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At the Chalk Face: Are We Ready To Move Beyond Our Reform Wars?

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, the ability to hold opposing opinions in mind is a sign of intelligence. Similarly, we should welcome Patrick Riccards’ call for dialogue, as we also explain why efforts to bridge differences must be pursued as teachers step up our counter-attack against corporate reform.

Riccards calls for a practitioner advisory board. He does so while admitting “that there aren’t a lot of educators working in what people like me call the reform arena. And that means we may not always understand many of the challenges of moving from idea to policy, policy to school, and then school to classroom.”

He would “identify educators who bring interesting ideas to the table. Create a formal advisory board to get feedback and solidify ideas from those teachers. Have them be part of the reform process, and not just someone reform happens to.”

Riccards is equally constructive in acknowledging that the buzz following Vergara has “reinforced a belief that teachers are the enemy.” In doing so, does he not acknowledge that this buzz did not arise on its own? After all, a coordinated public relations campaign choreographed that buzz.

I welcome a real and constructive clash of ideas. Isn’t that a key purpose of public schools – educating children for the give and take of life in a diverse constitutional democracy?

But, that brings us back to the way Riccards opens his commentary, writing, “we have heard the California state court decision described as a victory for students and a defeat for adults.”

If I read Riccards correctly, he and his colleagues (who admittedly do not understand many of the challenges of the classroom) assume that a Vergara victory would not, in fact, be a disaster for schools, especially for those serving poor children of color.

I doubt many Vergara supporters have read the case’s legal briefs, much less its expert testimony or the research of those economists who love to tell educators how to run schools. If Vergara was a good faith effort to use the courts to improve schools, wouldn’t more reformers bother to read the claims the case is advancing?

Most Vergara supporters, I bet, see it not as a case that is likely to be upheld on appeal, but as a venue for a political and public relations attack on teachers’ unions.

Even the teacher-bashing TNTP acknowledges, “Typically, state law applies a ‘just cause’ standard to teacher dismissal which, at face value, means that the district has to prove that it had reasonable, good faith grounds for the dismissal.”

But, the TNTP wants to deny teachers the right to cross examine the judgments of administrators bringing charges against teachers regarding the quality of their teaching. Would health care reformers seek to improve the nation’s medical outcomes by denying the right of doctors to challenge their accusers?

I’d be encouraged if reformers bothered to read some of the overwhelming body of social science that argues against Vergara and its spawn. But, that’s not the point.

I believe that we make a good case for strong tenure laws, but neither is that the point.

The point is that the TNTP and many other contemporary reformers want their opinions to be grounds for overturning duly enacted laws that were crafted to benefit teachers and students. Because they believe that teachers have wrongly dismissed their theories for overcoming the legacies of generational poverty, we have long been treated as an enemy to be destroyed.

Supposedly to attract and retain teaching talent, the TNTP would take away the basic rights necessary to be educators. If the democratic and legal rights of teachers and unions are replaced by their policies, teachers would become 2/7ths of an American – becoming second class citizens during the workweek.

And, that brings us back to Riccards’ constructive proposal for an institutionalized method of discussing professional practice. It may be ironic or fortuitous that he writes so candidly as Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher and Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars offer historical and social scientific perspectives as to how teaching, to borrow Goldstein’s words, became America’s “most embattled profession.”

Green recounts the way that contemporary school reformers set out to destroy the “status quo,” i.e the power of teachers’ unions, education schools, and school boards. They made it a point of pride that test-driven reformers, in their righteousness fervor, refused to consider academic education research. It is also hard to read Green without concluding that traditional efforts to improve “teaching for understanding,” such as those led by Magdalene Lampert, Deborah Ball, Carol Lee, and other practitioners of “This Kind of Teaching” (TKOT), were much more promising than the behavioristic “No Excuses” pedagogy that many reformers are devoted to.

Similarly, Goldstein recalls the remarkable effectiveness of the United Federation of Teachers’ efforts to improve high-challenge New York City schools. Their promising program was killed by the attacks on teachers’ due process rights that resulted in the teacher strike of 1967. She also contrasts the proven successes of policies, such as Newark’s “Children’s Literacy Initiative” (CLI), with the blood-in-the-eye reform known as “Newark One.” The CLI is another science-based, “win win” program which is the type of policy that teachers, academics, and unions have long supported, but it is being starved as dubious market-driven reforms are richly funded by the billionaires’ money.

On the other hand, both describe hopeful signs that some reformers may now be willing to listen to education practitioners and researchers. Green even concludes with an anecdote about some true believers in everyone being on the same page, and implementing the same behaviorist methods in the same way at the same time. A few reformers accepted an offer from Anthony Byrk, one of the education’s greatest scholars, to engage in a evidence-driven give and take. It sounds like Green is describing the type of small collaborative pilot project that Riccards is advocating.

So, I welcome Riccards’ invitation to teachers –asking us to voice our hard-earned professional wisdom. But, he does so as the TNTP and too many other reformers would deny us the right to defend ourselves in termination processes. Even worse, teachers are being denied their right to use the democratic process to advance our rights, as well as promote policies that we sincerely believe are best for children.

That raises the interesting question, what happens if Riccards’ proposal is implemented in some places and veteran teachers are given a chance to contribute to policy discussions, but Vergara and the TNTP win in other states. In one venue, educators could be praised for critiquing test-driven accountability and calling for the restoration of some or all of the professional autonomy of teachers. If equally great teachers express the same judgments in schools where the TNTP’s preferences become law, teachers could be fired as “culture killers” for merely believing that bubble-in, reward, and punish regimes are wrong.

Still, we need to keep contradictory ideas in our minds at the same time. Most individual reformers, I suspect, are closer to Riccards than to the TNTP and would support his call for a non-censored education dialogue. Why reform organizations still refuse to face reality and distance themselves from test, sort, and punish is beyond the scope of this post. If the reformers of goodwill openly repudiate the scorched earth politics of the TNTP, however, perhaps this will kick off a new, constructive reform era.

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighbo...