Education Reformers’ Core Beliefs Are Objectionable

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America’s corporate education reform movement has been a marketing success. Reformers have popularized slogans that promote a radically new public school system; one where tenure and bargaining rights are abolished or severely degraded; where CEOs and administrators, who may have backgrounds in business, politics or public relations rather than education, make hiring and firing decisions; and where data-based accountability — necessarily driven by test scores — perpetually imperils schools, tenure- and union-less teachers, as well as students who must conform to onerous protocols and codes of conduct under charter school contracts. Reformers’ slogans such as “demography isn’t destiny” and “poverty is no excuse” have been ingrained in the minds of all who follow education issues — and have apparently been successful in advancing their agenda. But ironically, while reformers’ slogans are well known, their core ideas around such reformer bedrocks as Teach For America, charter schools, and educational expertise are so objectionably elitist that they are unutterable.

Unutterable belief #1: Though we cannot destroy teachers’ and students’ rights through democracy, we can destroy them through charter school proliferation.

By definition, a charter school is a school that writes its own rules; rules which, by definition, transgress the laws and regulations that conventional public schools must follow. If a charter school didn’t need to write its own laws and rules, it wouldn’t need a charter, and it therefore wouldn’t be a charter school at all. It would be a regular public school.

Before charter schools existed, the only ways to build non-unionized schools in union-dense states (non-“right-to-work” states), compel teachers (and children) to work longer hours, weeks, and school years, eliminate tenure, and elevate “CEOs” who lack experience in education to positions of power, were conventionally democratic ones. You could use the referendum process, or pressure your legislators to write new laws or amend old ones. For example, you could fight a contentious battle to enact controversial “right-to-work” laws, as many states have done. But the charter-granting process provides a convenient back door to normal union-busting methods. By convincing politicians (or better yet, unelected emergency managers) to perennially authorize more and more charters, reformist politicians can cynically disempower teachers under the guise of “school choice” — without admitting that they are doing anything to affect unions.

How does this work? Basic economics tells us that the more charter schools that exist in the public school “market,” the more difficult it is for public school teachers to maintain strong unions, pensions, tenure rights, and bargaining power. Posit a large city whose mayor announces a plan to turn 50% of public schools into charter schools. These schools may hire uncertified teachers, require twelve-hour school days and six-day weeks, and need not be unionized or offer tenure, pensions, or competitive pay for their teachers. In such a case, the infusion of charters would radically transform education for 100% of students and teachers in his city, since the 50% who would become part of the charter system would suffer hardships and insecurity in accordance with the charters’ rules, and the other 50% of teachers (from public schools) would quickly lose wages, benefits, job security, and freedom as the mayor takes advantage, during bargaining, of the high demand for and scarcity of public school jobs and the effective “scab” labor force that exists within the charter schools. Public school teachers’ relationship to charter teachers is thus analogous to the relationship between US auto workers and Mexican autoworkers.

It becomes clear that charter schools may only harmoniously work alongside public schools if: A) they provide parity of pay, bargaining power, working conditions, and other freedoms and benefits to teachers and students, or if: B) their numbers are kept low enough to not threaten conventional public schools. Option A of course, is a fantasy, since a primary goal of charter school proliferation is to improve education by making it easier to fire and control teachers. Charter advocates admit this, though euphemistically and cravenly, as when New York Times columnist Frank Bruni endorsed Colorado Senator Mike Johnston’s desire to give administrators authority to “release for talent,” (as in, if you love someone, set his untalented teacher free). So much for job security, labor power, and working conditions in charter schools. And the notion that “you can’t just throw money at the problem” is so integral to corporate reform ideology that the popular notion that charter schools trade job security for more compensation is may be laid bare through the slightest investigation or reflection. For the fatuousness that is required to believe that although charter teachers’ jobs were created by fiscal hawks like Michelle Rhee and Davis Guggenheim, authorized by public sector haters like Mike Bloomberg and Chris Christie, and enforced by cost-cutting administrators who are called “CEOs,” nearly all of whom discourage unionization, take pride in their ability to fire “at-will” teachers, and view pensions as antiquated legacies of a pre-globalized past, is beyond words. In charter-dense Washington, DC, charter teachers’ pay already lags far behind that of their public school peers. And thanks to high attrition, low unionization rates, and the built-in power of administrators over teachers in charter schools, the prospect that public school teachers should earn better overall compensation (pay, pension, and benefits) than their counterparts, whose employers often need not even offer pensions is not merely likely, but as good as an accomplished fact.* As is teachers’ in union-less, CEO-commanded, charter regimes working unhealthy hours. For teachers who work superman hours, with less pay, overall compensation, and job security, Geoffrey Canada is no longer waiting.

Option B, keeping charter numbers low, is also a fading hope. On one hand, thanks to legacies of unionization, many states’ leaders are legally prevented from slashing-and-burning public education by declaring an unlimited number of charter schools. That’s why the cap on charter schools is a perennial controversy in such places as New York City, where Mayor De Blasio and Governor Cuomo routinely fight over whether and how much to raise it. And ironically, the US’s first charter schools were opened not by union-busters, but by progressives who wished to use experimental educational methods in charters, and deploy them, when successful, in conventional charter schools. These pioneers lacked the cynicism to foresee that reformers would use charters to ravage a respected profession. But recall that in 2005, New Orleans turned nearly all of its public schools into charter schools — not because of conspicuously bad performance, but out of sheer opportunism, as a direct result of the promise for radical change that Hurricane Katrina represented. As of 2014, charter schools enrolled 79% of New Orleans’ public school students, while other high-poverty cities such as Detroit, Washington, and Flint, had between 35% and 50% of students enrolled in charters. Charters are blessed to exist where a governor may suspend democratic sovereignty at a whim (in Detroit and Flint), where citizens have always lacked congressional representation (Washington DC), and where the most scandalous negligence of poor people in memory (during Katrina in New Orleans) fails to deter politicians from conducting a hurricane-like leveling of public education. Wherever democracy is endangered or people are disempowered, charters flourish. Even in some of our largest, most liberal cities, such as Philadelphia (with 28% of its students in charters), and cities in bright blue states, such as Albany, New York (27%), charter school saturation is sky-high. Moreover, any elite education reformer who argues that charter school numbers should be kept low, in any city or state, is a rare one, given that prominent pro-charter groups aspire to the elimination of all caps on charters. Ultimately, whether elite reformers actually want to improve American education is arguable, given that two major Stanford studies showed that charters perform slightly worse or the same as public schools. But basic economics, and the words and actions of elite reformers tell us that they definitely want a hostile takeover of public schools, to the extreme detriment of the pay, benefits, and dignity of teachers.

Unutterable belief #2: Uncertified graduates of elite colleges perform better in the classroom than experienced and certified teachers.

Decades ago, a young woman named Wendy Kopp created a program called Teach For America (TFA), wherein graduates of elite US colleges could forego conventional teacher certification channels, and be placed in classrooms, in poor areas, for two years, through a shortcut training regime. At the time, there were not enough certified teachers to fill classrooms in many cities and states, so the program was a win-win for education and TFA. High-needs schools could fill classrooms with energetic and intelligent young persons. These young persons could serve the public, earn a living, and build their resumes.

But thanks to a number of factors — from the ascendancy of neoliberal economics, and its destruction of tenure-protected, pension-promising middle class jobs, to education reformers’ efforts to eliminate teaching positions and increase class size, to the 2008 economic crash and the austerity regimes that state governments met it with — things changed. To be a teacher wasn’t just to suffer nobly in a low-paying but rewarding job. It was to have a relatively remunerative, stable job, in a wrecked economy, in a field where job opportunities were narrowing. Therefore, teachers were no longer scarce in high-poverty areas, but jobs were. Therefore, TFA members were now competing with newly certified teachers for good jobs in a new economy. And in places such as New York City (where I teach), teachers with decades of experience have been routinely “excessed” — thanks to school closures and austerity during the Bloomberg years — and hence turned into permanent, itinerant substitutes. Yet NYC principals continued to hire TFAers, thus effectively replacing the “excessed” veteran teachers for them.

The way that TFA has publicly accounted for its new role of competing with experienced teachers is unsettling for advocates of teachers as laborers. TFA uses dubious statistics to argue that their graduates actually perform better than experienced teachers — as measured, of course, by the be-all end-all metric of standardized test scores. For a debunking of TFA’s major statistical claims, consult the work of TFA veteran Gary Rubinstein.

From my own experience, the very notion that a first-year TFA’er should outperform an average experienced teacher is counterintuitive. I graduated from West Point in 2003, spent five years in the army through 2008, scored in the 99th percentile on the GRE (verbal section), earned an M.A. in English from NYU in 2010, taught part-time for Kaplan, earned a teaching certification in 2012, and then began teaching high school English in the South Bronx. But even with all of my education and experience, I was quite unprepared for the experience of teaching urban adolescents. Suffice it that I am proud that I performed well enough to survive during my first two years. And although my students’ performed well on state tests during my third year, I am not vulgar or fatuous enough to ignore the costs and consequences of their high scores. To what extent did my formulaic to-the-test teaching create bad habits — or a dislike of writing — in my students? Was the burdensome amount of homework that I assigned to my students unfair? Was I being fair to teachers of other subjects who had to compete with me, for our students’ time? In short, what were the opportunity costs of our voluminous test prep? I can only hope that in time, I will gain the wisdom, experience, and freedom (aided by tenure protections and a pension) to answer such questions in a way that conduces fair and enlightening teaching, even if it slightly detracts my test scores. And I am certain that teachers who are senior to me already have such wisdom — though TFA leaders would hardly credit them with it.

I have only survived, enjoyed a few successes, and retained the integrity to question my own practices because of the guidance and encouragement that more experienced teachers have endowed me with. The idea that I would have performed better than they during my first two years out of West Point — if I had been TFA — is laughable. The idea that as a TFA graduate, I would have carried such a belief of my superiority into the classroom, and into meetings with colleagues, is vomit-inducing. And if I would have all the while believed, as the top TFA brass contend, that tenure protections and the expectation of a pension — the very bases for educators’ dignity and freedom — somehow degraded my colleagues’ performance, I would now excoriate myself as an ignoramus, a traitor to American workers, and an insufferable Nietzschean,** all in one. I hope that TFA proponents will grow to regret their snobbish belief that graduating from a good college and interviewing well are better qualifications for teaching than … actual qualifications and experience.

Unutterable belief #3: Experience and training in business and management trumps experience in education and the arts and sciences.

Can elite reformers in US education accurately be called “snobs” in spite of evidence that they are anti-intellectual? Think of the introduction and predictable failure of “virtual charters,” where students are expected to teach themselves with minimal social interaction. Think of the proliferation of for-profit charters, and the predictable and rampant corruption that they engender. Think of how patronage benefits well-connected landlords and textbook publishers, who benefit from their relationship with charter schools (whether for-profit or nonprofit). Think of the fact that charter managers are called CEOs, because they prefer the dignity of this title to “president” or “headmaster.”

In the context of such unabashed anti-intellectualism, it should hardly be a surprise that in general, elite politicians and reformers prefer wealthy businesspersons who lack experience in education to those with impressive educational and intellectual backgrounds. Imagine weighing the credentials of a pre-electoral politics Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and choosing Trump over professor-organizer-public-servant Obama, in light of Trump’s wealth and self-evident merit as a captain of industry. For reform-minded leaders, similar choices are routine. Consider that Michael Bloomberg hired Cathie Black, a wealthy magazine publisher, and Joel Klein, a wealthy attorney, both of whom had zero educational experience, as his chancellors. Consider that the reform movement’s two most famous faces, Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee, rose to positions of great power in their youths with a total of three years of teaching experience between them. Did you attend an elite college? Have you ever been a CEO of anything? Can you sloganeer your way through a union-bashing TED talk? Do you have limited experience in schools, but worked for reformist think tanks, education companies, or public relations firms? If the answer is yes, you may be qualified for an elite position in our public schools.

Corporate reformers apparently do not know that our elite universities, from Harvard to Columbia to Penn, have large enrollments in Schools Of Education and grant doctorates to intellectuals who work in and outside of classrooms. But if you’ve gained experience in and knowledge of actual classrooms, chances are you lack the sort of TFA-style arrogance that would compel you to embrace the radical reforms that the elites want. That’s why Bill De Blasio’s appointment of Carmen Farina as chancellor, who had risen through the ranks as a teacher and administrator (with additional experience as a professor), was viewed as a progressive rather than a conservative choice.

There are thousands of teachers and administrators in major cities who have decades of teaching and leadership experience, speak multiple languages, and have National Board Certifications and doctorates. That they are being passed over in favor of inexperienced ideologues for the highest positions in education is on one hand, unfair. But it is also dangerous because it enables a fantasy-ideology to dominate education and exclude real wisdom. We’ve created a situation in which elites in education policy are unlikely to ponder the wisdom of America’s greatest philosopher, John Dewey, who wrote voluminously on education, because they are busy arguing that if you had carte blanche to fire any teacher whom you pleased, and could meanwhile ensure that every student had an amazing teacher for three straight years, US education would become the best in the world. Unraveled, that theory, which powerful people take seriously, is like saying, “If we could utterly ravage the teaching profession without turning well-qualified professionals away from it, wouldn’t things be great?” But it is a childish fantasy to believe that teachers, or any professionals, will thrive without the dignity and respect that they deserve. And elite reformers do not simply disavow teachers’ dignity; they prevent those who believe in it from gaining power.

Footnotes:

* Little hard data that compares long-term, overall compensation of public and charter school teachers exists, perhaps because charter schools are relatively new, and because few teachers have survived pension-worthy, full careers in charter schools.

**Some elite reformers are perhaps un-self-conscious Nietzscheans given that they believe that unions and tenure protections weaken and stultify teachers. Is it a coincidence that like Nietzsche who wished that we humans would evolve a race of “supermen” by relinquishing pity and other “weaknesses,” they too, are “waiting for supermen” to transform American education — through the pitiless destruction of teachers’ job protections?