Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Deception and Rage...Must Be Education Reform

Time to get back to the original reason I even started this blog: Valerie Strauss, her blog and the type of debate it engages in enrage me.  To Ms. Strauss’ credit her bizarre vendetta against Michelle Rhee is at least consistent.  She has once again posted something with an ironic headline (considering that the post itself is at best completely absent of nuance and at worst totally deceptive itself), which I guess is a step up from literally creating a cartoon comprised of misquotes.

Anyway, the gist of Ms. Strauss’ post is that StudentsFirst (also known as Michelle Rhee’s organization) sent out a fundraising letter during Teacher Appreciation Week that refers to some reforms that Ms. Strauss doesn’t agree with.  This letter was apparently sent to Diane Ravitch.  Ms. Strauss acts shocked by this because Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee disagree.  I’m guessing that Ms. Ravitch, like many ed policy folks, is on the StudentsFirst mailing list.  I’m on the list too.  I got the letter too (I didn’t contribute, sorry Michelle Rhee).  Seemed pretty standard fare.  Barack Obama’s organization sends me a lot of emails too, some asking for money, some with third party commentary about what a good job our president is doing and most from someone not named Barack Obama.  I don’t see how this is unusual or deceptive in any way. 

The fact that this is news in the mind of Ms. Strauss is the perfect example of why so much of the debate around education in this country is false debate, focused more on personalities than policies, full of red herrings that don’t address the actual issues at hand, obsessed with narratives about conspiracies that don’t even make sense.

And on that note I guess it is time for me to chime in on “privatizing public schools” and the three ways Michelle Rhee is accomplishing this feat that I don’t think is remotely possible even if that was her intention, which I’m completely sure it isn’t.
  1.            Expanding charter schools that are often run by for-profit companies – Call me crazy but I’m in favor of kids receiving a good education.  And I’ve definitely seen charter schools that provide a better education than most public schools.  There is a reason charters have such a large share of the students in DC.  Yes, just like some public schools are good and some are bad, some charters are good and some are bad.  The good news is failing charter schools can be shut down easily, or at least should be.  In terms of the charter-traditional debate…who cares?  Whoever serves the students the best works for me.  As for the for-profit companies running the schools; I say if you can provide a high quality education to a bunch of kids, it is free for the kids, you don’t require a private school style application and you can make money from it, more power to you.  Way to be the best kind of capitalist there is.  And if you try and fail then the city or district or state who hired you should do the right thing and fire you.
  2.            Increasing the use of standardized tests that are sold to schools by private firms – You mean like the SAT?  Or the AP tests?  Or the ACT?  Or IB? Or the LSAT? Or the MCAT?  Did I miss something here?  I’ve already said a little bit about how I feel about standardized tests.  But the private profit thing…I never realized that engaging in business was such a bad thing.  Michelle Rhee didn’t invent standardized tests or testing companies.  Her issues of choice aren’t even the issues keeping those companies in the black.  Look at the suburbs, look at the best schools in the country including the private ones and tell me if standardized testing plays a major role there.  There are absolutely companies taking advantage of a huge market for testing and making a big profit.  Once again, I’m pretty sure that is a side effect of capitalism.  And pretending that standardized tests are evil extensions of profiteering corporations seems a little…I’m not even sure what.  People are entitled to their beliefs.  But try getting into the Ivy League without a good SAT score.  I’m pretty sure Harvard arrived on the scene before Kaplan.  Those standardized tests aren’t just a money maker for companies.  They are the currency that our education system uses for just about everything and everything isn’t all bad, not all good either, but not all bad.
  3.           Supporting the use of public money for use as private school tuition – Now here is an example of something I don’t agree with.  But I can see why people would be in favor of school vouchers.  In fact, there has been a lot of debate here in DC on this very topic.  There are pretty good arguments on both sides.  In my mind one of the reasons vouchers aren’t a great solution is because if they were scaled up enough to impact a lot of students it would just shift the same problems we see in public schools to private schools but with less oversight.  Plus, last time I checked, the current research on vouchers is a little wishy-washy.  I don’t think it would ever lead to “privatizing public schools” on the level of actually threatening public schools as we know them.  But strictly speaking school vouchers could be considered a form of privatizing public schools.  I just don’t see it as one of the long term consequences of vouchers.
StudentsFirst isn't evil or deceptive.  I know some people who work there and they’re good people who care about kids. Just like I know many people in DC who are connected in various ways to education who are good people and care about kids.  I very often don’t agree with them.  And believe me, I’ve been yelled at enough times in public to know that a lot of them don’t agree with me.  But most of the time all of us, even while disagreeing about the color of the sky, are pushing for the same thing: a better education for all students.  That’s a noble thing.

I may disagree with Michelle Rhee about school vouchers but that doesn’t make her deceptive.  To call someone deceptive, to openly question their integrity, to continuously use an internationally acclaimed newspaper to push one side of an agenda is irresponsible.  If you disagree about school vouchers or charters or standardized testing or teacher evaluations those are fine opinions to have.  Write that.  Write about the arguments you disagree with and why you think they are wrong.  Don’t pander to “privatizing public schools” conspiracy theorists.  Don’t knee-jerk disagree just because Michelle Rhee believes something.  Don’t automatically pigeon-hole supporters of education reform as people who for some bizarre reason have decided to destroy the education system they are apparently only pretending to work to save.  There are a lot of things I don’t understand but one thing I do understand is that real life is complex and difficult and sometimes hard decisions have to be made that will hurt people.  And when you walk through a failing school and you talk to students who are being asked to be more heroic than I’ve ever been just to graduate from high school you might see, like I have, that the hardest decision to make is the decision to not change something.  But maybe not, up to you.

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