July 10, 2020

Teach For Hysteria: The utter insanity of anti-reform

If insanity is doing the same thing while expecting different results, then teacher unionists and their sympathizers are certifiable. While efforts to improve public education has captured the imagination of most of the public, teacher unionists see problems (underfunding, class size, teacher prep time, the lack of good pedicures) while failing to see The Problem.

The Problem is not charter schools, Michelle Rhee, Teach For America, or Rich White Men That Dabble In Education. The Problem is not Walmart’s inability to be Costco, or the fact that Marxism is now merely an exhibit at the Smithsonian.

And, The Problem sure as hell isn’t the fact that non-unionized school options without institutional legacies of bureaucratic failure are proliferating.

Even as teacher unionists rail against these conveniently placed straw men and erect the monumental illusion of a Mary Poppins-like teacher archetype – casting themselves as noble martyrs consistently abused by everyone that disagrees with them – they fail to offer a single solution that isn’t grounded in juvenile fantasy or economic unrealism. In fact, if you search teacher contract negotiations nationally you’ll find a similar negotiation goal across most of their franchises: more money, less accountability. That is the sum total of their vision for public education.

They do not see The Problem, which to most people in the “better schools” movement accept as a truism: All children can learn at higher levels, great schools can make a difference, great teachers are key – and our current education industrial complex is failing to grasp these realities, to catastrophic effect.

Sadly, instead of getting with the “all kids can learn” movement, teacher unionists are redoubling their “poor kids are doomed” talking points. Instead of heeding the data showing variability in student performance in different schools, some promising and some not, they prefer to treat free-and-reduced lunch as a demarcation line between those that can learn and those that will be wage slaves in an unfair economy.

But it gets worse. There is a point at which a disagreement becomes a war. Given all the freaky anti-reform rhetoric about grand conspiracies to “destroy” or “privatize” public education, I  estimate the anti-reform backlash is about 5 minutes away from David Koresh territory. Suddenly it isn’t enough to disagree with those of us that sincerely pursue improvements to public education as a mission toward social justice. Now it is necessary to put us into two camps: those that pursue reform for nefarious reasons, and those that are misguided or duped by the nefarious people.

It never occurs to them that we just might be folks that see The Problem and the possibly for ending The Problem.

I was prompted to write this post after seeing John Thompson’s Huffington Post piece about Diane Ravitch’s take on the insanity chart of school reform and “no excuses” circulating in anti-reform circles. Thompson argues that anti-reformers like Ravitch who lump all advocates for better schools into a evil cabal are “prescient.”

[Paul] Thomas and Ravitch agree that this “reform” recipe fits the classic definition on insanity, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” But Ravitch indicates that such insanity cannot be lost on advocates of pro-market “reforms.” The only rational explanation is that their true goal is privatization of public schools.

An “award-winning historian” and teacher like Thompson should see the folly of a sentence that starts with “the only rational explanation is.” It is scary that people entrusted with teaching our children argue this poorly.

Follow this logic chain:

1. Thomas’ “insanity chart” describes problems matched with failed prescriptions from “no excuse” reformers.

2. “pro-market” “no excuse” “reformers” must know – and agree – that the “pro-market” “reforms” are failing.

3. The goal of “pro-market” “no excuse” “reformers” can only be “privatization.”


Thompson goes on to describe what he sees as compelling evidence of a larger conspiracy, even if there is no “smoking gun”:

[James] Cersonsky reports on TFA Leadership Educational Equity (LEE), which is a network for TFA alumni. Starting in the restricted section of the TFA website, he investigates whether “LEE could shift control over American education reform to a specific group of spritely college grads-turned-politicians with a very specific politics.” Cersonsky finds no smoking gun to prove that LEE is a neo-liberal version of the rightwing “ALEX” which quietly pushes for reactionary policies, but he documents a clear pattern. For instance, he quotes a community organizer who explains, “LEE hasn’t been openly unsupportive” of teachers who resist privatization, “but LEE is clearly looking to strategically promote folks who have a different politic.”

Is there anything tragic about Teach For America promoting a movement of “folks who have a different politic”? I can live with it, especially if the “different politic” is one that promotes the novel idea that all children can learn, and also challenges defeatist teacher reactionaries who are lost in the analysis of deficiencies inherent everywhere but within their own ranks.

As an advocate for better schools that serve all children, and schools that create the platform for justice in America, I welcome the advancement of young, bright, dedicated people who believe in the potential of children, the promise of public education, and the power of teaching to change the world. We could get lost in responding to the wacky and self-serving resistance movement of teacher unionist, but why should we? We know they are wobbling on an untenable, time-limited defense. They exist on the wrong side of history and they make our job easier by proposing nothing but oppositional defiance to anything that impacts their monopoly.

The truest insanity of the anti-reformers is that all their arguments are roads leading back to Rome, and for them Rome is the their capital of self-preservation (increased funding, decreased expectations).

The idea that this strategy can continue even as Rome is burning should solicit our pity, but not our time.

Finally….after seeing Paul Thomas’ anti-reform “insanity chart” I decided to help him with a few revisions.

Public School Problem
Teacher Unionists Solution
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned disproportionately inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers
Ignore the fact that seniority and race drive the teacher economy; teachers are not “assigned,” they use seniority to “shop” for schools with more advantaged students
Public schools increasingly segregated by race and socioeconomic status
Ignore “segregation” unless it occurs in non-unionized schools; additionally, equate the choice of historically oppressed people to select smaller, culturally affirming environments as “segregation,” even as teachers send their own kids to private schools at a higher rate than the general public
Three decades of standards-based testing and accountability to close the test-based achievement gap
Attack the tests and the test results as if cancer is caused by cancer screenings
Inequitable school funding that rewards affluent and middle-class schools in affluent and middle-class neighborhoods and ignores or punishes schools in impoverished schools/neighborhood
Ignore the problem of inequitable funding because unionized teachers see bidding into advantaged schools as a “professional” rite of passage. Only address the issue when the choice of parents for non-unionized schools can be blamed
State government top-down and bureaucratic reform policies that ignore teacher professionalism
Ignore that teachers’ unions are a powerful part of the “top” that creates bureaucracy and treats teachers as trade workers rather than “professionals” who can judged on merit
Rename high-poverty schools “academy” or “magnet” schools
Create straw men that only exist in places where peyote is free, unicorns are president, and rivers are made of rainbows or marshmallows
Ignore and trivialize teacher professionalism and autonomy
Argue that teachers cannot make a difference with poor children, and “poverty cannot be overcome in the classroom”; trivialize data that shows teachers are the most important school-based variable in student achievement
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned disproportionately to overcrowded classrooms
Never define “overcrowded” and ignore the fact that charter schools produce smaller classes with less school funding
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students tracked into test-prep classrooms
Confuse academic acceleration with “test prep” so the middle-class public will not catch on to the fact that a large portion of the teaching “profession” is incapable of teaching the growing majority of students.
Teacher preparation buried under bureaucracy at the expense of content and pedagogy
Fill the room with Straw Men. Focus on the front end of the pipeline only as a strategy for ignoring the backlog of incapable teachers currently glutting the system
Presidents, secretaries of education, governors, and state superintendents of education misinform and mishandle education
Teacher unionists pretend that only they are the “experts,” and only they know the golden secrets of spurring an outbreak of learning – without any demonstrative evidence that this delusion is true
Fail to acknowledge the status quo of public education (see above): Public schools reflect and perpetuate the inequities of U.S. society
Fail to acknowledge that the output of schools generate the gross social, economic, and racial inequities we see in society. And in some cases public schools reverse the inequities.

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