You Can’t Defend a Failed Vision of American Public Education
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?
It isn’t as if status quo defenders lack high-profile forums from which to articulate their views. There’s Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute, Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss (whose lending of pages to every crackpot opinion borders on the promiscuous), Pedro Noguera writing for The Nation, and once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch’s appearances on The Daily Show and in The Wall Street Journal. Nor do they lack for money: The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers generate $622 million a year in dues alone — and devote enough of it to political campaigning to become among the biggest players in local, state and national politics. That influence is amplified by other influential public sector unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and grassroots groups with whom they generally share common cause.
And it isn’t as if school reformers can claim that they have everyone outside of traditional education circles on their side. They haven’t won over suburban congressional Republicans such as House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, movement conservatives such as Victor Davis Hanson, hard-core progressives like Dana Goldstein and even suburban parents. And even in the big cities that are the epicenters of reform efforts, reformers haven’t exactly won unanimous support.
Yet 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.
Of course, the Bill Gates money argument is seductive. After all, it is one that actually casts defenders of traditional public education as crusaders against plutocrats who simply want to bash teachers, end public education and abandon democracy. The fact that so much of the work of school reformers actually involves improving the work that traditional public schools are supposed to do (from the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with school districts in Memphis and Hillsborough County, Fla., to Teach For America and The New Teacher Project) proves lie to that view.
The other part of the argument — that the message of reform is only succeeding because of money — is even more preposterous. Money does make it easier to publish papers, fund think tanks that share the same viewpoints, and start new initiatives that share one’s message. But if money was that powerful, generations of wealthy people and philanthropies would have captured the high ground long ago in their respective spheres of work. If anything, as proven seen by the Ford Foundation’s ill-fated efforts at urban renewal and school reform in the 1960s — including the laudable proto-Parent Power effort in New York City’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville community — fell apart and led to the first federal regulations on nonprofit activity, the presence of money can actually do more harm and good.
If anything, philanthropists are generally terrible at using their money to influence social change. As I noted two years ago in my report on the Gates Foundation’s school reform efforts, the most-successful education reformers have either tended to focus their work outside of the $600 billion industrial complex that is American public education, or, as in the case of Sears, Roebuck czar Julius Rosenwald (who built schools for black children in the segregated South), on aspects of education that traditionalists of the time prefer to ignore. Outside of education, donors such as George Soros and longtime foundations such as the Lilly Endowment have hardly achieved anything worth celebrating.
On the hand, the most successful and influential social and political movements of the past four centuries — including the American Revolution, Gandhi’s push to free India from British colonial domination, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s — had little money behind them. Martin Luther King didn’t exactly live lavishly and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference didn’t have vast coffers. Mahatma Gandhi was battling against the most-powerful nation on the planet. Same is true for the Founding Fathers, whose individual personal wealth paled in comparison to Great Britain’s treasury.
What all of these successful movements have in common is pure moral force: Indignation about a crisis that actually hurts real human beings in ways that neither Christian nor Humanist can ethically defend, and the conviction that nothing will be right in the world for anyone until the crisis is reversed. The Founding Fathers were offended they and their peers could be taxed and governed without any right to protest, demand redress and shape how laws impacted their lives. Gandhi was angry that one nation could colonize another and relegate its people to indentured servitude. And civil rights leaders were enraged that Black Americans were still de facto slaves in a nation they helped build with their own hands.
This moral force, in turn, fosters grassroots activists and thinkers whose ideas and actions are shaped by their dedication and their indignation. It builds communities of civic agitation. It transforms storekeepers, mothers and journalists into impromptu leaders demanding change. It inspires collegians to reach beyond their beer goggles to make the world better. It creates networks of social entrepreneurs who start new programs and organizations. And finally, it attracts the support of philanthropists and others who share common moral cause with the builders of the movement.
The money and the accompanying media always come last. The French only came in to aid the Founding Fathers only after the decisive victory over the British at Saratoga. International support for India’s quest for independence came long after Gandhi’s return home to the subcontinent. The cameras filming protests in Selma and Montgomery came long after decades of court cases, protests and demands for the end of lynching. And in the case of the school reform movement, the Gates Foundation came two decades politicians such as Lamar Alexander, chambers of commerce, school leaders such as Howard Fuller, and parent activists like Virginia Walden Ford, began demanding an overhaul to a system that works for far too few of our children.
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.
(By the way: The pursuit of money or self-interest isn’t, in itself, evil at all. The profit motive has been as much a force for good in the world — think free trade that helps spur the development of middle class conditions in developing nations, or modern medicine — as the moral pursuit. And when one considers the millions of women denied freedom thanks to Islamic Fundamentalism and the millions more slaughtered during religious wars, moral crusades can also be as damaging to humankind as profiteering. And money is an important external motivator — a reason why everyone, including teachers and think tankers, work hard each and every day. )
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?