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Ideas: Beware Over-Use Of The "Anti-Reform" Wrecking Ball

ScreenHunter_10 Jan. 27 14.19Progressives might be feeling pretty good right now about the defeat or delay of various attacks (Waiting For Superman, the anti-strike legislation in Illinois, the parent trigger in Compton) and the emergence of several champions (Ravitch, Strauss).  

But in my mind at least progressives are still spending so much time tearing down any and all possible examples of progress, a tactic that while useful may have reached its limits.  There's always something wrong, or not good enough, or an extenuating circumstance or special treatment that can be used to explain things away.  Where's the money coming from?  What about the teacher turnover rate?  

As you'll see below, I think it's time for a more positive, hopeful narrative, with a new set of examples and heroes illustrating an alternative path to success.  But I'm not sure anyone's working on that.  

The urge to criticize is entirely understandable -- so-called reformers (and at times a credulous press) have been presenting reformy strategies and endeavors as self-evident, guaranteed and overwhelmingly successful (a strategy with obvious problems of its own).  And vigorous criticism is necessary -- to a point.  

Moving forward, I worry that those concerned about the current direction of reform will end up marginalizing or even discrediting themselves with the public through a continued tearing down education "success" stories when they need to begin presenting a more positive, compelling alternative.

Why?  Well, no one likes a constant stream of scoldings  -- no should know that better than educators -- and what little history I know says complaining usually doesn't work -- witness Kozol, or Hirsch, or ... yeah, I'm out already.  But you get my point.  (Sometimes the critiques against reform efforts also reveal a stunning blindness to the current situation -- slamming an effort that worked partially but still represented substantial improvement over the present.)  A witch hunt against reform is still a witch hunt, even if it's in response to a witch hunt against teachers.  

Where are the progressive versions of the reformy success stories like Harlem Children's Zone, or Urban Prep, or Sac High, or Chicago/NYC/DC? Where's the progressive version of Michelle Rhee, or Geoff Canada?  Someone get on the phone to Central Casting and dial up some alternative heroes.  

In the meantime, a change in rhetoric would be a good start.  Tell us what you're for, tell us what a great school for poor kids would look like or how you'd fix a broken one.  Make us believe, if only for a minute, that progress is possible.  Because if you're against everything then you're not really for anything, or at least that's how many people will perceive you.  


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What I have difficulty understanding is how the term "progressive" applies here at all. Where's the progress? What would they have us progress towards? Aren't ardent defenders of the status quo better termed conservatives or, in the case of some of the luminaries you mention, reactionaries?

And more importantly, do any of them have a plan that will put American children in a position to compete for employment with the rising masses in Asia? Is the next generation doomed to decline while we fiddle with ceaseless debates?

The status quo recently has been to attack the front line troops ; our teachers. I'd like to see accountability and transparency for the recent spate of bad ideas from a decade plus of bad policy. In the military when a commander makes poor choices they're sacked. Fire the pundits and policy makers for poor performance.

there ARE progressive reform programs. a good example: San Diego, where community control of schools (even down to the budgetary level) is underway. sorry if that doesn't seem like a magic potion, but in the case of education reform there are no miracle cures.

Urg...Yes, the other side...out of power, needs to tone down the critical remarks and present something positive. This type of comment implies at its core that this is not a battle of ideas but a battle of rhetoric. Political pundits always try to point to this tactic to explain why one side is behind, but there is never definitive proof it was the negative rhetoric which caused one side to die. Your other pundit trick, "I have not seen this kind of positive rhetoric from progressives" is also weak. Have you done extensive Lexis/Nexis searching to prove your position? I have been reading many books which present progressive visions, just because you have not read them does not mean they are not out there. And honestly, the only education debate that makes it to the general public is on Oprah/NBC, which is very selective in who they invite on their shows. This is about money and access at its core, not about a "positive vision".

As others have said I don't quite understand what a 'progressive alternative' is, but maybe none have surfaced because there aren't any. Public education has been a disaster for urban parents and children for the past 40+ years, so anyone who supports more of the same failure cannot surface as a viable alternative to the current wave of reform.

great comments everyone -- thanks! here's a CNN commentary from pedro noguera that while deeply critical strikes a somewhat hopeful and positive tone:

"We need the president to take as strong and as clear a stand on education reform, one that goes beyond broad exhortations and begins to tackle the difficult social and economic issues that have contributed to our steady decline. I believe he can do it, and I know that as a nation, we need it."


Noguera wrote:

"Nine years after No Child Left Behind, we are still falling further behind. The law does not need to be tweaked and renamed, it needs to be scrapped entirely and replaced by a set of strategies that aim to replicate the successful schools that already exist in various parts of the country."

I have no faith in the feds regarding education and am looking wistfully back to the days when the ed sec just called me a Nazi...

Schools and teachers can only do so much in the lives students and if America can't restart the war on poverty or otherwise deal with it we are in for another lost decade for education.

Deborah Meier offers a beautiful alternative to the testing regime put forward by "reformers" like Rhee in her book "In Schools We Trust." FYI Progressive do not equal "status quo", far from it.

As a longtime urban public school parent of children in "failing" schools, I wish the billionaire reformers and their reformer friends had walked into my kids' schools and had surveyed parents, students, teachers, etc. about what they thought would be needed to become better.

We see the faults up close and personal everyday, and have plenty of ideas for practical improvement like reasonable class sizes, great school libraries, clean and well-kept campuses, enough adults per student, decent food for the kids, reasonable school counselor ratios (not 1:800), support for kids whose families are in constant crisis, etc.

What was ever wrong with helping with those sorts of things?

Instead, a bunch of outsiders labeled our schools' struggles as "failing," engaged in name-calling ("dropout factories"), and have closed as many of our schools as possible. And I won't even go into how some of the outsiders were planted by the billionaire reformers (Broad graduates) to become a pipeline for their ideas for changes, or how there's been a big move to privatize our public education system. A lot of the reform is, and was never, about helping.

Thank you Sharon and amen to your comments.

The final word is always Finland. And/or Linda Darling-Hammond, who not only has a newish book laying out a whole 21st century progressive reform program in great, authoritative detail, she was an advisor to the Obama campaign and considered on the short list for ed sec.

Thank you, Tim and Tom, for specifying progressive models: I've read the work of Meier and Darling-Hammond, and have incorporated several of their suggestions in the planning for my own school. Perhaps the whole "progressive" vs. "reformer" dichotomy is a misnomer; all of these participants in the discussion, including those on this page, think that reforming our schools is a good idea; we just disagree on what the end products should look like and how to get there.

What's wrong about this discourse, however, is casting aspersions on the motivations of each other. "A lot of the reform is, and never was, about helping" [sic]? How could one possibly know how one's ideological opponents felt about the situation in urban schools, or what motivated them to give their money, energies, and more? Have we been reading each other's private journals, or do we have a special conduit into the heads of those we disagree with? President Obama was right in his Tucson speech; we've got to stop the name-calling, finger-pointing, and overheated rhetoric if we are ever to come to at least tentative agreements and try together to solve the problems which we all admit exist in many of these schools.

I'm for children being respected for being the human beings that are. I'm for respecting their individual needs and for providing them with educators who have the skills necessary for meeting their nuanced and very complicated needs.

Any school that holds over the overwhelming majority of their students in 2nd grade rather than promoting them to 3rd grade is a poor model for educating children, but a wonderful model for distortion and lies.  Only 9 children were promoted to 3rd grade, because 3rd grade is now a testing grade.  Either the students aren't learning at Harlem Success Academy 4, which has been held up as a national model by the education reform movement, or the school cares more about test score data over children's needs.  

HSA 4:
240 W. 113th street
*PS 241
K enrollment: 70
1st grade enrollment: 82
2nd grade enrollment: 160
3rd grade enrollment: 9

Furthermore, HSA has squeezed public school 241, which  is made up of over 50% high needs students, out of their classrooms and into a basement so that they are learning next to a boiler room. HSA has done this to PS 241 with the help of the DoE, so that HSA can take over more of PS 241's classrooms, privileging their charter school students  at the expense of PS 241 students with special needs.  This is immoral and must be stopped.  If this isn't enough for you to believe that HSA is a model fir what we don't want in education, check out this two part video on HSA.

Part 1:

Part 2:

It seems to me that in many cases the children are completly left out of the entire debate. It is one group who believes one thing trying to get their agenda to the top of the heap. There are GREAT things happening in education in this country, we just need to do a better job of talking about them and trying to replicate them. We must remember that this is not a ship that will turn around over night, but educational changes takes time.

Is it possible that if we really let the local school systems make decisions, then we might get better results for all.

I recently visited two very sucsessful high schools in New York City. They are allowed to govern themselves and the results they get are amazing. At one school the principle and staff make all of the budgeting decisions together. They have decided that technology is not what they want, but more teachers and more class choices for students. This is working, while it may not work at every school, it does work for them.

In North Carolina they have many early college high schools which are graduating students and getting them into four year colleges. This program is grared to first generation college students, and with the wonderful teaching methods and support of the New Schools Project there is much success.

If we can stop with the reform for reform sake and look at programs that are working, then we might actually find way that might work for each individual school.

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