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School & District Management Opinion

Why Are Reformers So Insensitive?

By Anthony Cody — May 23, 2012 3 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson.

Diane Ravitch was recently informed of the contents of the New York City Department of Education e-mails that the United Federation of Teachers gained information through a Freedom of Information request. The first thing that Ravitch recognized in the communications was “the chummy exchanges between the public officials in charge of the New York City public school system and the top dogs of the charter leadership.” Ravitch then explained that the communications document “the collusion between those who are sworn to protect the public schools and those who are incentivized to privatize them.”

Ravitch then explained what I believe was the most revealing part of the e-mails. They revealed an organization that is afraid of any criticism. New York “reformers” are especially afraid of Ravitch, Deborah Meier, and Jonathan Kozol. The exchanges labeled Ravitch and Meier as “moronic” and Ravitch and Kozol as “deranged crackpots.”

By now, the boorish behavior of many “reformers” is taken for granted. Once, Michelle Rhee’s firing of a principal on camera for PBS was the archetype of a self-righteous crusader who subordinated common decency to her opinions about the correct way to help poor kids. Then Rhee championed evaluations using value-added models that failed to account for the additional difficulty of raising test scores in the toughest schools. She thus imposed collective punishment on teachers who chose to teach in the schools where it is harder to raise test scores.

Rhee was trumped, however, by Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy who replaced the entire staff of Miramonte school after a current and a former teacher were arrested on suspicion of lewd conduct. He thus imposed collective punishment that left the entire faculty tainted as if they were child molesters.

Even so, I was shocked that the Los Angeles Times’ story on Deasy’s impatience did not have legs. The Times reported that:

Deasy dropped unannounced into a senior composition class taught by substitute teacher Patrena Shankling. Deasy angrily criticized Shankling for carrying out the assignment left by the regular teacher, calling it busywork that disrespected students. Shankling asked him to leave and Deasy allegedly retorted, "You're the one that will be leaving," before storming out, according to written statements from Shankling and students.

John Deasy is “morally driven to give all students a quality education.” But I question the situational ethics of Deasy and other non-educators who believe that can help kids by using any means necessary to destroy the “status quo.” Their fatal flaw is being too impatient to take time to listen to dissenters. The views of educators who are not “on the same page” are seen as merely a speedbump.

Political scientist, Patrick McGuinn, in a sympathetic article in Education Next, helps explain the belligerent culture of the contemporary “reform movement. McGuinn reports that education reform advocacy organizations (ERAOs) meet every few weeks in Washington D.C. to discuss their fight with teachers and their unions, which they dismiss as the “blob.” The ERAOs refer to themselves, only half in jest, as the “Fight Club.” In other words, they are so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that they embrace “brass knuckle” edu-politics, as they demonize their opponents.

When I became an inner city teacher in the early 1990s, it was easy to become angry at our poor system’s flaws. But nobody suggested that we should blow up our system in order to save it. Our district had less than $1,900 per student per year to invest in overcoming a century of economic oppression and Jim Crow. No rational person would claim that we had the resources necessary to overcome the legacy of poverty. Administrators and teachers also knew we had to compromise in order to keep the school doors open. Like it or not, we had no option but to “hang together.” When we made a deal, our handshake had to be good. We did not have to agree with the person who we compromised with, but we honored our commitments.

Once education “reform” was redefined as a civil rights movement, educational novices like Rhee, Deasy, and the “Fight Club” claimed that they were on the side of the angels. Common decency was dumped as a trait that slowed their crusade. These accountability hawks did not take the time to learn that schooling is a people business, and trusting relationships are essential. They adopted the business model of “churn,” where destroying the careers of educators was seen as a virtue. I guess they believe that education will always have an endless supply of talent that is willing to be chewed up and spit out in service of the righteousness of “reformers” ultimate goals.

What do you think? Why do “reformers” believe they can help students by abusing educators?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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