Friday, December 12, 2008

The New Know Nothings

I just heard Jonathan Alter rant against teacher unions on Don Imus while praising Bill Gates as a reformer. Alter joins David Brooks, another education Know Nothing in pushing the Joel Klein/Michelle Rhee/Arne Duncan model of "it's all the teachers and their unions fault" model of school reform. Brooks recently wrote his second column pushing his vacant ideas on education.

What's interesting about these Know Nothings is how they refuse to look at places where the anti-union market based "reforms" have had little impact. Arne Duncan brags about how he fired the teachers at low performing schools. How has the Chicago model worked out? (See my recent column about how PS 225 in Rockaway had most of the teachers dumped out in March 2005 and is now being closed.) As a matter of fact, the refusal to look at the record of Chicago 13 years after mayoral control began and where George Schmidt reports the union has been rendered just about helpless, is a major plank in the Know Nothing platform.

Another plank is the refusal to look at all the right to work states where unions barely exist and how education is working out in those places.

Alter never mentions Gates' recent turn around on his support of small schools, a movement that has decimated and de-stabilized so many schools in New York City. Ooops! Let's try another experiment with no data backing it up. The irony, of course, of all these data kings never using data to judge the validity of their "reforms," would be delicious if it wasn't so destructive.

The rants ignore the significant voices of vocal parents in New York who have actually made a firmer stand against BloomKlein than the UFT.

I put a lot of blame for how this is being played out squarely on the teacher unions, who could of/should of been fighting for the kind of education reforms that would work. But they abandoned that fight a generation ago. We expect people like Gates, Alter, Brooks, Klein, etc. to act the way they do. But when the rank and file have to fight a two-front war, their situation is very bad indeed.

As we full well know, the UFT has barely made a stand at all. I won't go into the gory details. You see, the UFT/AFT wants to play "me too – see, we are also reformers." No, not the kind of reformers who call for low class sizes and offering urban kids the same kind of education wealthy kids get. But merit pay, ending union work rules, support for the testing mantra (though making squeaks about how much they are opposed.)

The tragedy is that our union leaders are not Know Nothings. They actually know something about how schools work but have decided to play the political game with the union attackers. "We'll give you some of what you want now and sell it to the members while leaving you loop-holes to get the rest. We will then put on a big act for the members about how awful this is but shrug our shoulders with a 'what can we do' attitude." The key issue: hold on to power.

They want to be a partner with the business community and have a seat at the table. Except for the extreme right wing union attackers, the reformers are perfectly happy to have a UFT/AFT on board as their intermediaries in selling their platform from the inside. The union leaders will get dues no matter what happens to the teachers. And most importantly, they will remain in power.

If a reform movement within the UFT ever got started and attracted masses of rank and filers, watch how quickly the gang running the schools line up with Unity Caucus to keep militants away from union power.

Greg Palast had a great post at Huffington which I posted at Norms Notes. Is the real Gates interest to make sure poor kids are educated in a narrow, test-driven school he would never send his own kids to so he can assure enough data entry clerks?

Is Obama Getting Bad Advice on His Appointments?

Joel Klein is being considered for secretary of education, which would make as much sense for our schools as Michael Brown did for disaster relief.

Has Barack Obama forgotten, Michael "Way to go, Brownie" Brown? Brown was that guy from the Arabian Horse Association appointed by President George W. Bush to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Brownie, not knowing the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain from the south end of a horse, let New Orleans drown. Bush's response was to give his buddy Brownie a thumbs up.

We thought Obama would go a very different way. You'd think the studious senator from Illinois would avoid repeating the Bush regime's horror show of unqualified appointments, of picking politicos over professionals. But here we go again. Trial balloons lofted in the Washington Post suggest President-elect Obama is about to select Joel Klein as secretary of education. If not Klein, then draft choice No. 2 is Arne Duncan, Obama's backyard basketball buddy in Chicago.

It's not just Klein's and Duncan's empty credentials that scare me: It's the ill philosophy behind the Bush-brand education theories they promote. "Teach-to-the-test" (which goes under such prepackaged teaching brands as "Success for All") forces teachers to limit classroom time to pounding in rote, low-end skills, easily measured on standardized tests. The transparent purpose is to create the future class of worker-drones. Add in some computer training and -- voila! -- millions trained on the cheap to function, not think. Analytical thinking skills, creative skills, questioning skills will be left to the privileged at the Laboratory School and Phillips Andover Academy.

Alphie Kohn has a piece in The Nation which I also posted at Norms Notes.

Beware School 'Reformers'

For Republicans education "reform" typically includes support for vouchers and other forms of privatization. But groups with names like Democrats for Education Reform--along with many mainstream publications--are disconcertingly allied with conservatives in just about every other respect.

Sadly, all but one of the people reportedly being considered for Education secretary are reformers only in this Orwellian sense of the word.

Duncan and Klein, along with virulently antiprogressive DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, are celebrated by politicians and pundits. Darling-Hammond, meanwhile, tends to be the choice of people who understand how children learn. Consider her wry comment that introduces this article: it's impossible to imagine a comparable insight coming from any of the spreadsheet-oriented, pump-up-the-scores "reformers" (or, for that matter, from any previous Education secretary). Darling-Hammond knows how all the talk of "rigor" and "raising the bar" has produced sterile, scripted curriculums that have been imposed disproportionately on children of color. Her viewpoint is that of an educator, not a corporate manager.

Imagine--an educator running the Education Department.

For more research-based pieces, check Leonie Haimson's consistent defense of reforms that will work at the NYC Public Parents blog. Leonie's stake is that she has a child in the NYC schools. In this piece Leonie punches holes in the entire Bill Gates rationale.

No evidence of improved outcomes at NYC's small schools

And of course the work done by Eduwonkette to debunk the Know Nothings. And then there's the ongoing discussion between Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch at Bridging Differences.

You see, the new Know Nothings want to know nothing about all this evidence of opposition that goes way beyond teachers.

Previous Ed Notes articles on another David Brooks column in July.

David Brooks and the Status Quo at the NY Times

Responding to David Brooks

Michael Fiorillo Challenges David Brooks

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