Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Three Sides of the Battle for Public Schools

We have discussed the battle over American public education as if there are two sides. This is not correct, and people who don't grasp the truth are in for a rude and unpleasant shock further down the road.

I. Status Quo

I've called these guys everything from Purveyors of Reformy Nonsense to Reformsters. We don't call them reformers any more because 1) they aren't interested in reforming anything and 2) they've pretty much gotten everything they wanted. High stakes, top down, test driven, corporatized education is with us and has been the dominant feature of the American education landscape for a while.

The Reformy Status Quo supporters are not monolithic. Some are in it for the money. Some are in it for the power. Some truly believe that they know the secret to fixing the entire culture.

What they have in common is the lack of any real love for the public school system and the people who work there. Whether they think it's bloated and inefficient and lazy and moribund, or whether they see it as a big pile of gold waiting to be torn apart and cashed in, they are not interested in preserving or protecting it (except maybe as a holding pen for the students that nobody else can see a way to profit from). For them, teachers are a big part of the problem, an unruly, largely incompetent labor pool of workers who don't know their place, or who won't recognize the superior wisdom of the people trying to Fix Things.

This group also includes lots of people who mean well, but don't see where the policies they support are leading. These people are worth paying attention to, because they really do want American public education to thrive and survive.

II. Insurgents

If you're a reader of this blog, you know who these folks are. This is a somewhat raggedy group of individuals who have come together in various ways to fight for American public education.

They are also not monolithic. Some are BATs; some prefer not to be. Some are teachers; some are not. Some believe in the idea of national standards-- just not these-- and some do not. Some are most opposed to testing. Some oppose charters; some work in charters. Some would like better leadership at the US DOE; some would like the whole department to evaporate. They come from all across the political spectrum.

These folks would like to see education back in the hands of educators. They generally reject the tale of how badly schools are failing. They would like to see the promise of public schools for all restored and revitalized.

III. Nuclear Option

This group is not identical to the Tea Partiers, but there is certainly some overlap.They do not like Big Government, and they see Big Government's grubby paw prints all over the CCSS regime. They do not like the way CCSS was forcefed to the states, and they do not like the large-scale standardization that is coming stapled onto the standards.

They are strongly, vehemently opposed to all things Core (or "Obamacore") as they sometimes call it. In this respect they have much in common with group II. Group III has a good chunk of political clout, and they know how to use it. They are passionate, they are careful researchers, and they care a great deal about children.

Will you be surprised if I type "Group III is not monolithic"? Some are absolutely unswerving in their opposition to government and government schools. Some have a concern about government overreach that is not expressed in irrational tin hat ways. Some love American traditions-- including public schools. Some are teachers.

But while Group II sees Reformy Stuff as some sort of foreign fungus that has attached itself to public education, covering up and distorting its true nature, Group III sees Reformy Stuff as public education without its mask on, not a distortion of the nature of American public education, but  an unvarnished revelation of it.

Groups II and III may be able to storm the battlements together, and in the early stages of battle they may seem like natural allies. But where II wants to chase out the occupying army and save the fort, III would like to rout the occupying army and then burn the fort down.You can read a great deal about this stance on the far right in this report from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

There are three sides to this fight, but do not imagine a triangle. Instead, picture a circle, divided into three separate zones, each gradually fading into the next. Many people on all three sides are jumping to conclusions about where to find their allies and their enemies, but this is a complicated issue with a complex set of players, all of whom are united by some values and separated by others. There are natural points of alliance and conflict between any two of these three groups. Each group contains a range of viewpoints, and some peoples' tolerance for a range of viewpoints is not so great.

The sloppiest kind of thinking is the thinking that says, "Well, we both like the same kind of cheese, so surely we agree about professional ice hockey and the International Monetary Fund." People are complicated, and you have to listen, and pay attention. You have to pay extra attention when you are deciding on allies and enemies.

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