Friday, December 30, 2011

My Year-End Post: No Matter the Reforms, No One Likes Tyranny

Education blogger/journalist Alexander Russo asked via twitter and then via his blog with Scholastic where all the smart, interesting pro-reform teacher and principal bloggers were. For now, he said the "reform critics" seemed to be dominating the conversation on-line.

Lots of people responded to this already including Nancy Flanagan, Anthony Cody (here and here), Shaun Johnson, Katie Osgood, Mike Klonsky, Teacher Ken, and Leonie Haimson. I'm not going to get into everything they said because I think at least some of the controversy generated by his post is due to clumsiness on his part, rather than any malice or an agenda (other than to chase down a prescribed narrative) and some misunderstanding on some of their parts. I also criticized him for using the pro- versus anti-reform labels, but I can see that sometimes using such dichotomous terms is just expedient and may not reflect a belief in them--it's important to get beyond semantics even if I personally am a stickler for them.

However, I did agree when many of the bloggers above pointed out that one reason Russo perceives that the "traditional" (a poor choice of words, for example) teacher voice winning on-line is because social media provide virtually the only forums where independent and grassroots voices get heard and can gain prominence. The neo-liberal reformers are dominating the mainstream media and have gobs and gobs of money with which to do so. This, of course, brings up a whole 'nother fascinating topic about power and the dynamic between social media, grassroots advocacy and organizing but that's for another post for another time. . .

So, I agree with that point. But mostly I think there aren't too many teacher bloggers out there independently (and for free) plugging for Students First, for example, because there aren't too many teachers who support the group of reforms that SF is pushing, either in principle or in their execution. But while most teachers and principals are pro-reform, just as Russo doesn't want to interact with an organization (haha--that guy is comically cranky), neither do independent and smart educators want to; and neither do they want to let organizations promoting superficial and short-sighted policies that often detrimentally affect their day-to-day work speak for them.

These organizations don't really represent educators or parents or students (no matter how they're named); they represent the education reform industry. That industry has a slate of reforms that it lobbies for. This, as education journalist Joy Resmovitz so astutely put it, is part of their "branding." Of course, since these reformers sincerely believe their agenda will improve education, it's probably of no consequence to them and presents no conflict of interest that the industry they've created would have the added bonus of benefiting them in the form of financial rewards and jobs.

But if you're an educator, you have to really buy into that brand to promote it. And then you have to go around marketing it, for free, to your co-workers who don't have much time to listen to sales pitches in the teachers lounge for Mark Kay or Pampered Chef-like products (teachers, you know what I'm talking about), let alone pitches for ed reform products. And no one wants to be a salesperson if they don't have to be. Furthermore, the ed reform products, I mean, solutions being proposed are not ones that come from ideas about education or teaching and learning, but rather from ideas about business and finance. If educators wanted to play Corporation or Free Markets, that's where they'd be working.

That all being said, there is a huge diversity of ideas, opinions, and approaches among educators. As I wrote about before, framing education reform as a debate between reformers and status quo defenders is reductive and contributes to misinformation. And if you actually pay attention to and listen to all of the edu-noise out there, you figure this out pretty quickly. There are lots and lots of educators who support some of the reforms, but not all of them. Even so, these people consider themselves professionals and still don't like being told what to do in their classroom by the likes of Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and Bill Gates. Lots of educators are in favor of a common curriculum (though they may have reservations about the Common Core in particular). Lots of educators are in favor of community-generated and innovative charter schools. I bet some are even in favor of vouchers. Lots of educators are in favor of a more educated and better trained teaching corps and in favor of making it harder to gain entry to the profession. Lots of educators are against strict seniority-based firings. Lots of educators want better and more useful teacher evaluations. Lots of educators think that standardized testing and data-informed instruction is useful. Lots of educators embrace technology and certain forms of virtual learning.* Lots of educators think that the teacher dismissal process should be streamlined (which is not the same thing is getting rid of due process). Lots of educators are in favor of mayoral control, or at least they were. (I would say that lots of educators support Race to the Top but it's pretty clear that only the truest of believers like Race to the Top.) And there are lots of parents and other education reform advocates and scholars who are on board with a lot of this stuff.

Journalist Natalie Hopkinson, like many, many DC parents initially backed Michelle Rhee's chancellorship, until she didn't. Teacher blogger James Boutin also initially went to DC to teach because he thought Rhee had the right idea, but after working in DCPS, he changed his mind (read here, here, here, and here). This principal did the same thing, leaving Maryland to become a principal at Hearst Elementary School in DC. He became so disillusioned he decided to sell cupcakes instead. Teacher Stephanie Black subscribes to KIPP's no excuses philosophy and teaches for DCPS. She's perfect for Russo's theory. Oh, except she quit because she didn't like how she was being forced to teach badly under the reformers (see here and here). Education writer Robert Pondiscio is no longer an NYCPS teacher, but he used to be. Guess what? He's not that into the agenda of these particular reformers even though he does support accountability and choice. Dan Brown has been very critical of Rhee-Klein-Gates reform, but he teaches at a charter school in DC, so it's probably safe to say he's pro-charter to a certain extent. Chad Sansing, a teacher at a charter school in Virginia, is very much in favor of choice, just not in the non-choice between schools that meet testing benchmarks and schools that are trying to meet testing benchmarks. Mark Anderson is very supportive of a common core curriculum (full disclosure: so I am, in theory) and probably some of the other reforms, but he's an independent thinker and a thoughtful teacher. VCU assistant professor of educational leadership Jon Becker is "bullish" on on-line education and was very critical of  a recent NEPC report on K-12 on-line education, but he's skeptical of many of the current reforms.* Christina Lordeman (speaking of whom, where is Christina? I haven't seen her around lately) is often very critical of Diane Ravitch and I imagine that she supports many of the reforms in theory, but from what I can tell she is a principled and thoughtful teacher who wants to be treated like a professional and she has also expressed some real criticisms of some of the current reforms. According to her book, even Diane Ravitch was in favor of mayoral control until fairly recently. I know of other long-time education reformers who favored mayoral control, that is until they experienced it. Even those educators who are "pro-reform" (to use Russo's label) figure out they like democracy once they are denied it. And this is just a sampling of some of the people whose ideas I enjoy listening to on a regular basis--imagine how many more there are.

Finally, I'll mention my father-in-law who has guest blogged here and who was fired via IMPACT for not tailoring his lessons to please the IMPACT gods and, basically, for having principles about his craft. He has taught AP and grade-level English for over ten years in DCPS and is known for his rigorous curriculum, preparing kids for college-level English, being interesting, and providing lots of feedback on student writing (see some parent feedback here). He was teaching in DCPS when I started there and I remember saying after not getting paid on time or properly for the second or third time that I could finally understand why some of my DCPS teachers burned out and stopped doing their jobs. Look how badly they were treated, look at how poorly the system is run, I pointed out. Joe shook his head before I could finish my thought. No, he told me, sorry, but there's no excuse for that. If you burn out, it's time to go.

Yet Joe is precisely the kind of teacher--principled, intellectual, and independent-minded--who's vulnerable to getting fired from these reformy systems, for doing their jobs as their experience and knowledge dictates them to. One of the things he was fired for was for covering the clock up in his classroom. He was losing the last ten minutes of class to kids peering at the clock and its presence was rushing and stressing everyone involved. This came to mind because Russo just blogged about how he thinks there's too many clocks in classrooms and that they're stressing people out. Joe agrees and because Joe stood by his reasonable, thoughtful decision to disobey the reformy principal's clock mandate, Joe was fired.

Now, Russo, do you get why smart teachers aren't on-line proselytizing for the likes of Stand for Children, Students First, and TFA? What educator wants to advocate for an education reform organization whose ideas include distrust for educators' professional judgement? Why would educators support education reform leaders who don't respect independent, critical thinking or listen to what the communities they serve say they want for themselves? Who wants to advocate for pressing themselves into a job not of social utility and intellectual stimulation, but of busy work and obedience? The premise that there is some group of educators just waiting for the likes of Leonie, Nancy, Anthony, John, and Ken to tone it down so that they can get busy undermining their own work is a false one. Educators and education advocates, including those just listed, are of very different minds when it comes to the fine details of teaching, learning, and reforming public education. But no one likes tyranny or plutocracy, except for tyrants and plutocrats of course.

(* = Updated content)

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