Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Allies & Opponents

In contentious times like these, who should get our attention? Our support? Our opposition? It seems confusing, but I think I have an answer, or at least what brings clarity for me.

Yesterday the question ripping through the blogosphere was how to sort out allies and opponents. Are the Kochs opposing CCSS just as leverage to destroy public ed? Are progressive CCSS foes being played in this battle?

These are not new questions in the struggle for the soul of public schools. We've already become so accustomed to the current school reformy stuff landscape that we sometimes forget how....odd? unexpected? appalling?.... that public schools are under attack from Democrats, that Rhee and Duncan and Obama are supposed to be progressives. Or that some sharp, insightful criticism of CCSS comes from people who see the details clearly but add them up to get Communist Takeover.

When I was a union president facing a contentious contract negotiation and, ultimately, a strike, I learned that you have to take every idea on its own merit. You cannot look at the people around you, sort them into Friends and Foes, and then always agree with your friends and always disagree with your foes. I also learned that many people really want to have things that simple. Just tell me who I'm supposed to follow, and I'll do it. Don't keep asking me to think or help decide-- just tell me I should follow that guy right there and I will go ahead and imprint on him like a happy little gosling.

Well, we can't do that. As we keep discovering, the territory is confusing and complicated. We have, at least, the following players on the field right now:

People who support CCSSetc as a way to get their hands on the billions of tax dollars connected to education.

People who support CCSS as a way to make schools better; we just have to get rid of testing.

People who oppose CCSSetc because it's trying to privatize public ed.

People who oppose CCSSetc because government schools are the indoctrination wing of a totalitarian government.

People who support CCSSetc because rich people and/or the government must know what they're doing.

People who opposed CCSSetc because rich, powerful amateurs have no place redesigning education

People who oppose CCSSetc because they think the standards and material are lousy education

And the list goes on. Add to it people are simply pretending to be one thing while hiding their true agenda, and now we're down the rabbit hole of astro-turf activist groups and "philanthropists" out to buy their way to success. 

Before you know it, we're into paranoid brain-bending.  Are these guys trying to get us to defend CCSS so that they can accuse us of defending it so that their opponents will force it through? We would be better off trying to guess which glass has the iocane powder in it.

I continue to believe that our best move is to avoid the US political game of tribes and teams, where we "ally" ourselves with someone and agree to support each others' play no matter what. I suspect that is at least part of how teachers ended up betrayed by the national union leadership-- the Democrats are our allies, prominent Democrats say CCSS is swell, therefor, we will support CCSS.

The betrayal of union leadership is a fine example of how political calculations can lead you to betray your core principles. But the school reform has scrambled everything.

Hell, the school reform battle has even scrambled the language. After twelve years (Happy birthday, NCLB), the federally-leveraged enforcement of educational malpractice is not a challenge to the status quo-- it IS the status quo. These Masters of Reforming Our Nations Schools aren't championing reform at all; they've simply repackaged "stay the course" as "reform."

And if language is higgledy-piggledy, then politics are likewise upended. Progressive, conservative, left, right, Democrat, GOP-- none of it means anything. There are people wearing any and all of those labels who vehemently oppose CCSSetc, and there are people wearing any and all of those labels who support it whole-heartedly.

But here's the clarity part.

I think defining the movements in terms of CCSS guarantees confusion, because it lumps together people who want to save public schools, and people who want to see them destroyed. They may look like natural allies because they share an enemy. But their desired outcomes are the exact opposite. 

Instead, let's define ourselves in terms of the real goal, the real intended outcome. Let's talk about what we want to see on the educational landscape when everything is done.

I'm starting to think of myself not as an opponent of CCSS and reformy stuff, but as a supporter of the traditional US public school. I've written about why before and will do so again, but this is already getting rambly. So let's just say that I will continue to support, push, agree with, pass along the words of, cheer for, and do whatever I can to further the work of people who believe in returning the public school system.

Yes, that's a slog, because people have spent so much time denigrating that system, insisting that it failed. We know that's not true, and the fight over the past year has done two things-- it has allowed supporters to amass the writing and analyses that disproves the allegations of failure. It has also allowed Americans to get a taste of the alternative, and it tastes awful. And no, I don't mean I want to go back in time to one-room schoolhouses and McGuffy Readers. The traditional US public school system that I know is vibrant and robust and filled with great teachers who are always growing into the future. One of the strengths of the system was always that it could move forward.

Being a supporter of US public schools rather than just an opponent of CCSSetc has another advantage. Supporters of US public schools are unified in what we want to see. Supporters of reformy stuff have a hundred different outcomes in mind, and the closer they get to the finish line, the more they will pull themselves apart in a hundred different directions. They can steal the pie, but then they have to divide it up.

Divide and conquer. Co-opt and betray. We can make ourselves crazy with this stuff. Instead, let's ignore the labels and keep our eyes on the ultimate goals. As you travel, you'll meet lots of folks who will share the path for a little while. But the best traveling companions are those who are headed to the same destination.

People who want to destroy US public education are not my friends, whether they are supporting CCSS or opposing it. I think it might be that simple. People who think they can support CCSS and support public education at the same time? Well, we need to talk.

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