The election of 2012 was a tough one for some who consider themselves "reformers" of education. Michael Petrilli, of the Hoover and Fordham Institutes wrote yesterday, in an op-ed that appeared in the Charlotte Observer, that "Teachers unions remain the Goliath to the school reformers' David."
This framing is, in itself, remarkable. That a "movement" generously financed from the deep pockets of our nation's billionaires would have the chutzpah to claim for itself the mantle of underdog should be laughable. Mr. Petrilli bemoans the defeat of such insurgents as Tom Luna in Idaho, whose ALEC-inspired efforts to expand online learning were defeated, and Tony Bennett, the pro-voucher "chief for change" from Indiana. (Bennett spent four times as much as his "Goliath" opponent, by the way.) But what lessons does Mr. Petrilli actually draw from their setbacks?
First, it's time to stop angering suburban parents and teachers by subjecting their schools to changes they don't want or need. It's not that suburban schools are perfect - their performance lags behind that of our international competitors, too. But the policies required for these schools to go from good to great are different from those needed to get urban schools from dismal to decent.
Top-down, one-size-fits-all efforts such as formulaic teacher evaluations tend to overemphasize the high-stakes testing that can take the joy out of learning. Parents and teachers in richer areas typically hate this pressure. Reformers can't put together winning political coalitions if they lose the suburbs. When it comes to middle-class schools, reformers should follow the doctors' dictum: First, do no harm.
So pressure to teach to the test takes the joy out of learning for suburban students, whose parents are capable of politically mobilizing to resist it. But at inner city schools, a joy of learning is apparently a luxury these students cannot afford. Mr. Petrilli also seems to suffer from a common misconception among "reformers," that schools in high poverty areas are so lousy, no further harm can possibly be done. We can label them failures, threaten them with closure, rotate through revolving cadres of novice teachers, subject teachers to VAM-driven evaluations, and this can only help because of the inherent worthlessness of these schools and teachers. But middle class schools? They need not suffer because we dare do no harm, lest the parents rebel.
On some level, do they not see how they are recreating the disruption, trauma and stigmatization that high poverty makes normal in these communities? Perhaps it is BECAUSE this is the norm that it is tolerated. The fact that the parents in these communities are disempowered compared to their counterparts in the suburbs apparently leaves their schools and children vulnerable, and highlights the need for organization. These schools are anchors of stability in these communities, and should be protected by teachers and parents alike.
Mr. Petrilli continues,
Second, we must renew efforts to show respect for teachers. This can be complicated: Many schools face a teacher-quality crisis after years of low professional-entry standards and lax accountability. At the same time, most teachers are dedicated and hardworking. We need to stress that bad teachers are rare but devastating and that efforts to weed them out will lift the entire profession. Any rhetoric that implies that most or even many teachers are incompetent or uncommitted to children needs to be scrapped.
So somehow they must convince people that, while extremely rare, the "bad teachers" are so very devastating that the whole system will be transformed if we can only create data systems capable of identifying and removing them. Do we have any school systems that have been uplifted this way? Not so far, but one of these days...
Lastly we turn to tactics:
Finally, proponents have to get better at political organizing, especially the ground game. The only way to defeat an army of determined educators is with a larger army of equally determined parents. The advocates of school vouchers and home-schooling have learned this lesson and can bring busloads of supporters to state capitols on remarkably short notice.
Those faint-hearted among you who quail at the thought that there is a war on, take heed. Not only are at least some education "reformers" at war, but they are sworn to defeat determined educators.
Since I consider myself one of those "determined educators," let me see if I can work this puzzle backwards to draw some lessons for our side.
First of all, it is important to recognize that we have a real fight on our hands. The future of public education in America is being fought out in local and statewide elections across this country. State legislatures have become places where people like Michelle Rhee and StudentsFirst pour thousands of dollars to "flip" the seats to leaders who favor charter schools, and seek to dismantle due process for teachers. While the "reformers" took some black eyes Nov. 6, StudentsFirst racked up an impressive list of wins. According to this article in Salon, Rhee "poured money into state-level campaigns nationwide, winning 86 of 105 races and flipping a net 33 seats to advocates of so-called school reform."
Second, it is clear that parents are the critical ally highly sought by both sides. Mr. Petrilli attributes the losses in Idaho and Indiana to the backlash against high stakes testing, and his solution is to suggest policies that free middle class students from their oppressive grip, while focusing "accountability" on impoverished students, whose parents lack the power to object. This should offer those of us who seek genuine reform some encouragement. Parents are our true allies in the classroom, and they are becoming much more aware about the impact of test-driven reform as well.
Mr. Petrilli does not mention students themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Students and teachers are the direct focus of education reform, and many are beginning to develop their own voices. In the years to come, this is another source of energy and insight into ways to improve schools.
Mr. Petrilli closes by suggesting that "By aiming our efforts at the schools with the gravest problems, changing our tone and improving our organizing tactics, we can keep moving in the right direction."
The schools with the "gravest problems" have always been the first point of attack for those seeking to disrupt and dismantle public education. The most important thing we need is a set of strong and clear models for school improvement, led by that army of determined educators, with strong alliances with parents. These schools exist - take a look at the locally-led democratically controlled schools in Chicago, highlighted in this report. They exist in Oakland as well, as I wrote here.There is even a documentary movie that highlights such a school in New York - Brooklyn Castle.
These schools are struggling - they are hamstrung by the relentless pressure to raise test scores, and the budget cuts that close libraries and cut essential student services. But we need a campaign to highlight the efforts being made every day by our determined army of educators. We are on the real front lines, in schools like Highland Academy in Oakland and the democratically controlled schools in Chicago, and a thousand other schools in communities across the country. The "reformers" have decided that we are the obstacles to their grand vision - the transformation of our schools using the miracle of the marketplace and the heavy club of high stakes tests. And we are, because we have an entirely different vision. We envision schools that are well-supported and connected to their communities. We envision schools where student learning is displayed and celebrated in all sorts of ways, not just through high stakes tests.
The 2012 election showed that parents and teachers have the same goals for our students, and when we get ourselves organized, we are indeed a determined army.