Thursday, April 28, 2011

You Can’t Defend a Failed Vision of American Public Education

While reformers may have some issues, RiShawn Biddle correctly argues powerfully that those defending the status quo are facing an impossible task: defending the indefensible (he mentions Bill Gates and me briefly – quite an honor – LOL!).  Time and history are on our side: as MLK once said, "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."

Why are school reformers succeeding in winning the policy battle for overhauling American public education while defenders of traditional public education practices failing? There are those who argue it is about the triumph of high-profile media plays and money over the rightfulness of ideas. But is that really so?

…defenders of traditional public education are not winning the high ground. Why? As Dropout Nation has argued, the anti-intellectualism rampant among ed school professors, school superintendents and other traditionalists is part of the problem. (Yesterday, Contributing Editor Steve Peha offered his own explanations.) But these are not the only reasons. School reformers are winning the day because they have the clear moral argument for reform. What status quo defenders are backing is a vision of American public education that in practice, has been a failure for children, families, taxpayers and even teachers alike.

…What defenders of the status quo seem not to understand is that for many school reformers, transforming education is as much a moral imperative as it is an intellectual pursuit and even an economic livelihood. In fact, for many, the moral reasons for school reform matter more than the money. Which is also why traditionalists struggle to offer a coherent counter-argument. It's easy to question the motives of a Bill Gates or a Whitney Tilson, or worse, paint them as greedy profiteers (when, in all honesty, neither are making a profit off of any of this). But the Teach For America alumni working in a classroom or running a tutoring program is another matter entirely. Same is true for the mother who is also a school choice activist, or any of the parents demanding their proper seats at the head of the table of education decision-making.

…These men and women are indignant about the reality that 150 young men and women drop out every hour into poverty and prison. They are distressed that millions more languish in school ill-prepared for an increasingly knowledge-based economy in which even high-paying blue collar jobs require strong math and science skills. They are outraged that millions of good-to-great teachers aren't rewarded for their work while millions of mediocre-to-abysmal colleagues continue collecting paychecks. They are incensed that families — especially those from poor white and minority households — are treated shabbily by teachers and administrators who mistaken condescension for consideration. And they are mad, plain mad, that it can be as haphazard to get high-quality curricula and instruction now as it was during the Great Depression eight decades ago.

They don't need Bill Gates to show them that. They don't need to watch Waiting for 'Superman' either. You can see the failures of American public education every day on street corners, in prisons and on unemployment lines. A generation of men and women are left out of the economic mainstream because the low quality of education they received no longer works in a knowledge-based economy — and another generation is being left behind now because they never got a good-quality education in the first place. This is not all the fault of traditional public education; the quality of education in the main was suited well for an old school industrial age that has dissipated into the ether. But there is no reason why our schools have continually failed generations of poor and minority children, nor is there an excuse for refusing to overhaul how schools  operate in order to educate the kids coming through the corridors now.

For these reformers, it isn't enough to be mad. They want to take action. It doesn't mean that they agree with one another on all formulas for reform. In fact, they often spar and parry over what school choice should look like, how to hold players in education accountable for student achievement, even over whether the NEA and AFT should even have a role in education decision-making. But they all agree on this: American public education as it currently exists is mediocre at best and abysmal for least of us — and that nibbles around the edges are no longer enough. In an age in which data is transforming how we work in the world, there is no reason why its disruptive power cannot be used for improving how recruit teachers, evaluate schools, and educate kids. And, to paraphrase Joel Klein, the world will conspire against us if we do not make public education fit for all of our children.

This isn't to say that defenders of traditional public education aren't concerned about any of this. Nor can anyone say that they don't care (or think they care) for the lives and futures of children. It is that the solutions they offer — much of which are nothing more than rehashed versions of every formula tossed around since the advent of the comprehensive high school — haven't worked. It is that they would rather tinker around the edges than confront their allies — including the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers — about how they continue to protect low-quality and incompetent teachers. They chastise the quality of school leadership and yet fail to realize how the practices they defend — from instruction focused on useless pedagogical theory, to reverse-seniority layoff policies — contribute to the problem. Their dogmatic belief that poverty is the root cause of educational underachievement is a cop-out in an age in which there are great examples of schools, traditional, charter and private, who are helping kids reach brighter futures.

What they defend is an amoral system that chews up children — especially young black, white and Latino men — and spits them out into the street. What they support is a system that bases the quality of education on zip code — and does all it can to keep it that way. What they back is a public education system that is no longer fiscally sustainable in its current form — and spending plenty of money for little benefit to children or taxpayers alike. And what they favor is a vision of public education that is impoverished, impotent and ill-fit for the future.

So how can you expect to win the day with something like that?


You Can't Defend a Failed Vision of American Public Education

April 22, 2011 No Comments by RiShawn Biddle

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