Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Dear Michael Magee: I'll Bite

Dear Michael Magee, PhD:

Last week you posted in Education Post to call for a better conversation, and I'm always a fan of conversation. You even used a controlling image of divorcing parents, and I'm a divorced parent myself. So I am going to take you up on our offer. Let's see if this could work.

First, some ground rules

If we're going to have this conversation, you'll need to stop trying to control the narrative. You tried to do that immediately in your piece with this: "Over a period of 20 years, tens of thousands of teachers left our traditional public school systems for new, more autonomous public schools." You just slipped in the highly debatable claim that charters are public schools, which you have to know is a point of disagreement.

Your premise also glosses over the question of the origin of the argument. It takes two people to make a marriage, but it only takes one person to make a divorce. The folks who wanted choice and charters tried to launch their industry by attacking public schools, public school teachers, and their unions. Those of us on the traditional public school side of this didn't start pointing out the problems with choice and charter on some sort of whim.

That said, there's nothing useful about saying, "Hey, he hit me first" if you are older than five. But there is also something non-trust inspiring about someone who punches you in the face and then says, "Hey, let's let bygones be bygones." The best opener when you're the one who started making a mess out of your marriage is not, "Let's start with a clean slate." The appropriate opener is, "I'm sorry. I screwed up." You can trust me on this one.

So let's look at your rules for a conversation.

1) Stop using words that make each other see red.

You offer "union" and "charter" as examples, noting that they mean so many things that they mean nothing. That's fair, though it can also help if, when listening, you hear what the other person is trying to say, and not what you yourself associate with the word. Having a better conversation is about listening, not just word choice.

Word choice also goes back to narrative control-- words have meaning, and it is helpful to a conversation if neither party tries to shade or cheat those meanings as a means of manipulating the conversation. We all understand that controlling the narrative and the language in a conversation equals controlling the outcome (folks at Education Post are, literally, professionals at doing so). A positive conversation requires honest use of language.

2) Put the cards on the table.

You mean, "Be honest"?

Some teachers sign individual contracts and some teachers’ contracts are collectively bargained. Whether that distinction matters is entirely dependent on what those contracts empower teachers to do or restrict them from doing.

No, not really. The contracts also determine how competitive the school will be in hiring my future colleagues. The contracts will also affect my relationships with my colleagues. And they will make a major statement about how fair, consistent, and reasonable management's treatment of teachers will be. There's much to discuss here, but your limited proposal of what matters in the contract only puts two or three cards out of the entire deck on the table.

3) Talk about how schools should be led, managed, and governed.

Who should get to open a public school and under what conditions. This is a conversation I'd be delighted to have. In fact, I've addressed it multiple times on this blog. I am not automatically anti-charter, but I do think the modern charter industry operates under fundamentally dishonest and unfair premises. But it doesn't have to be that way. You may not like my answers to these questions, but I'd be happy to talk about them.

Short answer-- a public school must be directly accountable to taxpayers, fully funded without draining pre-existing public schools, full transparent, primarily devoted to educational concerns (not business concerns), open to all students in the community they serve, and committed to stay open for the long haul regardless of the business picture. Happy to talk about it at greater length.

4) Talk about your feelings.

You specify feelings about how politics have messed with the classroom. Can that include how political maneuvering has fostered, protected and fed the charter industry at the expense of traditional public schools, or how reformsters have used political connections and power to deprofessionalize and disempower teaching? But yeah- I love conversations that focus on the work.

5) Talk about the students.

Sigh. You do understand, don't you, that it's reformsters that created the rhetorical flourish that responded to every concern expressed by teachers with, "You're putting ourselves ahead of the students." And that charter boosters are the ones who keep using the rhetoric of business and investment in the education world.

I mean, yes, definitely, let's talk about the students. But those of us who have spent our whole adult lives in the classroom-- we never stopped talking about the students. Plenty of reformsters have claimed we stopped, but I tell you-- we have never stopped for a single day. We have been talking about the students all along; you are certainly welcome to join that conversation, which would be far more productive than pretending that we're going to start a new one just so that you can feel you've initiated the whole thing.

About that framing metaphor

The choice of divorce as a controlling image is, you realize, another attempt to control the narrative, part of the ongoing spin of treating the charter-choice business as equivalent, partners in a marriage of equals. But from my side of things, a more accurate picture would be of the charter industry as a squatter who broke into public education's home, the home where public education had lived for decades,. The squatter comes in uninvited saying, "Well, you weren't doing it right" and starts helping himself to the silverware and food in the fridge and when they were being pushed to get out, the squatters say, "Well, hey. Let's come up with a reasonable division of the contents of this house."

There may be a better image, one that captures the way that some districts failed in ways that opened the door to "creative disruption," but then we also have to factor in the ways that government failed those schools by starving them of the support and resources they needed to succeed.

But you have picked an image and proposal that elevates the charter industry and minimalizes the degree to which public education has been deliberately undermined.

Granted, the question of "how did we get here" is in some ways moot. But history also speaks to motivations and goals, and past experience is the best predictor of future performance. Agreeing on what actually happened, and what is actually happening, is a good foundation for any productive conversation. We can't change the past, exactly, but it still matters, and how we talk about it and understand it matters. But I get your point-- we are where we are, and that's where we have to move forward from, whether we think we should be there or not.

So feel free to drop me a line, stop by my small town, or otherwise chat me up. As I said, I'm always up for a conversation. We can start by talking about what the ground rules really need to be.


  1. I've observed Mike Magee from a distance in Rhode Island for the last ten years or so, and he is an odd duck. Magee is the person who looked at the charter school scene of a decade ago and said "You know what charter schools need? More politics," and thus what we now know as Rhode Island's "mayoral academies" were born. Their main distinguishing characteristics are that they must (nominally) include students from urban and non-urban schools, and a mayor of an included community must chair the board. Also, they tend to have aggressive growth strategies.

    So now we have these charter districts overlapping multiple city and town districts, often with the mayor of one of the communities whose budget is being wrecked by the charters also chairing the charter board. Needless to say, this has not led to a new era of cooperation (except perhaps in Central Falls, where the state runs and funds the schools anyhow).

    In Providence, in particular, we have a mayorally appointed board at the PPSD (with pretty active mayoral meddling of late), and the mayor personally chairs the board of our growing Achievement First mayoral academies. Meanwhile, of course, the mayor's two districts sometimes pursue opposite strategies (on discipline, for example). The city (and thus schools) face a growing structural deficit in coming years, but the mayor's office of course does not mention the large influence of charter enrollment on that problem.

    When the mayoral academies law passed, luminaries like Tom Vander Ark hailed it as a possible national model. I've yet to hear any of the other 49 states utter a peep about taking it up.

  2. Is it a "better" conversation if comments on Education Post are moderated? Something about having the conversation controlled by one side in a multifaceted debate does not seem "better" to me.