Thursday, October 20, 2016

John King's Civics Lesson

The e-mail from the charter-shilling group Center for Education Reform announced breathlessly that John King "joined the chorus of education leaders, elected officials and respected members of the African-American community in criticizing by the NAACP‘s decision to demand moratoriums on charter schools."

He didn't. He spoke in front of the National Press Club at a luncheon this week, said many things about civic education, and answered some questions, one of which may be my absolute favorite question asked of a federal official ever-- but we'll get to that along with some other things he did. But King did not go after the NAACP.

The full text is twenty pages long, and I've read it, but nobody really needs to. But I am going to compress severely.

Jeff Ballou gives King an introduction that mentions his " emphasis on making sure all students are receiving the same level of education, regardless of race or zip code," and notes that he is today returning to "his roots as a social studies teacher" and I am reminded that as abused as the mantle of "Teacher" has become, lots of people sure do want to claim it based on the thinnest of experience (like say, teaching for just a year or two in a selective private charter school.

As always, King opens by invoking tales of Mr. Osterweiler, the gifted teacher who changed King's life and who would never be allowed to do half of what King credits him with doing in  today's climate. It remains the central irony of King's career that it rests on such a powerful story of powerful teaching, and yet King cannot or will not see how the policies he pursues guarantee that the Osterweilers of the world will be stifled, straightjacketed, and pushed out of teaching.

But on to his point.

Civic education is a big deal. King leads with some history of civic issues like voting and an appeal to the importance of knowing that history, but says there are more important things like "being willing to think beyond our own needs and wants and to embrace our obligations to the greater good." Yeah, don't wait for me to say something snarky about that, because he's correct.

Next some scare stats about Kids These Days and how they don't know their Constitution or Joe Biden and Schoolhouse Rock explanations of how a bill becomes a law (and that's before we even get to stuff like "How a federal agency uses its enforcement powers to rewrite or circumvent laws it disagrees with."

So King wants teachers to cover civic duty-- and he wants teachers to do it in a non-partisan manner. And it tells us something about King that he says the civic engagement is not a GOP or Democratic Party issue, as if the two parties do not cover (and also fail to cover) a wide range of philosophies and ideologies that create a fairly wide and complex tapestry on which American citizenship plays out. It's the view of someone who is looking at the political gamesmanship of DC and not the actual ideas and understanding that drives the worldviews behind policy positions.

But Kin knows these conversations could be "uncomfortable," so he calls for "support and training" for teachers because heaven forbid we teachers try to talk about Hard Things.

Then we're on to specific examples, including some student service groups and the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation, because there's nothing political about that. And he talks about the new Museum of African American History and Culture. And he works his way around to an absolutely strong and even moving argument in favor of civic knowledge and civic skill, that wraps up here:

 Whether it’s K-12 education or higher education, we have to see it as preparing students, yes for college and careers, and yes for civic participation, for citizenship, for caring about the common good and contributing to the common good. 

It's a nice speech, almost nice enough to sail past the fact that it is Duncan and King's Department of Education that has pushed college and career readiness (defined as "good score on a math and reading test) to the point of pushing out exactly the kind of civics education that he I arguing for. One of the amazing features of the USED is that they seem to be completely oblivious to the effect ts of their own policy decisions.

But now, for the Q & A session.

The event took questions from twitter. It's in the Q & A session that King generated some of the press that has come out of this event. Let's take a quick look. I'll paraphrase:

Ballou: You just said a lot of really pretty words. How do you actually do any of that stuff?

King: Short answer-- no idea. Long answer-- Some grant money that could be used for civics. Schools should decide to just do it, despite the fact that all of my department's policies are dedicated to pushing them in other directions. Third, "lift up" teachers by "empowering" them to lead. Somehow.

Ballou: Do you think Trump has made bullying worse among kids?

King: "I can't comment specifically on the 2016 election" because reasons? Because I want to be the only person in the country who hasn't? Because I want to keep employment options open? Seriously, I can't think of a single reason he couldn't. But he goes on to say that bullying is bad, and bullying of immigrant children is really bad. And as this point is developed he ties in the issue of police brutality and relations between citizens and law enforcement.

Ballou: Are we getting higher graduation rates by producing less capable graduates?

King: "Yeah, we worry a lot about that." Yup. When you use some simple data point as a measure of complex stuff, you get baloney data. People keep trying to tell me that, but I don't listen. Let me toss in the old argument about college remedial classes, because that's another simple measure of complicated stuff that could be affected by all sorts of other factors. Don't care. I'm going keep acting as if this is a simple issue and that everything bad is the local district's fault.

Ballou: You need money for a lot of this stuff, but at the same time, you keep pissing Congress off. Could that be a problem?

King: Let me rattle off the history of education law, pointing out that it has always been about civil rights. Therefor, I feel comfortable interpreting ESSA in terms of what history intended, and not what the Congress that passed it actually wrote.

Ballou: Should somebody do something about poverty?

King: School. Education. Pre-K. I will continue to ignore research that says family SES trumps education most days.

Ballou: Speaking of which, can you get Pre-K support from that Congress that you annoy.

King: I will crush them with the wait of my academic, theoretical economics argument. I learned in New York that you don't have to actually work with people to achieve policy goals. At least, I think that was the lesson.

Ballou: Prion education?

King: We're putting back education funding for incarcerated learners.

Ballou: What about Common Core, called a "punishment-driven shotgun approach" by some critics?

King: The usual baloney about standards adopted by states, gosh, feds got nuthin' to do with it; state developed, state chosen. Does anyone anywhere actually still believe this?

Ballou: The charter question. It's pretty meaty. How do you fix authorization so that you don't have suckfests like Michigan. How do you reconcile your own public school salvation story with the charter tendency to drain resources from public schools. Do you agree with the NAACP's criticism of charters, and if so, will you stop throwing federal money at new charters?

King: Charters are magical education factories and we should let them grow without limit. Bad authorizers are a problem, but they are the states' problems, not ours. We shouldn't have arbitrary caps because "we shouldn't limit kids' access to great opportunities." Which is pretty talk, but if a charter only gives access to 1% of the students in a city, while reducing the opportunities available to the 0ther 99% by reducing the resources available to them, charters aren't really helping, are they?

So King in spirit disagrees with the NAACP-- but he didn't come right out and say so, and never actually referred to their resolution in his answer.

Next up:Okay, this is an absolutely awesome question that came in via internet, as many teachers were apparently chiming in. Here's the actual transcript:

 One teacher says, “I worked 12 hours yesterday, I didn't have time for lunch. Did you have time for lunch? I make $47,000 a year. How much do you make,” which of course is public record. “I can't go to the bathroom when I need to. Can you go to the bathroom when you need to? And please don't talk about how great teachers are. We don't need empty rhetoric. We need resources, we need policies that actually help us teach, not help profiteers.”

King: Let me offer some empty rhetoric.

Ballou: Your IT got in big trouble. Have you sorted all that out?

King: Totally. Our IT is now awesome. It is the best IT in the world. Our IT is nothing but winners. We IT so well that everyone else is just losers.

Then King answers some questions about himself, gets a ceremonial mug and heads on his way.

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