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Living in Dialogue: Are the New Reform Cops the Same as the Old Cops?

newcops

The old test-driven, accountability-driven school reform movement is overextended, cut off, and heading for a catastrophic defeat – and they know it. That is why some of its most zealous crusaders are doubling down on anti-teacher legal campaigns. This is the accountability hawks’ last chance to prove that they were right all along in taking the Big Stick approach to school improvement.

The new Michelle Rhee (Campbell Brown) has taken the old union-bashing from the scorched earth edu-political battleground to a new, politicized use of the courts to defeat the power of teachers. But, fundamentally their methods are identical; both are doubling down on the one tactic where school “reform” has been a success. Rhee, Brown, and company have been brilliant in public relations campaigns demonizing teachers for not solving complex educational and economic problems by embracing the mantra of “High Expectations!”

The problem for the old bad cops – Rhee, Brown, Joel Klein (and his patron Mike Bloomberg) John Deasy (and his enabler Antonio Villaraigosoa), Rahm Emanuel (and his Billionaires Boys’ Club) funders and, of course, Bill Gates – is that they now have a history of running school systems. (or in Gates’ case, the nation’s schools) Ever since Arne Duncan and President Obama coerced state education departments into adopting the entire reform agenda, systems have been committed to implementing the corporate reform agenda. After wasting billions of dollars and untold amounts of the energy of educators and students, their market-driven reforms have demonstrably failed.

Being an Oklahoman, I must also mention the words of retribution uttered by our discredited “Chief for Change” Janet Barresi. Overwhelmingly rejected, and facing ridicule over her latest punitive policy (the A-F Report Card), she blamed her latest debacle on educators who have been honored as principals of the year and superintendents of the year: “Barresi said @CCOSA (Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration) generally picks supt/principal of the year who follow party line & march to mediocrity.”

Even as the money runs out for their gold-plated school improvement experiments, they have also run out of time. Now corporate reformers must quickly do the impossible – implement Common Core, its testing regime, and value-added evaluations – as they show that their No Excuses charters can drill and kill their way to making poor children of color college-ready.

Only the most zealous of the true believers still believe they can simply ride out the grassroots backlash against testing, the mass closures of schools, and their demand that educators “get on the same page” in endorsing their reward and punish schemes. So, an alternative agenda of new, good reform cops is also being unveiled. And, as Anthony Cody and Diane Ravitch explain, they have realized that the public is tuning out their old pr of “ginning up a crisis climate about our ‘failing schools’ and the need to fire ‘bad’ teachers.” The Gates Foundation, for instance, is now funding coverage “success” stories.

The new cops, both the genuine and fake ones, mourn the “divisive rhetoric” of the edu-reform wars. Even former Duncan staffers, and other strident teacher-bashers have formed a new organization, the Education Post, and called for “civil conversations” and an end to “false narratives.”

Of course, this new reform brand has to touch all bases, and pay homage to the mantra of “accountability” which the old reformers crafted as the lever for producing “transformative change.” So, Marc Tucker issued a seemingly promising alternative to value-added teacher evaluations while warning teachers and unions of dire consequences if we don’t accept his offer.I am in substantial agreement with many or most of Tucker’s new proposals regarding teachers.

I’m especially impressed when Tucker criticizes the plaintiffs in Vergara and recognizes the agenda of the “determined and very well funded coalition that sees an opportunity to critically weaken if not completely eviscerate the unions, not just in California, but nationally.” I am equally encouraged that he shuns the linkage of testing data to individual teachers for value-added evaluations and notes “the weight of evidence shows that such systems not only do not work; they actually accelerate the rate at which good teachers leave teaching and deter good candidates from entering the profession.”

But, Tucker seems to be offering educators an offer we can’t refuse. We adults can be freed of test and punish if we throw our students under the bus. All we would have to do is accept a battery of tests for students that surely would become the gate-keeper, driving lower-skilled sophomores out of school.

My other disagreement with Tucker is not even relevant to the question of how to best improve schools. Tucker remains committed to the theory that school reforms, such as higher standards, can drive economic growth and reduce inequity. I agree with Cody that such speculation is “bullshit.” Neither of us“believe the economy of the 21st century is waiting for some more highly educated generation, at which time middle class jobs will materialize out of thin air.”

Unfortunately, Tucker overreacted to the evidence-driven analyses of Cody as well as Zhao and Ravitch. I hope Tucker’s response was driven by pique, and it is not an inadvertent admission that the worst aspect of the bad of reform cops, is still driving the show. Sadly, he replied in the tried and true way of questioning educators’ motives, “the argument that Cody and Ravitch are making is comforting to some teachers because it absolves them of any responsibility for the poor performance of American students.”

Perhaps we need an Intelligence Squared debate over the role of public schools in stimulating economic growth. We should follow two ground rules, however. First, since this economic debate which is unlikely to rise above the level of theory, let’s not let it intrude into practical discussions over education policy. Second, when educators disagree with policy-makers and/or economists, we should not be dismissed as ignorant or beleaguered persons seeking “comfort”  when “blamed for the failings of the larger American society.”

It would be nice if a good cop pretender, the Education Post could also distance itself from the normative blame-the-teacher and stop slandering those of us who disagree with their test-driven policies. But, its Director of Policy, former USDOE staffer Ann Whalen, in“False Arguments of Carol Burris Against High Standards,” shows that she and her new organization are approaching their new crusade in the same domineering way that they helped implement Duncan’s policies.

Whalen countered a Washington Post piece by New York Principal of the Year Carol Burris“Four Common Core Flimflams.” She characterized Burris’s position as “inexcusable,” as “resistance to common sense changes,” and “toxic.” Whalen’s counterargument was “when you can’t make an honest case against something, there’s always rhetoric, exaggeration or falsehood.” (By the way, Whalen sidestepped some of Burris’s points, and threw a temper tantrum in response to others, but she failed to refute the highly respected educator’s position.)

Fortunately, a more modest proposal by Patrick Riccards did not conform to the above pattern of assailing educators who have the temerity to disagree with accountability-driven reformers. 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, he implicitly acknowledges that this buzz did not arise on its own. After all, a coordinated public relations campaign choreographed that buzz.

I posted a response to Richards’ constructive proposal,here, but the best word on that subject comes from Peter Greene. Greene notes that the newfound willingness of Riccards, at least, to listen to our thoughts on school improvement “underscores the fact this is not the teachers’ party.” Even with possible new good reform cops, listening to our practical advice is an afterthought.

Greene sums up the hard truth that reformers still ignore:

Reformsters did not come along and say, “Hey, we have some thoughts. Can we join your conversation?” No, they started their own conversation, and declared that it was the only conversation, that our conversation was stupid and bad and a big failing failure; and then they gathered money and political power that let them hook their conversation up to giant mega-watt speakers that helped them drown out all other conversations. And now that they’ve hit a rough patch, they’ve started saying, “Okay– you can come be part of our conversation now.”

That brings us back to the problem with trying to determine which of these new calls for a collegial conversation are sincere, and which are just tactics. Reformers have long protested, accurately, that there is a great deal of diversity in their ranks. Their differences have been hidden, however, by their movement’s ability to stifle public expressions of dissent within their own ranks and keep their entire coalition singing from the same page in the same hymnal.

What do you think? How should educators respond to the new trope that rhetoric is too divisive? 

Image by Teresa Shen, used with Creative Commons license.

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Anthony Cody

Anthony worked for 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high-needs middle school. A National Board certified teacher, he no...