Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On the False Manifesto

When I first read the new school reform "manifesto," which was initiated by New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, circulated by Michael Casserly, executive director of the nonprofit Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit organization that is a coalition of sixty-five of the nation’s largest urban public school systems, and then signed by fifteen school district heads, I felt angry. What misinformed jerks! Then I felt confused. What is it, exactly, that they're demanding that they don't already have? Finally, I felt amused. Do these people know what a manifesto is? Isn't a manifesto usually written by the politically power-less and not the politically powerful? My facebook status read:
"Rachel Levy loves it when a bunch of anti-labor, anti-democratic autocrats get together to publish a manifesto in favor of expanding their own power and the power of high-stakes standardized testing in the pages of a publication owned by a standardized testing company. Their high school English teachers must have failed to teach them about irony."
Then when doing research for my blog post about Waiting for Superman, I came across this interview of W4S director Davis Guggenheim. He also comically uses the language of the oppressed and politically powerless to describe his work and the work of those he is purporting to document:
"And the things I felt myself drawn to were these pragmatists. I think you really can call it a revolution, these reformers. These are people who say, 'This is broken, this is ridiculous, I’m going to change the world in front of me.' So over here, Geoffrey Canada, over here, Michelle Rhee, over here, the KIPP guys. Hundreds of them, and they’re pragmatists, they’re not politically driven, they’re not ideologically driven, they’re pragmatists, and that’s what I think makes them win."
Not only does he misuse the word  "revolution," but he claims the so-called revolutionaries are not ideologically or politically motivated. I'd say that's about 95% what they're motivated by. Here's more co-opted language from Guggenheim:
"And they really don’t—underneath that is this sort of thinking that all kids can’t learn. The new revolutionaries, these new insurgents, are saying 'No, every kid can learn.'"
The "revolutionaries"? The "insurgents"? Again I thought that much like the new reformers, this guy must not understand what these words mean. I mean, here he is with one hand taking money from powerful conservative corporate entities to make a film about people, in some ways oppressors themselves, carrying out the same conservative corporations' agenda and talking as if with the other hand he is joining in some revolutionary insurgency. This reminds me of some of the more clueless kids I went to Wesleyan with who claimed to be "oppressed" when, for example, the administration asked them not to deface the campus with sidewalk chalk. I didn't see the harm in drumming up awareness of various valid causes with sidewalk chalk, but I had to roll my eyes when they threw around the o-word. News flash: If you are privileged enough to go to a place like Wesleyan, chances are you're not oppressed.

The other way of thinking about this is that perhaps these very powerful, ideological, and political actors know exactly what they're doing: they are deliberately co-opting the language of the oppressed and using the condition of the impoverished and oppressed of our society, and claiming to act in their best interest to advocate for market-based school reform, which will mostly serve those already with political power and prosperity. A comparison can be drawn here with the concept of greenwashing, (I wrote about this in a prose poem published in Defenestration) where you have companies marketing their products as "green" when they are anything but and where you have individuals using their capitalist-friendly versions of environmentalism to hide behind their contributions to the current states of income inequality and the impoverished.

With that, I'm going move on from my quasi-conspiracy theories to mention some thoughtful responses to the "manifesto" (I still can't say that without giggling). Since she hosts so many of the other voices I'll list here, first I'll mention the response by Washington Post education journalist Valerie Strauss. The next is by Superintendent Jonathan P. Raymond of the Sacramento City Unified School District, who declined to sign the document. Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams also decided against signing it; Valerie Strauss shared his thoughts on the matter. Kevin G. Welner, a professor of education policy and program evaluation at the Univerisity of Colorado-Boulder says that the manifesto should be a resignation letter. Anne Geiger who is a parent, artist, writer, education activist, and former school board member wrote this comprehensive dissection of the document on her blog, Public Policy Blogger. Anthony Cody, a former long-time Oakland, California, teacher and current member of the Teacher Leader Network, listed the errors that filled the manifesto in his blog in Teacher Magazine. Finally, it seems that the principal manifesto authors pulled a bait and switch with at least some of their signatories. Philadelphia Schools Superintendent (and my superintendent at DCPS ) Arlene Ackerman came out saying that while she had given permission to add her name to the document, she had not seen the final version and did not agree with it.

I hope the powers-that-be and the citizens-that-be soon see the false manifesto and "slay-the-dragon" documentary for what they are. I hope they start listening to the people in the trenches who are actually fighting to improve the lives of the impoverished and oppressed, as opposed to those on the outside who are using the condition of the impoverished and oppressed to fight for their own fame and fortune.

UPDATE I: Ooops! I forgot to include this excellent, excellent piece in response to the manifesto from Richard Rothstein at the Economic Institute. It's called "How to Fix Our Schools."

UPDATE II: I've posted a follow-up post to this post about the organization RE:FORM SCHOOL.

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