Commentator Jim Hightower’s metaphor nailed the latest assaults launched by the bubble-in school “reform” movement. The quotable Texan observes that a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked.
Over the last 20 years ago, non-educators have stumbled over our troubled inner city schools. These elite do-gooders were shocked that poverty still existed. Because the post-modern world was bestowing great bounty on them, the “Billionaires Boys Club” assumed that poor children of color just needed to follow their footsteps into the digital economy. Without bothering to study the complex history of urban education, numbers-driven “reformers” adopted the venture capitalist’s model of “disruptive innovation.” These do-gooders made the snap judgment that the way to help kids was to destroy the system that they defined as the “status quo.”
So, with the best of intentions, these novices assumed the mantle of “accountability.” Market-driven “reformers” set out to destroy education schools, teachers’ due process, and local systems of governance. These accountability hawks had great political success, but educationally they failed. Corporate “reformers” never understood why it is easier to kick down a barn than to build one. So, tens of billions of dollars has been wasted on their data-driven theories. And since so much had been invested in the macho theme of “accountability,” someone has to pay.
I don’t believe that these idealists originally sought to kick teachers down. In their minds, educators should be honored that they had “deputized” us as the agents of change who would end generational poverty. But, then their theories stumbled over reality.
Being true believers in data, “reformers” had always loved testing. As test-driven accountability backfired, however, standardized testing became a method of stomping down teachers, our unions, and our professional values. They even adopted a system, known as “value-added,” that could not conceivably be a tool for building better schools. It began as a kick upside the head to get our attention, so that educators would comply with top-down mandates. But now, the purpose of these statistical models is shaming and destroying individual schools and educators.
Then, the data-driven crowd tripped over students. Since these ideologues were in the dark and blissfully unaware of teaching and learning, they were not intentionally kicking kids as they struck out at their adult enemies. Having stumbled into a world they did not understand, “reformers” did not necessarily know that the system would respond to their mandates with nonstop test prep and narrowing the curriculum. But, now, high-stakes testing has even been pushed down into primary grades and into art classes.
The backlash against standardized testing is swelling, however. Even in the places where their victory seemed assured, such as Jeb Bush’s Florida, it is proving difficult to use reading scores to fire physical education teachers. “Reformers” are thus making one last effort to destroy schools in order to save them.
Sarah Carr, in Hope Against Hope, describes New Orleans as an example of school “reform.” Hurricane Katrina did the dirty work of wiping the old system. This created a “technocrat’s dream.” They were free to build the system they visualized, “run by graduates of the nation’s most elite institutions, steeped in data, always seeking precision, divorced from the messiness — and the checks and balances — of democracy.”
In Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington D.C., N.Y.C, and elsewhere, “reformers” have adopted the Katrina method and doubled down on their gamble to destroy the status quo. Once, they might have thought that closing schools might save money or even be a step towards improving educational outcomes. By now, however, we have too much evidence to the contrary. The purpose of school closures, it is now clear, is kicking out veteran educators who have not seen the beauty of their theories of Big Data unleashing creative destruction.
So, corporate “reformers” are now stumbling over the families of the children who they had wanted to lift up. As Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis explains, parents understand that “reformers” benefit from “one set of schools for children being taught to rule the world.” Whether they understand it or not, the elites’ testing regimes are producing another “set of schools for children being taught to be [Wal-Mart] greeters.”
It is only a matter of time before urban parents join their children and educators, and become the next dog to be kicked in anger. After all, parents (like the teachers and employees of targeted schools) are workers too. And, the unions that “reformers” are kicking have long been essential to political coalitions working for children and families.
But, we can’t expect “reformers” to stumble over that realization. They are too busy kicking schools and educators who they blame for the failure of their once-beautiful dream.