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John Thompson: Restoring the "Clash of Ideas" in Public Schools

How is it possible that the New York Times food columnist turned education commentator who wrote The Trouble with Tenure could turn around and write nearly the opposite: The Wilds of Education?

Now, Frank Bruni praises the students, families, and educators in Colorado and elsewhere who are opposing standards that demand that schools be all on the same page when teaching a single ideologically-driven set of Standards.

Bruni writes, “When it comes to learning, shouldn’t they [schools] be dangerous?” Sounding like a teachers union building rep, Bruni asks, “Isn’t education supposed to provoke, disrupt, challenge the paradigms that young people have consciously embraced and attack the prejudices that they have unconsciously absorbed?”

I am curious about noneducators, who ordinarily support the clash of ideas, who contradict themselves by attacking tenure, due process, and the policies that are essential for protecting the free flow of ideas of public education. Do they not realize that the test, sort, reward, and punish reform movement is only viable when it is imposing tests where there is only one “right” answer? Do commentators like Bruni not understand that tenure is essential for protecting the debate and discussion in our schools?

Bruni’s ill-informed attack on teachers may help answer my question. It was based on an interview with – you guessed it – one ideologically-driven reformer. Bruni accepted the claims of Colorado Senator Mike Johnson at face value. It doesn’t seem to occur to Bruni that the efforts of Johnson et. al to destroy the rights of teachers (so that they cannot oppose his test-driven accountability schemes) also opened the door for Colorado's conservative reformers to micromanage the learning of students? Can he explain a difference between the way that rightwing censorship operates, as opposed to the way that corporate reform functions when it micromanages teachers’ instruction and students’ learning?

I must emphasize that not all reformers seek to drive debate and individuality from public schools, but many do. When reformers undermine due process, however, they open the door to both rightwing and corporate censorship.   

As Chicago’s Karen Lewis explains, corporate reform is turning out “Masters of the Universe” and “Walmart greeters.” Reformers aren't interested in imposing drill and kill on elite, selective schools. Soul-killing scripted instruction is mostly mandated for schools serving poor children of color. But, as Sen. Johnson and company undermine the rights of all teachers, reformers overreach. The rising anger of many middle class families indicate that their children are also being treated as widgets in an education assembly line.

The bad news is that too many elite editorialists have little or no  knowledge of public schools and lack curiosity about real world teaching issues. The good news is that when they are confronted with the inevitable result of school “reform,” they might be open to alternative viewpoints. The best news is that it is students who are calling for the right to be exposed to diverse perspectives.-JT(@drjohnthompson) 



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Safe bet that a food writer parachuting in to make pronouncements based on a few minutes' slapdash research on a subject about which he has no background or further information has no clue that he's espousing ideas that conflict with each other. He doesn't know enough to know what he doesn't know. (No offense to those food writers who are conscientious journalists and DO do their homework before they comment on other subjects.)

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