Last week the American Enterprise Institute hosted an afternoon of reformy navel gazing, featuring an all-start lineup and centered around the general topic of race and the specific issue of whether the Great Reform Coalition was about to fall apart because (I'm paraphrasing) there's an actively racist administration taking power in DC and some reformsters are much more comfortable with that than others. Or, to paraphrase it from another point of view, because there are some reformsters are letting concerns about race and social justice get in the way of the practical pursuit of some swell reform objectives. Or, to synoptically paraphrase, the broad reform coalition could kind of hold it together when a Democratic faux-progressive administration was providing camouflage for conservative policies to be palatable to nominal progressives.
Well, you can see the problem.
At any rate, AEI mustered up two full panels on the subject, which is in itself an interesting choice because AEI is not known in some quarters for its enlightened non-racist behavior. But hey, who knows. Anyway, these videos add up to over two hours, so I'm going to take them in two posts (the second post is here). Because I've watched these so that you don't have to.
After an intro slide of AEI's edifice, displayed with some supermarket music playing along, Rick Hess (AEI's ed guy) does the general introduction for these extraordinary panels discussing thorny issues in a remarkable conversation. AEI does not skimp on modifiers. Also we learn that New Schools Venture Fund, a reformy financier, is a co-sponsor today. Also Education Next which is the magazine where AEI and Fordham Institute put their thoughts.
America, says Hess, has some real challenges, and an increasing polarization problem that keeps us from discussing important issues in respectful or constructive ways. Education especially, and Hess's explanation of what education is about is a good one (creating communities, future, good broad big picture stuff). Sure we will disagree, but can we disagree like grown-ups (my word). On the one hand, Hess appears to be talking about intramural fights in the reform community, not the kind of disagreements that involve people who, say, disagree with all his premises about education. On the other hand, Hess is almost always an intellectually honest non-asshatty guy.
Gerard Robinson (AEI) is the moderator. The panel includes Elisa Villanueva Beard (President of Teach for America), Howard Fuller (Been at this longer than you, probably), Robert Pondiscio (Fordham), and Nina Rees (National Alliance for Public [sic] Charter Schools). As a bonus, we get a fun light-hearted fact about each. See? I told you this was going to be fun.
Race and social justice have been getting a lot of attention. Do you think it's getting better or worse?
Fuller: If you are a poor person, "ain't nothin' changed" except maybe to get worse. "No matter who's in the White House, the people I care about have to fight." All that has to be decided is the nature of the fight. Fuller is a pessimist (his word) who believes that racism is permanent, but if there is injustice, he still has to get up and fight because to not fight is to sign off on the injustice.
Pondiscio: Pondiscio positions himself as someone whose lens is always the classroom. Outside of all the policy discussions, he sees his role as talking about what students do in the classroom all day. And his frustration is "that sometimes these conversations take us away from that classroom." Talking about social justice and race are okay, but he wants to talk curriculum and classroom content.
Rees: Starts talking about "this movement" and she means charters, not social justice. Lots of charter boosters are "in it" for the social justice. The majority of charter students are low-income and minorities, and I'm thinking I'd love to see some hard data on that. Rees offers a lot of empty word salad, but she does amble back around to the question of "Is what we're doing enough" if there are all these issues outside of school and she says they're just coming around to this question recently, even though the rest of us have been bringing it up since the first time a charterista said, "I'll run kids through my school and cure their poverty!"
Beard: Something about how "we" haven't always defined "the problem" in terms of race and equity and that has an effect on how we do... something about approaching and solving "the problem." There's some other fog, but out of it comes the idea that you have to look at the issues of race, class and privilege when you try to work on these schools and students "that we say we care about." And then we travel via anecdote to the soft expectations.
Beard is the chatty one. Finally, teaching is transformational for students but "we still have to understand all the inequities facing our kids" and the problems and impact of poverty and food deserts and all that stuff. This all sounds nice and if I feel bitter at all, it could be because for most of the modern reform period talking like this would get a teacher accused of "making excuses" and the accusations would come from places like TFA and charter operators, and not for the first time I feel watching one of these conversations that reformers keep "discovering" new insights about education the same way that Columbus "discovered" America. Some days it seems that reformsters don't just want to re-invent the wheel-- they want to get a copyright and be praised for it as they step past the bodies of all the people they stomped on while those people were trying to explain wheels.
Robinson throws a pile of words at Pondiscio, starting with something about Hey you only graduated from college at age 39 but you're from a wealthy background and white and ending with how do perceptions influence issues around race black hispanic dynamics white and then sticks his hand in Podiscio's direction to indicate it's his turn now.
Pondiscio: He's game, God bless him. "Um...I'm going to answer the question I think you asked, or maybe the question I wished you asked." While Pondiscio entered this biz to help in the South Bronx, and so says he bright with him "a race and class lens," but at the same time, he's "not sure where this became a race-based movement." He owns his privilege ("I'm not JD Vance") and notes the political importance of issues like achievement gaps. But when did this become a race thing. When did this become about just of students? Surely there are lots of downwardly mobile poor white kids whose schools aren't very good, either. "We risk losing something as a movement if we don't focus on education writ large." All of which comes really, bravely close to "all lives matter," but Pondiscio's in a safe space, so I don't think the conversation is going to go there.
Robinson's follow-up is: You've been in a lot of parts of the movement through charters to private schools. How do you think we should be talking about this issue in 2017?
Rees hops in. The issue became about race and inner cities because politically that's where the need is greatest, where the sense of urgency is greatest, and it's quite hard to expand charter schools in rural communities. Rees suggests that there's "no political base of support for those kinds of changes" which glosses over some important insights. For instance, in a rural community like mine, it is impossible NOT to see how charters drain resources from public schools in a way that is deeply damaging. Reformsters would like to go farther and faster; nevertheless, Rees believes they've made "huge progress, especially in the charter school space."
But if the charter cause is to expand its political base, you have to bring in rural and middle class, because if you're "only going to serve the poor, there's a cap on how much money you can bring in and how much support yo can garner."
Interesting analysis of charter fail in Massachusetts from Rees: you can't go ask politicians to support charter schools when there aren't any charter schools in their districts. Implication-- spreading charter schools is necessary to build political might of reform movement. Further implication-- the charter movement is about political goals over and above any kind of educational goals.
Rees says "we have the evidence that it works" but to do it right you need funding. So much for doing more with less. Remember-- throwing money at public schools is bad, but throwing money at charter schools is awesome.
Now we're going to talk about Milwaukee as a microcosm of the reformy movement, and Robinson asks Fuller what role ideology, class and race played there?
Fuller says that when he was pushing for vouchers, he had never hear of Milton Freedman and his market ideology. "We got to vouchers" through a focus on making sure that poor black children were actually educated by Milwaukee schools. When Milwaukee super said they couldn't do it, then Fully and Wilson said, "Well, then, let us set up our district to take it on." And when that couldn't happen, they said, "Give us a way out of here." Free market ideology had nothing to do with it. District worked with community to create a choice plan (and the teacher's union sabotaged it). But the whole thing passed through a Democratic controlled legislature, would have been axed by a Democratic governor, but was signed by a GOP governor. And he's telling this story because a lot of people are running around who "don't know jack" about what actually happened. He notes that while it wasn't ideologically driven, but there were clearly ideologically-driven people who hopped in, including people who saw this as a way to kill unions. The "unholy alliance" involved a lot of people with many different perspectives. And as always, I'd rather listen to Fuller than pretty much any other charter-choice advocate out there.
So there were people in the coalition that ultimately created the voucher bill that were in it for very different reasons. And there were always people in there saying "I don't really believe that this should just be for poor people. I believe it ought to be universal but right now all we can do is get it for poor people." And I was always in there saying, "Hey man. The day that y'all try to take it from poor people-- I'll just be a lone Negro that y'all can run over--but I'm going to be standing there saying No!" Because I didn't get in this for all y'all who already got money to get more money.
Robinson is now going to swing around to the "teaching force" and he asks Beard what role TFA has played in diversifying the teaching force and in furthering the discussion about race and social justice. I predict that this answer will be heavy on the baloney.
Beard recaps the mismatch between student and teacher populations, and recaps the importance that kids can see themselves in a classroom. She particular hits the fact that 2% of teachers are black men and that's a problem. And TFA works mostly in low income communities of color and they believe that a meaningful number of their TFAers should be people who faced similar issues of inequity and justice and maybe she's about to announce that TFA has stopped doing most of its recruiting at highly-privileged ivy league-ish schools or at least acknowledge that what she just said is a significant shift from TFA's original concept, which was that the children of privilege would be great at helping underprivileged students. Or maybe she'll talk about how the big problem with black men in teaching is not recruitment, but retention, and how TFA is poorly positioned to address that issue since the TFA mission has never been to recruit career teachers, but to get people a couple of classroom years to flavor their resume before they head off to their real career. Maybe she'll talk about some of that.
Nope. She tosses out that 50% of TFAers are now of color and that TFA really believes in a broad American coalition with a shared set of values. She wants every dinner table in America to be talking about this, so I guess one of the shared American values is how families should eat dinner. Also something something sustained transformational change of communities.
Robinson: When did social justice become a progressive thing, and is there a role for conservatives in the social justice conversation?
Pondiscio gets this one, and he starts with "Yes."
"As some of you may know, I wrote a piece about this..." and somewhere in the crowd there are some laughs at this, probably because his piece sparked a whole lot of robust, spirited discussion. He recaps that piece (Conservatives find themselves increasingly uncomfortable/unwelcome in ed reform movement) and couples that with his observation that the ed reform movement loses its curiosity at the classroom door. Then, the realpolitik, which is that given a bunch of red states, leading with a social justice argument doesn't make sense for pushing charters. Implication and sideways answer to the question: conservatives are not interested in social justice.
Beard hems and haws as she tries to gauge how hard to push back, but she does. It's disingenuous to pretend that a focus on transformational in-the-classroom stuff has nothing to do with and is not affected various social justice issues. IOW, saying "I don't want to talk about the poverty and hunger in this kid's background; I just want to teach her to read" is not valid. It's so complex.
It's a good point, but the Beard ruins the moment by saying she doesn't see politics, which is kind of hilarious from the head of TFA, and organization that owes its growth, existence, money and clout to its ability to work political connections. So I stop listening to her as she talks about how nobly TFA is just doing what they can For The Children. Then she sweeps back around to the need to be honest about what it's really going to take to "move the needle" and our original question, which was an interesting one, is lost in the dust.
Pondiscio says that honesty means noticing that NAEP hasn't budged in years. I'd rather say that honesty means noticing that in all these years we haven't come up with a way of measuring achievement that actually measures achievement and so we keep talking about NAEP and other tests as if they mean Something Important. But nobody invites me to these things, so I just type.
Now an actual conversation breaks out. Beard invokes kid who shows up hungry every day, and Pondiscio replies "At what point does this become the next version of Fix Poverty First?" And Beard says noone is suggesting that.
Nina wants to say that it depends on the community you're in because the charter world is extremely diverse, decentralized, not all that united.
Moving on, and leaving a really useful question untouched. What are your thoughts about on-line public schooling?
Robinson notes that Virginia voted cybers down because it would lead to more segregation, less interaction, exacerbation of social justice problems. Does tech help or hurt with social justice issues.
Fuller says it can do both. Depends on what it is. He has no position on online learning, but he does have a problem with people profiting off kids and the kids aren't learning anything. There's no reason to be against learning on line, but there's plenty of reason to be against an online system that is ripping people off, though Fuller notes that plenty of ripping off can occur in the traditional system, too. Fuller reiterates that its pointless to talk about public versus private entities as a broad principle because both types have shown the ability to behave very badly. Fuller wants to talk about specifics, as in what is this particular system doing, exactly.
Fuller than hangs a whole argument on responding to people who say that poor black kids only need one option, a thing that I have never heard anybody say, so the argument against saying it aren't very interesting to me. However, valid point that history shows us that black folks should be mighty suspicious when anyone tells you "This is the way it has to be done." You can't support anything without coming back to the question of what impact is this having on kids.
Whatever it is I'm for, how does that empower a people who have no power?
Fuller also wants to distinguish between public education and delivery systems for education and financial systems for paying for them. And "since these were not created by God," we could change them, come up with more dynamic delivery systems. Fuller feels pretty strongly about this.
Beard says that the system was not created to educate every kid, and I'd like to hear her backing for that, and she adds that what an education means has also changed [insert my usual complaint that reformsters often presume that schools have not changed since they got their diplomas].
Audience question time now.
A woman asks what happened to integration which, back in 70s and 80s seemed to be shrinking the achievement gap and doing other good stuff, too.
Fuller answers. "White people moved." People who supported integration moved to the suburbs so they could pontificate about integration without having to experience it. That gets applause.
Next. Should we shift our focus from integration and diversity to just improving schools?
Nobody really wants that one. Robinson passes it to Rees, who starts with "going back to the previous question." There are people trying to start diverse charter schools. Also, I am trying to grow new hair on my head. She talks about policy a bit, then finally comes down on "You have to put achievement first," which is also not really an answer, because "Let's raise test scores" is not the same as "Let's improve schools." Beard says we don't have to choose.
Next: asking Fuller to expand on distinctions between education and systems of delivery.
He clarifies that opposition to the delivery system doesn't mean he opposes the idea of a public education. Make your commitment to purpose, not the institutional arrangement to get to that purpose.
Next: how do these conversations in the charter world reflect what's going on in the outside world?
Beard says basically that you have to reflect reality in your school, which is not a particularly radical notion, and yet here she is, having to say that out loud to a room full of people.
Next: A woman who wants to explain to Howard Fuller what Brown v. Board was about. Yikes. Then eventually lands on a sort of question about state involvement.
Beard sort of answers by saying that TFAers learn about The System. Fuller responds to the business about Brown. Then, yes, we have to fight in the states. ESSA is concerning because States' Rights has never worked out real well for black people. The fight for resources has always been on the state level. Pondiscio pulls in the idea of civics education.
Robinson asks to clear with a hopeful note. What keeps you hopeful?
Rees: Charter school increases in market share and then some unsubstantiated PR smoke about how charter students are doing the best in the universe. Also, more money should be invested in "replicating these models." And, audaciously, "turning a blind eye" to charter success is "real injustice." So, wow. Poverty and systemic racism and all the rest-- social injustice inflicted on non-white non-wealthy students may seem like a real problem, but the real injustice is how charter operators aren't allowed to further expand their businesses.
Time is short now
Pondiscio: Hopeful about how this room is filled with people.
Fuller: If our kids are given the tools that they deserve, they can do great things.
Beard: We have learned a lot in twenty-six years.
And that ends the first of two panels, which managed to raise some interesting issues without addressing all of them. Can we go back to the question about where conservatives fit in the conversation about social justice? Because I have a feeling that's going to be increasingly important over the next four years.