Friday, December 30, 2011

My Year-End Post: No Matter the Reforms, No One Likes Tyranny

Education blogger/journalist Alexander Russo asked via twitter and then via his blog with Scholastic where all the smart, interesting pro-reform teacher and principal bloggers were. For now, he said the "reform critics" seemed to be dominating the conversation on-line.

Lots of people responded to this already including Nancy Flanagan, Anthony Cody (here and here), Shaun Johnson, Katie Osgood, Mike Klonsky, Teacher Ken, and Leonie Haimson. I'm not going to get into everything they said because I think at least some of the controversy generated by his post is due to clumsiness on his part, rather than any malice or an agenda (other than to chase down a prescribed narrative) and some misunderstanding on some of their parts. I also criticized him for using the pro- versus anti-reform labels, but I can see that sometimes using such dichotomous terms is just expedient and may not reflect a belief in them--it's important to get beyond semantics even if I personally am a stickler for them.

However, I did agree when many of the bloggers above pointed out that one reason Russo perceives that the "traditional" (a poor choice of words, for example) teacher voice winning on-line is because social media provide virtually the only forums where independent and grassroots voices get heard and can gain prominence. The neo-liberal reformers are dominating the mainstream media and have gobs and gobs of money with which to do so. This, of course, brings up a whole 'nother fascinating topic about power and the dynamic between social media, grassroots advocacy and organizing but that's for another post for another time. . .

So, I agree with that point. But mostly I think there aren't too many teacher bloggers out there independently (and for free) plugging for Students First, for example, because there aren't too many teachers who support the group of reforms that SF is pushing, either in principle or in their execution. But while most teachers and principals are pro-reform, just as Russo doesn't want to interact with an organization (haha--that guy is comically cranky), neither do independent and smart educators want to; and neither do they want to let organizations promoting superficial and short-sighted policies that often detrimentally affect their day-to-day work speak for them.

These organizations don't really represent educators or parents or students (no matter how they're named); they represent the education reform industry. That industry has a slate of reforms that it lobbies for. This, as education journalist Joy Resmovitz so astutely put it, is part of their "branding." Of course, since these reformers sincerely believe their agenda will improve education, it's probably of no consequence to them and presents no conflict of interest that the industry they've created would have the added bonus of benefiting them in the form of financial rewards and jobs.

But if you're an educator, you have to really buy into that brand to promote it. And then you have to go around marketing it, for free, to your co-workers who don't have much time to listen to sales pitches in the teachers lounge for Mark Kay or Pampered Chef-like products (teachers, you know what I'm talking about), let alone pitches for ed reform products. And no one wants to be a salesperson if they don't have to be. Furthermore, the ed reform products, I mean, solutions being proposed are not ones that come from ideas about education or teaching and learning, but rather from ideas about business and finance. If educators wanted to play Corporation or Free Markets, that's where they'd be working.

That all being said, there is a huge diversity of ideas, opinions, and approaches among educators. As I wrote about before, framing education reform as a debate between reformers and status quo defenders is reductive and contributes to misinformation. And if you actually pay attention to and listen to all of the edu-noise out there, you figure this out pretty quickly. There are lots and lots of educators who support some of the reforms, but not all of them. Even so, these people consider themselves professionals and still don't like being told what to do in their classroom by the likes of Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and Bill Gates. Lots of educators are in favor of a common curriculum (though they may have reservations about the Common Core in particular). Lots of educators are in favor of community-generated and innovative charter schools. I bet some are even in favor of vouchers. Lots of educators are in favor of a more educated and better trained teaching corps and in favor of making it harder to gain entry to the profession. Lots of educators are against strict seniority-based firings. Lots of educators want better and more useful teacher evaluations. Lots of educators think that standardized testing and data-informed instruction is useful. Lots of educators embrace technology and certain forms of virtual learning.* Lots of educators think that the teacher dismissal process should be streamlined (which is not the same thing is getting rid of due process). Lots of educators are in favor of mayoral control, or at least they were. (I would say that lots of educators support Race to the Top but it's pretty clear that only the truest of believers like Race to the Top.) And there are lots of parents and other education reform advocates and scholars who are on board with a lot of this stuff.

Journalist Natalie Hopkinson, like many, many DC parents initially backed Michelle Rhee's chancellorship, until she didn't. Teacher blogger James Boutin also initially went to DC to teach because he thought Rhee had the right idea, but after working in DCPS, he changed his mind (read here, here, here, and here). This principal did the same thing, leaving Maryland to become a principal at Hearst Elementary School in DC. He became so disillusioned he decided to sell cupcakes instead. Teacher Stephanie Black subscribes to KIPP's no excuses philosophy and teaches for DCPS. She's perfect for Russo's theory. Oh, except she quit because she didn't like how she was being forced to teach badly under the reformers (see here and here). Education writer Robert Pondiscio is no longer an NYCPS teacher, but he used to be. Guess what? He's not that into the agenda of these particular reformers even though he does support accountability and choice. Dan Brown has been very critical of Rhee-Klein-Gates reform, but he teaches at a charter school in DC, so it's probably safe to say he's pro-charter to a certain extent. Chad Sansing, a teacher at a charter school in Virginia, is very much in favor of choice, just not in the non-choice between schools that meet testing benchmarks and schools that are trying to meet testing benchmarks. Mark Anderson is very supportive of a common core curriculum (full disclosure: so I am, in theory) and probably some of the other reforms, but he's an independent thinker and a thoughtful teacher. VCU assistant professor of educational leadership Jon Becker is "bullish" on on-line education and was very critical of  a recent NEPC report on K-12 on-line education, but he's skeptical of many of the current reforms.* Christina Lordeman (speaking of whom, where is Christina? I haven't seen her around lately) is often very critical of Diane Ravitch and I imagine that she supports many of the reforms in theory, but from what I can tell she is a principled and thoughtful teacher who wants to be treated like a professional and she has also expressed some real criticisms of some of the current reforms. According to her book, even Diane Ravitch was in favor of mayoral control until fairly recently. I know of other long-time education reformers who favored mayoral control, that is until they experienced it. Even those educators who are "pro-reform" (to use Russo's label) figure out they like democracy once they are denied it. And this is just a sampling of some of the people whose ideas I enjoy listening to on a regular basis--imagine how many more there are.

Finally, I'll mention my father-in-law who has guest blogged here and who was fired via IMPACT for not tailoring his lessons to please the IMPACT gods and, basically, for having principles about his craft. He has taught AP and grade-level English for over ten years in DCPS and is known for his rigorous curriculum, preparing kids for college-level English, being interesting, and providing lots of feedback on student writing (see some parent feedback here). He was teaching in DCPS when I started there and I remember saying after not getting paid on time or properly for the second or third time that I could finally understand why some of my DCPS teachers burned out and stopped doing their jobs. Look how badly they were treated, look at how poorly the system is run, I pointed out. Joe shook his head before I could finish my thought. No, he told me, sorry, but there's no excuse for that. If you burn out, it's time to go.

Yet Joe is precisely the kind of teacher--principled, intellectual, and independent-minded--who's vulnerable to getting fired from these reformy systems, for doing their jobs as their experience and knowledge dictates them to. One of the things he was fired for was for covering the clock up in his classroom. He was losing the last ten minutes of class to kids peering at the clock and its presence was rushing and stressing everyone involved. This came to mind because Russo just blogged about how he thinks there's too many clocks in classrooms and that they're stressing people out. Joe agrees and because Joe stood by his reasonable, thoughtful decision to disobey the reformy principal's clock mandate, Joe was fired.

Now, Russo, do you get why smart teachers aren't on-line proselytizing for the likes of Stand for Children, Students First, and TFA? What educator wants to advocate for an education reform organization whose ideas include distrust for educators' professional judgement? Why would educators support education reform leaders who don't respect independent, critical thinking or listen to what the communities they serve say they want for themselves? Who wants to advocate for pressing themselves into a job not of social utility and intellectual stimulation, but of busy work and obedience? The premise that there is some group of educators just waiting for the likes of Leonie, Nancy, Anthony, John, and Ken to tone it down so that they can get busy undermining their own work is a false one. Educators and education advocates, including those just listed, are of very different minds when it comes to the fine details of teaching, learning, and reforming public education. But no one likes tyranny or plutocracy, except for tyrants and plutocrats of course.

(* = Updated content)


  1. Interesting post, Rachel. I am very much for reform, but things very different than "reform" as the corporatists push it. I am very much for individualizing instruction, which would mean not having the obsolete derived from industry by Frederick Taylor model of cohorts, 45 minute periods, desks in straight rows, teacher centered approach that we have been using for far too long. I am for changing instruction from classes divided by subject to intercurricular studies that invoke student interest team-taught. I am for students studying fewer classes at a time in greater depth. I am for authentic assessment, doing evaluations that require the students to apply knowledge in as real-world a setting as possible. Like John Taylor Gatto, were it up to me I would blow up our schools and rebuild them from scratch. But unlike Gatto, I am not in general in favor of unschooling completely, because I believe there is value - especially in a democracy - in learning in a social context, because the vast majority of us will live and work in a social context, and I would like our young people as grounded in the experience of democracy as possiblity to prevent what is happening outside of schools as well, with corporate domination of politics and life.

    One of the reasons I write as I do is so that people will have some chance of experiencing a point of view other than the official presentation of mainstream media, where the editorial writers are in bed with the corporatists, and where far too many of those reporting on education lack the background and understanding to take apart the fallacious claims of many of the 'reformers.' I am lucky in that I have great freedom from my school and my school system. Many teachers do not. I am also lucky in that I have formal training in educational research and statistics and testing so that I am, unlike most education reporters, competent to write about such subjects as they affect school.

    I will disagree with you slightly about Alexander. He has something of a history of being a deliberate provocateur to get more eyeballs on his stuff, he works for an organization with a bit of a bias - Scholastic was in bed with the coal industry in presenting curricular materials, and has been shown to have censored some of what appears in his column. It is not clear to many of us that his blogging represents an independent voice.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful column.

  2. @teacherken - Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. It's always a good sign when one of my posts gets your thoughts.

    And ideas such as yours are exactly what we should be talking about when we talk about "reform." Your ideas are based on ideas about, well, education, based on an understanding of teaching and learning, rather than on data collection and human resources practices. I'm not sure I agree with all of your ideas (though many I do)--I'd have to spend a lot more time thinking and talking about them with you first. For example, I am generally skeptical when people say they want to "blow up our schools and rebuild them from scratch." I'm not sure utter disruption is the way to go. Furthermore, "blowing up" sounds bold and radical but what would doing so actually look like? Entail? Also, would building from scratch mean we disregard what history has taught us? If yes, that doesn't appeal to me. But in any case, all of this is worth talking and thinking about and should be the focal point of conversations about reform.

    It is a bit silly to be provocative and then cry foul when people respond as if provoked, isn't it?

  3. Education "reform" *is* the status-quo and has been for more than a generation - I rarely see this simple fact repeated. In truth, "Education Reform" is a propaganda term that obfuscates the purpose of those involved in its mission.

    Frankly, I don't want Rachel Levy, or Teacher Ken, or John Taylor Gatto, or Michelle Rhee, or Bill Gates, or even Kieran Egan -- or anybody else outside of my community -- making decisions on the design or management of my community's schools.

    Reformers of all stripes need to get it through their heads that different communities are DIFFERENT and there is no universal, centrally imposed system that will work for everyone. Of course these systems WILL work for one important group: those selling the products and services to power the systems.

  4. Well, another explanation is that even if test-based accountability, teacher evaluation systems, and school choice were done with unimpeachable fairness (however you want to define that), a lot of teachers have too much self-interest at stake to give those policies a fair shake, let alone to take a public stand in favor of them.

    As an analogy to charters and vouchers, you're not going to find many Microsoft employees starting blogs to argue that Google represents the future of computer companies -- part of it is because they sincerely have good reasons for not believing it (otherwise, they wouldn't be working for Microsoft in the first place), but part of it is they have too much bias and self-interest to give a fair assessment of Google. Put another way, if the status quo were that the government gave everyone free gift certificates to McDonalds, McDonalds managers would probably be able to come up with all sorts of nice-sounding reasons why that program should not be expanded to allow spending the gift certificates at any restaurant, and some of those reasons might even be good ones, but it would be foolish to ignore the fact that they don't want to lose business.

  5. @Stuart -
    Funny thing. I just saw a variation of this comment on Russo's blog and was so interested by it, I was wishing you had made the comment on my blog. And here you are!

    I think that you and I have very different world views. But I am (sincerely) grateful to get more of an idea of how you (& others) think.

    Re self interest, perhaps I am naive, but oh my goodness, you sound so cynical. Sure, some people act out of self-interest most of the time and sure, a lot of people act out of self-interest some of the time, but don't most people, including teachers, want to be good at what they do and contribute to society?

    Secondly, I don't see the government as a business and I don't think education should be a product of the markets. I realize that higher education kind of works out that way but I don't think that's necessarily for the best and I certainly don't want to see K-12 go in that direction. And I don't think competition helps. As I said in a recent post I think charters and traditional public schools should collaborate rather than compete. Furthermore, there are a lot of mom and pop charters, in DC for example, but they're being threatened by chains. If government schools are a monopoly and that's bad then why replace that monopoly with another one? Also the privately-run chains aren't really operating freely in the sense of a free market if they're being granted favors by the those who have power to grant charters and make accountability rules and the like, are they?

    But to get back to the government as monopoly model (and I'm admittedly a bit out of my element here), as I said, I think that's a false premise. The government collects money (taxes) and redistributes it and invests it, often in things I wish it wouldn't. But the government doesn't make profits (or it shouldn't), nor do I think the government should operate as a business, nor should education. Okay, markets exist and can work well for education-related products and maybe even for some programs, such as for enrichment. I'm okay with that. But not for education itself.

  6. Well, who's cynical? You said that reformers are pushing policies "would have the added bonus of benefiting them in the form of financial rewards and jobs." That may be true of a few charter/voucher advocates, but certainly not all (Gates, Walton, Tilson, etc., are all losing money by their advocacy and donations), and it's a thousand times more true of every teacher/principal/superintendent who opposes charters/vouchers (100% of them have a conflict of interest).

  7. Rachel, I'm stoked I got a shout out in your post! You mentioned some truly hardhitters in the online space that I'm humbled to be considered a part of. I'm proud to be an independent thinker, as you demonstrate yourself to be in the multiple avenues for advocacy and voice that you utilize on-line. We need to cherish that independence and be able to keep a firm keel in the to-and-fro froth that often entails in public discourse. As Ken pointed out above, Russo may have some stake in generating provocation--if he can get people posting responses to something he's written, then he's done his job. We have to be able to deflect derailments of constructive discussions on how to better our public institutions and focus on what's going to move the conversation forward -- just as you have so eloquently done in this post.

    Sometimes I think a lot of this great divide between "reformers" and those who would oppose them is primarily a matter of language and communication. What constitutes "reformers" tend to be folks who are genuinely committed to positive and meaningful change, but they are often distant from the reality of ground level work in classrooms and the effects that shortsighted policies can have on communities.

    It is our role as educators and advocates to bring our perspectives and understanding from the classroom and community level to policymakers and the media. There are many groups out there that are beginning to insert independent teacher voices into the policymaking process, such as Teach Plus, The VIVA Project, Center for Teaching Quality, and several others that I know of and just don't happen to have on the tip of my holiday addled tongue. I am a member of the VIVA Project, and it has given me the opportunity to talk directly to policymakers, union leaders, and most importantly, other educators who I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. These experiences are invaluable, and they have nothing to do with some "corporate" agenda. It has all to do with empowering teacher voice, just as the great work that stalwarts like the ones you mentioned above are doing.

    Like you said in your post, us teachers have often a diversity of views and perspectives on particular issues of reform. But what I have found is that when I sit down at the table with other educators and talk as professionals, we find our common ground when we discuss our practice in our classrooms. This grounds us. This binds us together. Nothing else -- all the political froo-frah -- is as important, to me, as this kind of professional dialogue and collaboration between educators.

    Thank you for all that you and the others mentioned and unmentioned here do to promote positive discussions on how to build a better future for our children. Let's keep blogging, tweeting, and getting our perspectives heard -- no matter where we might diverge on specific points of policy, we are all fighting for a common cause.

    Oh, and happy new year!

    Mark Anderson
    Special Education Teacher

  8. I'm trying to report what I have seen over the past few years as I attempted to switch from being a journalist to a special educator. But I cannot stop being a journalist when I witness first-hand what is going on inside our schools. Do you mind checking out my blog at
    I want to make sure no one forgets all the children in our schools who have a special education label, whether they actually have a disability or not.Children have this tendency to "come down with" disabilities when they reach the grade level in which high-stakes testing begins.

  9. @Stuart - While I am generally a skeptical optimist, I do have my cynical moments, but the one that you are pointing to is not really one of them.

    You have a point that the philanthropists in this aren't making money; indeed, they are losing money. That's not what I'm talking about there. I'm saying that a whole industry has been created around education reform (and not just for choice-related endeavors--that's not all there is to talk about) funded by public dollars and by private/philanthropic dollars. I question the utility and helpfulness (towards the endeavor of improving teaching and learning)of the positions and products being created by these reform efforts, but I do not for the most part question the sincerity of the people doing the jobs and creating the products. I assume and accept most of them are trying to help. And because they think they are helping and because they think of themselves as social entrepreneurs if they make a comfortable or even highly comfortable living in the process then to them, so be it. Some other people do not concede that. They think these people are only trying to take money from one group/system and distribute it to another almost solely in the interest of making a buck. *That*, I think, is cynical and *that* was what I was addressing in that thought. Because unless I have evidence to the contrary, I personally don't assume that.

    Now Stuart, I respect your opinion. Even better where I come from, I am curious about it and want to learn more about how you formed it. I would hope you are here for the same reason. I can see can from the post that the thought you quoted from was not very well presented or organized and it may even be faulty. But you took what I said, took out some words, added some others, and changed its context. In light of a query or challenge, I am perfectly happy to defend, explain, affirm, reconsider, or take back things I *actually* said in the context in which I *actually* said them. But I have little patience for doing so about things I didn't actually say in ways that I didn't actually say them. If you're going to knowingly engage in such tactics, I will probably stop responding as to me they are sign of at worst, arguing in bad faith and at best, arguing for sport. I am interested in neither.

  10. @bubbler - What a great comment.

    I agree so much with you that a lot of misunderstanding occurs when people on the policy side are indifferent to, ignore, don't realize, or don't take into account what happens on the ground. That is one of the on-going themes of this blog.

    You also nailed it on practice. Teachers may disagree on a lot but discussions of practice (and curriculum, I'd argue) should form the meat of discussions about ed reform and advancing teaching and learning. Yes, it's grounding, interesting, and of ultimate importance. And I think that was largely what Ken was getting at, too.

    How do we get to a place where that's what drives the discussion? Where those who engage in the practice and teach the curriculum can be a significant part of the discussion and decision-making?

    @Rebel Speducator - Thanks for reading & commenting. I'm looking forward to reading your blog.

  11. I must have misread you, then. When I saw the following sentence -- "Of course, since these reformers sincerely believe their agenda will improve education, it's probably of no consequence to them and presents no conflict of interest that the industry they've created would have the added bonus of benefiting them in the form of financial rewards and jobs" -- I took it as being sarcastic, and as insinuating that some number of organizations (plural) are only out for financial rewards and jobs.

    Anyway, that wasn't my main point. My main point was to offer an answer to Russo's inquiry, as to why there aren't more teacher-blogger-types in favor of reform. My answer is that at least as to charters and vouchers, it's no surprise at all. I don't think it's cynical -- but merely realistic -- to point out that most of the time, most people are not going to go out of their way to make public arguments for a position that could potentially hit their own pocketbooks. That's not saying that money is their only motivation by any means, but other motivations would have to be pretty strong to overcome all of the personal interests at stake.

    Similarly, think of all the rich people who might argue that lower taxes means that they'll be better able to invest more money creating jobs, etc. They can be perfectly sincere in that belief; they might even be objectively correct in that belief; even so, it's not too cynical to point out that it isn't exactly surprising that they're making THAT argument, rather than incessantly writing blog comments and tweets in favor of taxing themselves more. It's national news when Warren Buffett argues in favor of higher taxes on the rich.

  12. As for where I'm coming from, I support school choice -- I'd like to see as much school choice as they have in most European countries -- because of the notion of letting a thousand flowers bloom.

    In my view, it is simply impossible for one school to be the perfect school for every kid. Kids are too varied and idiosyncratic. Some kids thrive in a large school where they have lots of opportunities to join clubs, etc., while other kids get lost in the crowd. Some kids thrive with a particular type of curriculum or pedagogy, while others need something different. Some kids are OK with a particular type of peer culture, while others are more geeky and would be less vulnerable in another setting. Some kids want lots of sports, others don't. I mean, I could keep going for a hundred different character qualities or interests that kids have.

    Given that no one school can be the perfect school for every kid, why should school choice be limited to only those middle- and upper-class people who can afford to pick their housing with particular schools in mind, and who can afford private schooling if that turns out to be a better fit? Poor people on Medicaid still have the right to pick their own doctor, people who get Pell Grants have the right to pick a university, and people who get food stamps have a right to pick where they buy food. It doesn't seem fair that people who can't afford to move to a different zone should be basically banned from attending anything but their legally-mandated school.

  13. @Stuart - Thanks for the clarification. No, I wasn't being sarcastic, just not very articulate. And thanks for clarifying your main point.

    "most people are not going to go out of their way to make public arguments for a position that could potentially hit their own pocketbooks."

    Okay, I haven't studied decision-making at this level myself (and I'd love to hear from someone who has), but for now I can accept that the above statement is probably true.

    But, and this rather goes back to my main point in the post and as it was discussed by Ken and Mark above, which is that I think we're assuming different things about "reform" when we talk about teachers "being in favor of reform." I'm saying that Russo is right--many teachers are in favor of reform (and I've listed some of that I follow) but not necessarily the particular set of reforms being pushed by the high-profile reformers, or not all of them, or not as they're being executed or legislated. The reforms that many educators are in favor of have much more to do with practice and curriculum than with "things that could potentially hit their own pocketbooks."

    Now since you're specifically addressing vouchers and charters, I'm not sure that any opposition to them is due directly to pocketbook-hitting issues (for lack of a better term), but rather due to how they're being executed (and also at some point we have to separate charters & vouchers, at least vouchers for religiously-affiliated institutions due to 1st amendment concerns) as well as concerns about creating a system that is Darwinistic.

    I don't know. I have to think about what you're saying more. For now, it just seems like I am assuming that money motivations in the matter of reservations about charters/vouchers are a much smaller slice of this than you are assuming. Also, I think that your and my assumptions about human behavior and how competition affects it are very different.

  14. @Stuart (now responding to 2nd comment) - What you're saying here really resonates with me. I guess I don't see why we can't do that within public school systems, with magnets and yes, charters. I'd like to see more choice under one umbrella with more collaboration between the various schools and administrators to find the best fit for each student. That would mean less red tape and top-down orders and high-stakes-testing-based accountability for EVERYONE. That would mean central administrations would need to give individual schools and principals and also teachers more autonomy. Also central administrations need to start being more accommodating and less hostile to communities and groups of parents and educators who want to try something a little different. In some cases, traditional school systems are behaving as their own worst enemy and driving these people away--people who would philosophically prefer to stay within the district, but who get no support from it.

  15. Here's the question that I have long had around this kind of debate:

    Why do teachers beat up on entrepreneurs trying to build educational technology products?

    1. Textbook makers have long made much higher profit margins than most of the entrepreneurs. Even if the entrepreneurs are successful (and most will fail), they're unlikely to EVER get the kinds of profit margins of Pearson, McGraw-Hill etc.

    2. Most of the entrepreneurs are candidly making LESS money than teachers (and entrepreneurs certainly have less job security).

    I'm on the periphery of this industry but it seems like Bill Gates is providing money for a lot of different experients. Why are experiments bad? Isn't this supposed to be an industry about learning?

    Thanks for your insights on these questions.

  16. How about this: what if someone said, "Where are all the Catholic schoolteachers blogging against vouchers?" A quite natural response would be, "Are you kidding? Why would you expect there to be so many Catholic schoolteachers blogging against something that might be the difference between them having a job vs. not having a job?"

    To be sure, there are good reasons that a Catholic schoolteacher might oppose vouchers, just as there are good reasons that a public schoolteacher might support them, but it's not exactly what you would expect to see in droves.

  17. @Anonynous 8:55 - Good questions/ thoughts. @Stuart - I see what you're saying. . .

    Listen, I will be off-line for a while today but wanted to let you both know I will respond more substantially later.

  18. It seems to me that Russo must know exactly why criticism of corporate reform is so heavy online. He's not a dumb guy. So what was his purpose?

    My favorite line from this post: "Furthermore, the ed reform products...being proposed are not ones that come from ideas about education or teaching and learning, but rather from ideas about business and finance."

    Indeed. I think part of the reason for this is that many people don't really think there's a lot to be said for excellent pedagogy. Teaching seems to be viewed as a relatively ordinary job (not a profession for which rigorous standards should be applied). Good teachers are those who are somewhat smart and try hard, and bad teachers are lazy and don't. We don't seem to have much of an appreciation for/understanding of the skill (not talent) involved in a veteran's craft.

    One other thing raised here that has struck me constantly is the masses of frustrated people working in or near public education. I have never been to a conference with fellow teachers, administrators, coaches, teacher teachers, etc. where 90% didn't have lots of complaining to do about untested reforms and federal mandates hurting schools. There is a vast, vast, vast network of people who work around public education in this country who see clearly how harmful things like NCLB and RTTT have been - and it's so much more than JUST teacher and administrator unions. It's education colleges, standardized test makers, councils for school accreditation (SACS, NCATE), professional organizations (NCSS, NCTE), PTSAs, etc. I feel like I can hardly run into a public educator without lamenting the absurd approach to education reform being taken.

    The problem is that these are the people who spend so much time working on and with public education that they generally don't have the time and energy at the end of the day to push for their preferred reforms. (In a very real way, they are too exhausted to fight aggressively against corporate reform.) When you see that, I think it makes it all the more clear exactly how arrogant the corporate reformers are - and their followers (of whom, you note, I used to be one) tend to be equally arrogant, often young and naive (as I used to be).

    Thanks for posting on this with nuance, for being thinker.

  19. In response to Stuart's explanation about teachers fighting to preserve their own interest:

    Yea - this is one possible explanation, and definitely true for some teachers. But if the majority of teachers were mostly out to protect their pocketbooks, then I think there would be at least as equally large a number of teachers voicing their adamant favor for "accountability" - and I haven't seen that happening. As Rachel noted, I used to write strongly in favor of corporate reform. I moved to Washington, DC to work for Michelle Rhee because I wanted to be valued for my good work. I'm smart, capable, and energetic. Shouldn't I be excited about "accountability?" about the monetary rewards that should rightly follow our most capable teachers? I should be rejoicing RTTT and Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee from the roof tops. But I'm doing just the opposite.

    That teachers are out to save their pocketbooks might be an explanation. But it is nothing more than an a priori assumption unless you listen carefully to their arguments, look carefully at what's happening in schools, and reflect deeply on whether those things are good or bad for kids. I've done these things for the past four years. I moved to DC and to the Bronx to both teach and investigate how Michelle Rhee and Michael Bloomberg's version of reform were actually playing out on the ground. And I can say, with experience, that for a lot of schools and a lot of students, these policies are doing far more harm than good.

    Considering that about half of all teachers leave the profession in the first five years anyway (even more in inner-city schools) might give one pause in espousing Stuart's explanation. The only teachers I've noticed who rightfully fall into Stuart's assumption are the bad ones with thirty years of experience. And while they exist, they are a small minority. Furthermore, the power they have comes in the form of unions, not online grassroots activism. The people I read online (the one's Russo's asking about) are mostly highly intelligent and often young people concerned about the detrimental effects of allowing market ideology dominate any and all policy decisions without consideration of context and free-market faults.

  20. @James - (to you first comment) Yes. Yes. Yes. And thank you and you're welcome.

    I especially like what you said about pedagogy/craft. And not to beat my other drum too loudly, but I would add curriculum. Those two things should be the focal parts of conversation around education and education reform. (And when I say craft, I am including whole child approaches.)

    @Anon 8:55 I don't think that teachers necessarily beat up on education entrepreneurs. Teachers, like any other group of Americans, probably like gadgets and technology and products that will make their jobs easier. Of course, there are the extremes in the profession of the techno-phobic and the techno-maniac. I think what teachers don't like is having technology and ed tech products forced on them when they can't really use them, especially when they see gobs of money being spent on some of that stuff while there aren't basics and while essential faculty and staff are cut. You might like this post by Roxanna Elden on teachers & technology--it's excellent.

    I can't speak to your implication that there is resentment towards ed entrepreneurs due to income disparities b/c I've haven't really heard that particular thread of thought beyond middle class folks being outraged by growing income disparity in general.

    And lots of teachers are educators are peeved about the textbook industry. There have been some really cool efforts for districts, schools, and teachers to work together to create their own textbooks (in some cases using chapters, material from textbook vendors). I like that idea a lot, and I bet some good software could make it much easier to happen.

    The problem with Gates as I see it is not just that he is providing money for experiments. Universities, the government, and private industry do that all of the time, and they should. It's that his money is replacing public money (revenues) but being used for public outcomes. And they're not just little experiments; they're grand-scale experiments. So in many cases (though not all), it's do what Gates says, how Gates says to do it (whether it's a good idea or not) and do it on lots of kids, or else no money. I think this is a problem no matter who the philanthropist is. Some say, well, Gates is okay or Soris is okay because they're doing what I agree with but Koch brothers are bad. Okay, I tend to agree more politically with Soros but I think this is a huge problem in general and across the board not just with philanthropists I don't agree with and not just in education. Read someone named Robin Rogers on this.

  21. @James (2nd comment) - Great, great comment. Thanks for taking the time to post it. Though I think Stuart is talking pretty much specifically about opposition to charters/vouchers. And I'll piggy back from something you said to respond to his most recent comment.

    @Stuart - I totally see what you're saying. But to agree that that's strictly what happens, you have to see the world through a certain lens. It's not that what you're saying isn't logical, it's that I don't necessarily subscribe to that brand of logic, that people act so heavily based on market instincts or that they're so motivated by market considerations.

    That being said, I'd be really curious to hear from some behavioral economists on this or from some cognitive/social psychologists who study decision-making. I'd also be really curious to know if there have been surveys of Catholic educators. How actively do they lobby for vouchers, for example?

  22. Good point, Rachel. Stuart's point was mostly about choice - and here I am going off on my own little tangent about accountability.

    Obviously the two are linked, though.

    In the same way that lots of excellent teachers would be on this corporate reform bandwagon if its talking points matched the realities it's creating, I think the same could be said about charters. If charters were regulated appropriately so that one could be confident that they were all really about providing different excellent options to parents, then, again, I think you'd see more public education employees advocating for them online and, of course, everywhere else.

  23. @James - yes, they are linked and what you had to say related to the post in general if not directly to Stuart's comments.

    In the meantime, I have three links that are relevant:

    First, I need to repost the link to Roxanna Elden's post on teachers & technology because my coding didn't take. Here it is.
    Next, Robin Rogers, who mentioned earlier (she's an academic who studies philanthrocapitalism & public policy) just published this piece in the Washington Post.
    Finally, speaking of choice, Chad Sansing, a charter school teacher who I mentioned in the post just wrote this important piece about charter school expansion in Virginia. He does a great job explaining (I think) what kind of charter schools many educators would be in favor of versus those they are largely not in favor of.

  24. Rachel,
    Great initial piece and thoughtful followups. I appreciate your efforts to be fair to all the responders. I especially like the designation "reformy" for the corporate/charter/high stakes testing/anti-teachers union crowd.

    Here is my take as a 28-year English teacher in Los Angeles. First, all objective observers recognize that public education has many faults. In urban districts like my own, teachers and our unions for too long tolerated mediocre results, saying that it was a management issue. Too many top-down mandates only exacerbated the problems we faced in the classroom. Kozol and Postman wrote eloquently about much of this.

    Then we had the outsiders, many from business, who thought they could tell us what to do. Well-meaning, perhaps, but still wrong-headed and not dealing with the real problems that teachers and students faced.

    Then we got NCLB and Race to the Top. More testing and labeling schools and teachers as failures. Money tied to grant-writing, as if saying that up is down makes it so.

    For the last several years, we have faced the most dramatic cutbacks in education (and all social services) in all the years I have been teaching. At least in Los Angeles, our classes are larger than ever, we have fewer support services, including nurses and librarians, and we have seen thousands of mostly young teachers laid off.

    Unless society renews and extends its fundamental obligation to the common good of our children (and all people), all the talk, all the plans, all the testing and "accountability," all the "reforminess" (well-meaning or not), will mean nothing.

    Every school must be a great school, and provided with the resources to make that possible. Otherwise I fear for the future of our democratic society. This crisis clearly transcends party, and the outcome will reveal our soul as a people.

  25. @Brad - Thanks for reading & commenting!

    I must credit Russo with the "reformy" term--I'm pretty sure it came from him.

    Otherwise, you're really onto something. Top-down, mandated micro-managing is a failing strategy. And so are cutbacks. You're right, without adequate resources (and without raising revenues) public institutions and services are doomed.

  26. James --

    You say, "But if the majority of teachers were mostly out to protect their pocketbooks, then I think there would be at least as equally large a number of teachers voicing their adamant favor for "accountability" - and I haven't seen that happening."

    I'm not sure why that follows. If teachers were thinking of their pocketbooks, there would be equally as many teachers in favor of accountability? Why would that be? Isn't it more likely that most teachers (whether or not they would admit this) fear that under any accountability system whatsoever, they bear more personal risk of failing to meet the criterion? And isn't it more likely that only a handful of teachers would see a high enough possibility of rewards from an accountability system that they'd favor it based on that reason?

  27. Hi Stuart,

    I think that because I think there are more than a handful of teachers who not only would accept accountability, but have been begging for more accountability for years. Those are the teachers who are confident about their skill and know they're making an impact on students. Why wouldn't competent professionals want to be held accountable for their work? It's an opportunity to receive praise and improve. Don't people want those things?

    But don't confuse my use of the word accountability for some other people's. The way accountability is being envisioned in many school systems across the country would not be something I would accept. A given system of "accountability" is worthwhile only if it accurately measures meaningful indicators a professional can rightfully be held responsible for. I don't believe in being held accountable for factors I have no control over. Hold me accountable for things I control, give me rewards for my good work in those areas, and you elevate the status of my profession - I'd be happy with that. I've been advocating for that since I began teaching, when I felt I was doing a better job as a new guy than the thirty-year-old veteran next door. The majority of teachers I've worked with are similar. Try checking out the link below:

    It seems to me that for you to believe that teachers don't want accountability, you must either believe that the vast majority of teachers secretly know that they're not very good at their job OR you think that human nature tells it to avoid responsibility. I don't think I'd agree with either take.

  28. Pasi Sahlberg (of Finnish fame) says accountability is what's left once responsibility is subtracted.

  29. "Why wouldn't competent professionals want to be held accountable for their work? It's an opportunity to receive praise and improve. Don't people want those things?"

    Well, no, not really. Ask people in the business or legal worlds how much they like having yearly performance reviews -- they either think it's a joke or they're nervous about it. Either way, people are generally not eager to tell their boss, "Hey, can you look over my shoulder more often, correct me, and potentially demote or fire me if I'm not doing the right thing?"

  30. @Stuart - If professionals don't like having their work evaluated because the process is a waste of time, that doesn't necessarily indicate they don't like being held accountable for their work, it means they want the process to be fair and useful.

    As for nervousness, I think that's normal in any evaluation, no matter the stakes (I get nervous when I go to the dentist that he's going to tell me I have new cavities or that I'm not taking care of my teeth well enough). Though I must concede that a certain number of people will reject the process just because it makes them nervous--people certainly avoid going to the doctor for those reasons--which isn't productive or particularly competent.

    But lots of teachers would like to be observed more if it means they'll get useful feedback. I talked with the principal at my kids' neighborhood public school about teacher evaluation. She said she and teachers talk together before the observations to identify what the teacher considers to be weaknesses or problems so that the principal can watch specifically for those and then provide targeted feedback. She said, in fact, that that was how principals in our district are trained to do evaluations. That shows a willingness on the part of teachers to be vulnerable but also that they trust that the principal is there to help them improve their practice and not just to decide to fire or demote them. And I think that's one reason why teachers are generally happy here despite lower than average salaries. When I went from DCPS to Albemarle County PS in Virginia, the evaluation processes were like night and day. Instead of answering to a pre-determined checklist about standardized test scores and what was up on my classroom walls, I had honest but pleasant and useful conversations mostly about my practice.

    Of course if teachers aren't willing to be evaluated, accept that they can always improve their practice, or to take steps to improve, they shouldn't be in the classroom, but there also has to be that trust there. If the evaluation process is hostile, punitive, useless, or unfair (not based on actual practice and curriculum), then of course, professionals aren't going to want to be evaluated.

  31. I completely agree with Rachel. I would also add that increasing the degree of meaningful accountability in teaching would make my job significantly easier by both helping me and my competent, committed colleagues improve and by getting rid of those not-so-competent, not-so-committed colleagues who make my job more difficult.

  32. "getting rid of those not-so-competent, not-so-committed colleagues who make my job more difficult."

    I would guess that a significant portion of the opposition to accountability comes from:

    1) People who legitimately fall into the category you just named;

    2) People who don't fall into the category you just named, but who (perhaps rightfully) fear that inaccurate testing measures, bad evaluation systems, and even capricious administrators, would classify them as incompetent.

    Either way, though, self-interest does come into the mix. That's not a bad thing, especially as to number 2 above, but it also does help explain why you wouldn't find large numbers of teachers blogging/tweeting about how much they love accountability.


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