Freidman is all atwitter:
Canada’s point is that the only way to fix our schools is not with a Superman or a super-theory. No, it’s with supermen and superwomen pushing super-hard to assemble what we know works: better-trained teachers working with the best methods under the best principals supported by more involved parents.
So we don't need Superman; we need a superman. (Sigh...)
Because we know what works, and it’s not a miracle cure. It is the whatever-it-takes-tenacity of the Geoffrey Canadas; it is the no-excuses-seriousness of the KIPP school (Knowledge is Power Program) founders; it is the lead-follow-or-get-out-of-the-way ferocity of the Washington and New York City school chancellors, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein.
Freidman is so obtuse that he doesn't even see the inherent contradiction of what he's saying. Rather than advocate for a true systemic change in our education system, we just need the educational equivalent of the X-Men to "push harder." We don't need miracles; we need miracle workers. This is how the mind of a NY Times pundit works.

Slavish devotion to personality is a hallmark of the elite's critique of our schools, and it is so pernicious because it keeps us from having an adult conversation about what we really need to do for the children of this country. Rhee, and Klein, and Wendy Kopp (Teach For America), and the KIPP crew, have built their careers around a To Sir, With Love narrative that exalts the superteacher as the savior of the youth of America: "Those 'bad' teachers are keeping kids down! We have to set higher standards! We have to get the best and the brightest into our failing schools!"

If only we would make it attractive for these "supermen" to become teachers, they would save our schools and our kids. We need those heroes: people who, unsurprisingly, breath the same rarified air as Freidman (who I'm sure believes he himself would have made a great teacher, but, unfortunately, he's too busy saving the world...).

It's a narrative that comes straight out of the conservative fantasies of Ayn Rand: if Howard Roark were a teacher instead of an architect, he'd be founding his own KIPP academy, which he would build with his bare hands and staff with others who were beat down by the "system" (read: unions) which, of course, would have a vested interest in his failure.

It's ridiculous, and it's belied by the facts. Charter schools are not a miracle cure. There is little to find in them that can be transferred to a larger system. And they are certainly no substitute for a serious, concerted effort to transform the lives of the disenfranchised in this country who need jobs, housing, public safety, and health care for their families as well as good schools if their kids are to succeed.

But our elite punditocracy offers nothing more than platitudes:
Guggenheim kicks off the film explaining that he was all for sending kids to their local public schools until “it was time to choose a school for my own children, and then reality set in. My feelings about public education didn’t matter as much as my fear of sending them to a failing school. And so every morning, betraying the ideals I thought I lived by, I drive past three public schools as I take my kids to a private school. But I’m lucky. I have a choice. Other families pin their hopes to a bouncing ball, a hand pulling a card from a box or a computer that generates numbers in random sequence. Because when there’s a great public school there aren’t enough spaces, and so we do what’s fair. We place our children and their future in the hands of luck.”
I obviously haven't seem the film yet, but if Davis Guggenheim is going to conflate charter schools with the very, VERY elite private schools those in his socio-economic class send their children to, then I have no time for him.

Parents like Guggenheim (and Friedman) inhabit a world of extreme privilege, where the very wealthiest of us dress their children in matching blazers and ship them off to fortresses nestled in the toniest neighborhoods of big cities or the leafy, green pastures of the exurbs. Those schools are nothing like urban charter schools, and the students are nothing alike, no matter how you dress them.

It is a hallmark of our punditocracy's ignorance about the lives of poor children that they think creating poor simulations of Choate or Lawrenceville or Sidwell Friends will somehow "save" them. The union bashing that accompanies this attitude is an insult to the many fine public school teachers all over this country who owe their decent wages and benefits to collective bargaining.

If he could take a little time out from advocating for wars against countries that never attacked us, Freidman would do well to take his cues from Jonathan Kozol, who actually spends time in schools, talking to poor kids and listening to them about their lives.

As I've said: there is a place for charter schools. But charter cheerleading is not a substitute for real educational reform.

ADDING: Like I said, Michelle Rhee has based her career on the notion that she is a miracle worker. Don't believe the hype.


Anonymous said...

Amen. I haven't seen the movie yet either, and won't unless I can see it for free. But the very idea of it is crazy.

The American elite are bending over backwards to convince us that all we need are better, more committed people in order to have a better education system in this country. As someone who used to believe them, then actually went to do that work, I can honestly say that this is you-know-what.

If teachers have to be superheroes, and schoolchildren have to put in 60-hour weeks, in order to "fix" our educational problems, then THAT is the problem right there. It's the larger system, not the people in it.

Duke said...

One thing I've found funny about teaching over the years is how many people think they understand what's wrong with schools based on THEIR experience - or their kids'.

It's like saying you know what's wrong with modern medicine because you've all been to the doctor.

Bob Somerby at the Daily Howler has been writing about this for years - the country's elite punditocracy shows up every once in a while at a school and declares what the problems are and the "obvious" fixes, then waltz's off to cheerlead a war or call for more tax cuts for the wealthy or whatever.

Thanks for posting.