Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Can We Talk?

I am channeling the late, great Joan Rivers today as I ponder the question that many education reformers have been asking: "Can we talk?"

Lately you can't open a link to a pro-education reform blog without finding another reformster pleading for a civil conversation on education. My colleague and fellow founding member of the Guys with Beards and Blogs Foundation, Peter Greene, of the Curmudgucation blog,  has analyzed the pleas of the Thomas Fordham Foundation's Andy Smarick here and those of Mike Petrilli, also from Fordham and Neil McClusky of Cato, here and here. Now jumping into the conversation in a post in Education Week,  is Patrick Riccards, aka Eduflak, who pleads for reformers and educators to work together for the good of the (wait for it) children. You can read his post here.

Riccards gets off to a good start with the title of his piece: It's time for reformers, educators to work together. I welcome what is implied in this title:  reformers are not educators. That's a good start. Even though this acknowledgement filled me with a warm glow, a sudden chill returned when the question popped into my head, "I have been here all along, where have you been?"

Then I recalled where the reformers have been. They have been out spreading the word that teachers are the problem, that tenure hurts children, that we need to close public schools and replace them with charter schools, that parents need choice. They have been out designing the Common Core State Standards without teacher input and working with the federal government to bribe the states into adopting them. They have been out cheer leading for the Vergara decision, promoting vouchers that undermine public school funding and when they got tired of blaming teachers for the problems of public education, started blaming the colleges of education.

But before I close my mind off completely, let me take a look at what Riccards suggests. Riccards deplores the acrimonious debate and suggests it works against progress. 

But if we are truly serious about improving public education for all children, if we honestly want to close those achievement gaps and ensure every child is on a path to success, we need to change how the debate is framed.

Fine. What else?

Beginning with the Chicago teachers' strike in 2012, which largely turned on educator opposition to new teacher-evaluation processes, and continuing through current events, one thing is crystal clear: The negativity and false choices used by all sides simply won't get us to our intended destination.

Whoa! Hold on there, Kemosabe! The Chicago teacher's strike was the root of the negativity? Why not start this sentence with "Beginning with the reformer's false narrative of bad teachers'; or "Beginning with the federal government's attempt to force schools to rate teachers through flawed VAM models"? If you want to talk to me "for the children", then let's not be childish about where the acrimony began.

Riccards then launches into a more conciliatory tone suggesting that reformers tone down the anti-teacher celebration that resounded coming out of the Vergara decision and recognize that bashing teachers is counter-productive to the cause. 

And then we read this:

We should lift up our most successful educators, support those in need, and seek ways to better engage and involve teachers in the process.

Don't you love that phrase "lift up our most successful educators?" I hear strains of Josh Groban singing "You Raise Me Up" in my ears as I envision the reformers raising me to their shoulders. Is it just me or does this sound just a little condescending?  And, oh by the way, does lift up mean merit pay? Is that really where you want to start a conversation?

To his credit Riccards does recognize that without the support of the classroom teacher, no initiative will be successful.

Riccards appeals to his fellow reformsters to not oversell the value of charter schools. He acknowledges that they have not been the panacea that many paint them to be.

But then we get this:

Moreover, at best, charter schools are a strong value-add to the public school tapestry. The Holy Grail of school improvement simply cannot be based on a type of school that 95 percent of students don't attend, and likely will never have access to. Instead, we should focus on how to take the most promising practices from our charter schools and begin to implement them at traditional public schools.

As a general rule, whenever I hear the term "value-add" I run for the hills. This is business world speak for "it works when you turn it on" and is generally used to sell you something you don't want. The first time I heard the term, in fact, was on  a used car lot. I suggest that if reformers want to have serious talk about teaching and children they drop the term. There is no "value add" with children; their value is immutable.

As to taking the "most promising practices from charter schools",what would that be? Draconian discipline policies? Unaccredited teachers? Huge teacher turnover? Eliminating English Language Learners, special education students and miscreants? Outrageous suspension figures? Inhuman workloads? No thanks.

Riccards has four concrete suggestions.

1. Open lines of communication - By this Riccards apparently means that when you want to do something nasty to teachers make sure you let the head of the union know before you do it.
2. Look for areas to partner - Because, you know, we are all in it for the kids. When will reformers realize they did not invent doing things for the kids. What do they think we were doing before they were born?
3. Recognize that the union and the teacher are two distinct audiences - Uh, no. The union is the teachers. The teachers are the union. This is the good old business practice of divide and conquer.
4, Establish a practitioner advisory board - Riccards says that reformers need to realize that there are not a lot of educators working in the reform area (a happy admission) and so reformers should form an advisory board of actual teachers to advise them. Good idea. Of course, alternatively they could just get the hell out of the way and let the practitioners practice.

So to answer the question I started off with for Mr. Riccards and the other reformers who wish to start a dialogue: Can we talk? Not now, but let me know when you are ready to listen.