SOD – “Save Our Debate”

July 29, 2011

In Washington DC, the end of July is supposed to be a time of miserable weather during which the politicos get nothing done because they’re on vacation. Instead, it’s a time of miserable weather during which politicos are getting nothing done because they’re staring each other down over the ruins of our country’s credit rating.

So why is Matt Damon getting on a redeye flight tonight to rally a crowd of teachers marching on the White House tomorrow?

The answer has to do with a debate over accountability, assessment, and teacher evaluation, all of which sound like the stuff of a seminar, not a rally featuring a Hollywood star. And while it’s good and right to have that debate, the current discussion is veering, on both sides, toward an increasingly unproductive shouting match.

The “Save Our Schools” march, a four-day festival of discussions, speeches, and other events, has its actual march tomorrow. It’s already in full swing, and is producing headlines—the biggest being organizers’ decision to decline an invitation to the White House.

The “demands” of SOS surround a laundry list of issues in education, ranging from equitable funding to greater teacher control of curriculum to “Well-rounded education that develops every student’s intellectual, creative, and physical potential.” As Sara Mead has pointed out, it’s more wish list than policy proposal. But at its core is serious, palpable anger at the Obama Administration’s education initiatives. The main target is core provisions that have to do with accountability: high-stakes testing, merit pay, and closure of schools with chronically low scores.

I won’t pretend to be in the middle, or dispassionate, on this. As a vocal proponent for a community that (happily) has been labled “reformers,” it’s tempting to write off what’s already being ridiculed as the “Save our Status Quo” march. Education historian Diane Ravitch, the most visible and vocal spokesperson for the anti-Administration position, makes that easier by saying, at today’s SOS events, things she knows not to be true: No Child Left Behind “is the worst piece of legislation ever passed;” “These people who call themselves reformers have almost all the money and all the political power.” (The latter statement would come as a surprise to any politician who’s done business with the NEA or the AFT.) And some marchers have taken positions that go beyond the pale, such as this one, which circulated on Twitter, and suggests a genuine denial of a problem that all should acknowledge: “Let’s stop using the term the Achievement Gap. What we have is a Racist and Classist Test Score Gap.”. (It’s also worth noting, as Forrest Hinton thoughtfully has, that the SOS march is opposing not just the Administration but growing public opinion on several key issues, from charter schools to merit pay to the federal role in education.) For folks who think, as I and most of my colleagues do, that it’s vital to measure student progress objectively and use that information as a major driver of decision making in schools and school systems, there’s much not to like in the SOS agenda. And it’s equally evident that the marchers have found lots that’s offensive in the reform agenda.

A real debate is vital to democracy and to progress. Yet I think that we are moving toward a dangerous place in this debate, where increasingly, each side is creating a caricature of the other’s views —a divide that I believe drives some of the anger we’re seeing in the SOS event. And more and more, the vehemence of the shouting match is making it harder to make progress, to have a genuine exchange of views. Increasingly, I hear the reform view caricatured as a belief that standardized tests can tell us everything we need to know about whether students are learning everything that’s important; that we can fire our way out of our education crisis; that poverty and family dysfunction are irrelevant; and that billionaires know best. I’ve been part of this movement for well over a decade, and I don’t know anyone who believes those things.

But equally, I think our side is in danger of caricaturing the teachers who attend the SOS march as thoughtless defenders of an adult-friendly status quo whose frustration with the heavy focus some schools have placed on standardized tests is synonymous with lack of caring about the low-income children that they serve. I know some of the teachers attending the march, and I know that’s not what they believe.

A long-term solution is going to require new ideas, new structures, new systems, and deep teacher involvement. (On the subject of new systems, it will be interesting to see how Arne Duncan’s call today, for teacher salaries to start at $60,000 and reach $150,000, will play among this group.) But for now, I hope we can continue the discussion with a little less invective, and a little more recognition that there may be more common ground, and more good faith, than it appears in the 93-degree heat.