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, February 6, 2016

Reforminess IS The Status Quo

I'm going to put the charts and graphs and scatterplots and citations away for a minute so we can cut right to the heart of the matter.

The 25th Anniversary celebration of Teach For America is only a few hours old, and already I see from following social media that it has become yet another event where reformsters, like a Top 40 radio station, will play the same songs over and over again until they are hopefully fixed into the brains of the American public:

- Charter schools are "beating the odds."

- Teacher quality is the number one "in-school" factor affecting student success. But teacher education programs are not working and should be replaced with "real" teacher training, like TFA and Relay Graduate School.

- "Choice" is bringing equity to urban schools. So is testing. If you question the proliferation either -- even for your own children -- you're pretty much a classist and/or racist.

- Poverty is not destiny; "miracle" schools are proving poverty's effects can be overcome.

And so on. I find that bromides like these have the primary intent of shutting down critiques of the "reform" movement: for example, if you point out that we really don't know much at all about the vast majority of charter schools...

... or that even the studies charter advocates themselves cite don't show substantial gains for the sector as a whole, or that the "high-performing" charter chains largely get their gains by student sorting on both observed and unobserved variables...

Well, you're obviously a union hack who is protecting the status quo. Because all we need to do is move school governance away from "the blob" and into the marketplace and we'll have equity between urban and suburban districts. After all, teacher quality is so important, and clearly charter teachers are better, because their schools' results are better. Which means the much more awesome staffs at urban charters -- who are far less experienced and have much less training than unionized, ed school-trained, public district school teachers -- have found the secret to overcoming poverty: getting out from under the thumb of the corrupting unions and into prep programs that give them five weeks of summer training...

If you follow the arguments of the "reform" movement, you'll know what I'm saying is not a parody -- these people really do believe this stuff. They really do think schools, by themselves, can overcome massive economic inequality, generations of racism, and a social system whose primary task is to replicate itself. They really do think that simply changing the governance structure of a school away from democratic local control to market-based private control will somehow unleash education excellence.

They really do think the quality of teachers is uniformly mediocre, but that it can be improved without spending any additional monies simply by changing incentive structures. They really do think fast turnaround prep programs are perfectly adequate for training people in the incredibly complex art and science of classroom teaching.

They really do think test-prep pedagogy is adequate for gaining the social and cultural capital necessary for social mobility. They really do think everyone should go to college, and that over-credentialing the millions of people who do necessary work will somehow ameliorate socio-economic inequity.

It's amazing to me that we are arguing about things that, to my mind, defy all common sense. You really think charter proliferation is going to change the social structure of this country? You really think teacher quality is uniformly poor given how much we're willing to pay teachers? You really think university-based ed schools are prepping teachers worse than TFA? You really think you can replicate the tiny number of charters who "beat the odds" -- and that their test score gains are indicative of the success of a "No Excuses" pedagogy in preparing students for elite colleges?

And you really think this is, all together, the "civil rights issue of our time"? Seriously?

Some of the reformsters are clearly nothing more than hacks. But I genuinely do believe the majority are sincere. I think the vast majority of college kids who sign up for TFA are committed to making this country a better place. I think the vast majority of charter school teachers are committed professionals who are proud of their work, and should be.

I think the parents and students who enroll in charters are absolutely correct in their disdain for our under-funded, crumbling, at times dangerous urban public schools. I think "reform" advocates who point out that suburban schools are highly segregated are spot on, and all children have a right to attend a school that is safe, clean, and well-ordered. As I've said many times, no one should ever blame a parent for enrolling their child in a charter school when the alternative is far worse.

I think teacher prep in universities and colleges could be improved. I do think there are teachers who gain tenure and then backslide; they should be made to improve or be removed. I do think teachers are important; I wouldn't be one if I didn't. I know that adequate funds are a necessary precondition for school success, but that schools should be held to account for efficient spending.

But the "reform" arguments have become so incoherent, and the "reform" claims of success have become so overblown, that we can't even have a serious discussion of these realities any more. What we have is a conversation about education where the voices of teachers and other education professionals have been drowned out by a small group of well-paid mouthpieces, supported by the very, very wealthiest people in this country. And they've created a new reality in American education:

Reforminess is the status quo. 

But because reforminess has come to dominate our media and our policy initiatives, its tenets deserve to be analyzed and critiqued. I invite everyone to judge for themselves the merit of the arguments for and against "reform"; I am quite confident that if you keep an open mind, you'll come to the same conclusions I and the good folks who are listed at the left side of this blog have.

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