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

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Progressive Education Narrative

Hello Hullabaloo readers. Thanks to David Atkins for the nod and the kind words; he and Digby are two of my heroes. 

Hello Jon Pelto readers; I appreciate the shout out. Part II of this post is here. Thx, Jon, and keep doing what you do for CT!

David Atkins of Hullabaloo wrote a post that those of us in the edu-blogosphere need to pay attention to. Atkins was invited to a small meeting of influential bloggers and activists at the Democratic convention with former DNC Chairman Howard Dean and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. What happened at this meeting is important: if we are ever going to mount a real defense against corporate reforminess, we need to get people like Dean and Atkins on board.

I'll deal with some specific points in a later post; Atkins's reporting is important enough that it deserves multiple looks. But right now, I want everyone in our orbit to listen to this and think about it very carefully:
My brother Dante asked about the image development problem, in which the unions are seen as recalcitrant to "reform," even as younger activists embrace the conservative "reform" agenda as a cool new approach. Here Weingarten's response was less than encouraging, simply falling back on the idea that what matters isn't so much the narrative as who is doing the work, and that we have to be "sacrosanct on the issues." Unfortunately, that's not going to work. Never has before, and it's not going to now. Labor is going to get killed with that perspective. The narrative is of all-consuming importance. [emphasis mine]
I'm not a political operative, but what Atkins says here seems to be to be spot on. Michelle Rhee and Chris Cerf and Joel Klein and Ben Austin and Wendy Kopp and the KIPPsters and the Broadies are selling a story. They don't deal in facts because the facts are not on their side, but that's OK: their tall tales are "truthy" enough to stimulate the nerve endings in the guts of credulous pundits and centrist Democrats.

Their narrative is basically this:

America's students are falling way behind the rest of the world. That's why so many children are in poverty and why our economy is in the tank: if more children got a better eduction, everything would be super. While we all love teachers, their unions are protecting the few bad ones; and it only takes a few bad teachers to ruin the lives of large numbers of kids and send America into a tailspin. The solution to this is to bring market reforms to schools: "choice" will make all schools better, make teachers better, and save our economy.

Regular readers here or of the folks on my blogroll know this is all absolute nonsense. But it is a story: it's cohesive, it's truthy, and it has a pretense of caring about the poor that salves the guilty consciences of the greedy right.

We don't have a story like this - yet. The good news is that we are beginning to create one. Again, I know some of you are getting frustrated with the choir-preaching mode that we seem to be stuck in, but that's how these narratives get built. The reformy right figured this out long ago, but they have to work a lot harder at it than we do. They have to sell nonsense, illogic, and lies; we just have to find the right way to tell the truth.

Again, I'm no politician; I don't have the chops to write the full orchestral score. I can, however, whistle the tune:

In every country in the world, poverty impedes educational success. Our biggest education problem is that more of our kids are in poverty than any other developed nation. When America's public school teachers get kids who are well-fed and healthy and live in stable homes with parents who have good jobs, those kids do better in school than any other children in the world.

But a group of people who do not teach (or taught for a short while and not very well) have decided to blame teachers - teachers! - for all the problems in our country. They say that "choice" will save our schools, but the "choice" they offer is between underfunded, crumbling public schools and corporatized, autocratic charter schools that they admit they will never serve all children. These schools cherry-pick their students and then falsely claim they have the secret for success. Their inability to educate all students proves that public schools are not the problem - poverty is. 

Why do these people sell this snake oil? Three reasons:

1) Many of them are looking to make money - a lot of money - off of education. They want to do to our schools what they did to our military, turning them into a bunch of Haliburton Highs.

2) They want to finally and completely break the unions. Once the teachers fall, it's all over for the middle class.

3) They need a scapegoat. Teachers didn't create these problems: the corporate titans of Wall Street did. These plutocrats are now paying a gang of carnival barkers a big bunch of money to blame teachers - teachers! - for the problems they themselves made.

Yeah, it needs work - a lot of work. But the basic story is solid, and it has the added benefit of being true. We need the Atkinses and the Deans to work with us and start crafting this story for the mainstream.

Again, more on Atkins's post to come.


Commuting Teacher said...

We need to collaborate and network. I am a huge fan of Brian Jones: http://vimeo.com/36905750. Between people like you, him, Darcie, and probably a hundred others, the narrative can be formed. Yes, you are right, this must be done.

Galton said...


OTE admin said...

Howard Dean's son is involved in charter schools.

I doubt you will get him onboard with anything.