Sunday, November 18, 2012

A project-based loving billionaire with no education expertise is still a billionaire with no education expertise.

Another billionaire is out to reform education. George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm to Disney for $4 billion in cash and stock and plans to spend most of his fortune on education. Lucas is already involved in education with an educational foundation that includes the website Edutopia.

Lucas's announcement has led to calls for him to take a different, more enlightened and humane road than the standardized test-based approach to education championed by Bill Gates, the Waltons, and Eli Broad. And rightly so. It has also led to some public hand-wringing from edu-thinkers who feel that Edutopia's approach to education is too nebulous and sparky but bland and will accomplish a bunch of "visionary" nothing.

Look, when people like George Lucas say things like:
"It's scary to think of our education system as little better than an assembly line with producing diplomas as its only goal."
I brace myself for the descent into pseudo-scientific, new-age hokiness. The school-as-factory metaphor doesn't work for me. I don't know what it means. I may have various negative reactions to some of the things that are done in public schools today, but I never think of them as factory-like, partly because I haven't spent much time in factories, and I bet George Lucas hasn't, either.

I also feel the same way about terms like "21st Century learning." Did people's brains work so differently in past centuries than they do today? I don't think so. When you comb through information on the internet, you are relying on the same skills and knowledge-base that you did when you were searching reference books in the library. It's just the tools (books vs. computers) that have changed.

On the other hand, I am just as averse to the term "progressive education," not to mention "ultra-progressive education." Again, I don't know what those terms mean. While policies and the content of some curricula certainly can be so, education and teaching methods are not progressive or conservative any more than a computer or computer software is progressive or conservative. They are tools and ways of doing things.

Edutopia is not some project-based boogeyman that is coming after my children. It's not some cult that has brainwashed teachers. While I may have reservations about some of the ideas they promote, I and most people recognize that Edutopia is a clearing house, a resource. That's all. Also, at this point I'd be happy to see my children spend a little more time on projects and much less on awful high-stakes testing.

I, for one, am glad that George Lucas seems to be staying out of policy, but mostly I think that George Lucas's foray into education is a symptom of a bigger problem. The money in our country is concentrated too much at the top: a few uber-wealthy individuals have out-sized power and influence and the rest of us have too little. There is no more expertise, just wealth and celebrity. This is not the way a democratic, educated society functions.

Whether or not I am sympathetic to George Lucas's ideas, his money will ultimately disrupt and corrupt public education the same way Gates, Broad, and the Walton's money has. The best he could do would be to just give grants for underfunded and unglamorous staples. Your school has no library? Here's a grant to make a library. Your school has no nurse? Here's a grant to hire a registered nurse. The kids at your school have no supervision after school? Here's a grant for sports and extracurricular activities.

A plutocrat is a plutocrat is a plutocrat. And I've had quite enough of the lot of them.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Dear Reformies: Please stop speaking for my children.

(Updated with quotes: 11/4/2012)
“I love teachers – effective teachers," she told a smaller group of lawmakers and educators that day. "No one has a harder job than an inner-city teacher. There is nothing more noble than working as a teacher.
But if you raise some of these issues you are labeled 'anti-teacher' or a 'union-buster.' I'm not a union buster. But teachers have a very effective organization lobbying on their behalf. I want to be effective representing the other side, our children.”
-Michelle Rhee 

"In the 21st century, public schools need the kind of innovation that private firms like Google, Twitter, and Apple exemplify (just as there's room for innovation from non-profits like CK12 or Khan Academy). For the sake of our children, it's time to open our minds, move past ideology, roll up our sleeves together, and get to work."
-Joel Klein 

To all of the Chris Arnolds, Michelle Rhees, and Joel Kleins  out there:

How many kids do you have? How many are in the public schools? How many kids have you taught? I ask because I am a teacher and am a parent with actual children in public schools and I haven't seen any evidence that the policies you endorse are helping students or helping my children. In fact, I see that the policies you support are harmful: harmful to public schools, harmful to quality education, harmful to students, harmful to my children.

I understand that you don't agree. That you probably believe in the mission of the industry you work for (though not, apparently, enough to tell anyone that you work in said industry). That's fine (though I'd love to know how many kids you have actually, verifiably, and concretely helped by touting the the policies you do). I think your beliefs are misinformed, but everyone has beliefs and, for better or worse, many of them aren't the same as mine.

I understand that you and your superiors and fellow education reform industry leaders  have a living to make. Peddle your gadgets and your software. Be an education consultant or a professional development vendor. Run your "education reform" organization. Add to the ranks of the over-sized lobbying industry. Be a PR flack. Continue the proliferation of "failing" schools, but make a tidy profit at it, too. Raise your money. Make your living. Help politicians to make a living. I could never look at myself in the mirror doing what you do, but that's just me. Everyone needs to make a living, especially writers. After all, who gives "crap" about creativity when the kiddies can't read, right?

But there is a role you seem confused about. See, you represent an ideology. You work for a company or an organization or contributors. You represent them. You don't represent kids and you certainly don't represent my kids. So stop acting as if you speak for my children. Stop ruining their education in their name. You don't know my children. You don't live in my community. You don't work or volunteer in the schools my children go to. You're not helping my children, their peers, or their teachers (not even the excellent ones). You don't know what's best for them and their education. I represent my children. I speak for them. My children speak for themselves. I know them and their teachers know them. And from what I can tell and what they experience, your ideology is all wrong for them and their education. If you have them, you can speak for your own children. If you don't, well, promote your ideology and your business in your name.

Don't you dare promote it in the name of my children or in the name of their education.

Yours truly,

Rachel Levy