Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Follow-Up to "On the False Manifesto": What about RE:FORM SCHOOL?

Earlier today in my rush to "publish post " before picking my daughter up from preschool, I forgot to talk about an organization called RE:FORM SCHOOL. A few friends had told me about them and at first glance, it looks like a great organization doing great work, and perhaps it is. What's wrong with a bunch of artists coming together to make sure that "ALL AMERICAN have EQUAL ACCESS to a HIGH QUALITY EDUCATION, with no exceptions"? Sounds pretty good to me.

I grew skeptical, though, when I saw that the rhetoric used on the organization's website matched the rhetoric being used by the new education reformers and the group N.Y.U. education historian Diane Ravitch terms the "Billionaire Boys Club." Furthermore, once I read some of the fine print, I saw that the organization is actually associated with Microsoft which means it is actually associated with Bill Gates. This glowing article confirmed the connection.

Now, why shouldn't wealthy people like Bill Gates have so much influence over public education policy? That's a valid question. The NYC-based Executive Director of Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson, makes the case at to why not here as does Topeka K-12 Examiner David Reeber. As Anne Geiger emphasizes in this post about preserving the public in public education, I am also not against corporations and wealthy individuals making charitable donations or funding programs that work towards the betterment of society, but I am against those donations coming with strings attached in the form of control over our American democratic institutions. They may have opinions, some legitimate interests in improving public education, and a boatload (trying to curse less here!) of money, but people like Bill Gates have not been democratically elected, nor do they have any real expertise in the field of education

Returning to the point I made in my last post about the new school reformers' co-opting and re-appropriating of language, if you look at the RE:FORM SCHOOL website, there are references to "grassroots" activism, "community platforms," and "teacher involvement." Those are all good things, but I'm not sure in many cases that that's what the new school reformers are actually after. I'm concerned that this is a case where an organization that seems grassroots, creative, and community-based is simply being marketed as such, serving as a front for a more market-based, less creative, more standardized-testing based, and less educator-generated approach. I could be wrong, though. In her piece in The Nation, "Grading Waiting for Superman," journalist Dana Goldstein notes that:
"The film doesn't acknowledge that Bill Gates, who began his philanthropic career deeply skeptical of teachers unions, has lately embraced them as essential players in the fight for school improvement. His foundation finances a program in Boston called Turnaround Teacher Teams, which works with the district and its teachers union to move cohorts of experienced, highly rated instructors into high-needs schools, while giving them extra training and support. In July Gates spoke at the American Federation of Teachers convention in Seattle, saying, 'If reforms aren't shaped by teachers' knowledge and experience, they're not going to succeed.' A few protesters booed, but he received several standing ovations. Members of the Gates Foundation staff later met with AFT executives, and the two teams discussed ways to collaborate, despite lingering differences on issues like teacher pensions."
Perhaps Gates's mission via RE:FORM SCHOOL and elsewhere is kinder and more informed than I am imagining. The everyone-is-out-to-get-us space I seem to find myself in lately is not a comfortable one for me, nor is it usually a rational place to be. But if Gates and the new school reformers are out to privatize and control the American public education system, I want to make damn sure I'm doing everything I can to speak up and stop it. And for now, I just don't trust these people.

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