by David Safier
I experienced a dozen conflicting emotions as I read Nicholas Kristof's NY Times, column, Education's Ground Zero this morning.
I'm on Kristof's side of most issues. When I'm not, I know I can't dismiss him. Today, though, his column has echoes of the ideas conservatives have been pushing about education. Hence, the conflict.
Here's the thrust of Kristof's argument. The real educational "reformers" are people who want to decrease the power of teachers' unions by giving the district the power to fire teachers, and, as a trade off, increase salaries of the excellent teachers who remain.
He's talking specifically about Michelle Rhee, the current chancellor of D.C. schools, whom he mostly praises for the work she has done, with a few caveats. He calls her "an insurgent from the school-reform movement." Rhee, by the way, is much loved and touted by educational conservatives, and her ideas go beyond firing bad teachers and raising the salaries of the rest.
This is Rhee's second year, and Kristof says, "Test results showed more educational gains last year than in the previous four years put together." I haven't seen the results he's talking about, so until I know more, I'll have to accept his stat. I plan to look deeper to see if it's an accurate and meaningful figure.
Here's the problem for me. The educational right has successfully branded themselves as "reformers" and called the teacher's unions and ed profs the "establishment." Their entire agenda includes what Kristof says — give the districts a free hand to fire bad teachers, raise teacher salaries and (since these aren't folks who want to increase school spending) increase class sizes. But it also includes expanding charter schools with minimum regulation and oversight (I'm for charters, but also for oversight) and making vouchers the order of the day. And the back-to-basics style it espouses favors teaching things that can be measured on multiple choice tests.
By this definition, George Bush is a reformer. Bill Bennett is a reformer. Michelle Rhee is an insurgent reformer. This reminds me of the Christian right calling itself a besieged minority and adopting the language of the civil rights movement. Conservatives are masters at using language to further their agenda, and by rebranding the Christian right as a "minority" and educational conservatism as "reform," they're trying to make the powerful, conservative, moneyed interests look like Martin Luther King and 60s anti-war protesters. Like so much in conservative language, its purpose is to distort and confuse the issue to their advantage.
And I think Kristof and others on the moderate left have been taken in by the language, because it resonates with their civil rights/protest movement memories.
On the other hand, Rhee is worth watching. She's a newbie, and she's already beginning to backpedal a bit on her agenda, saying she was trying to do too many things at once. She's made more than a few enemies, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The question is, who is right, Rhee or her detractors? She could easily crash and burn, leaving little to show for her tenure as D.C. Chancellor. Then again, she could shake things up in D.C. and bring about some much needed change, even — dare I say it? — reform.
So here's the multiple conflict. No one can defend D.C. schools. They're a disaster area. Everyone agrees they need to be changed for the better. But that doesn't mean the people who come in with what they're calling "reform" know what they're doing. I don't know much about Rhee, but I do know that lots of her supporters are privatizers who would like to use vouchers to move public money into private schools, which I think is a very bad, very dangerous idea.
So, with a skeptical but open mind — what I want more than anything is improved education in the U.S., especially for students from the low end of the socio-economic scale, so I want to see someone come up with some real movement in this area – I'll watch and wait.