Sunday, January 25, 2015

Public Education: Political Orphan

Last week's Senate hearing on NCLB underscores what may be old news for some and a growing sick revelation for others-- the Democrats are no longer the party of public education or public school teachers.

Many supporters of the public school system and the teachers who work there have been in denial for a while. They've tried to dismiss nominally Democratic voices touting reformster policy as outlier, or Democrats in Name Only. DFER is so clearly part of a privatizing agenda-- surely that's not what Democrats stand for. And last summer union members agitated for a resolution condemning Arne Duncan and calling for his ouster, as if Duncan were some sort of rogue agent and some day Barack Obama would wake up, read a Department of Education briefing and exclaim, "He's doing what!!?! We'll have to do something about that right away!"

But the names and the stories just keep stacking up and stacking up. After six years, we can no longer pretend that Arne Duncan is doing anything other than what the President, our biggest-name Democrat, wants him to do. A recent New Yorker profile reminds us that among those who have praised Jeb Bush's "work" in education are Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. Arguably the highest-profile Democratic governor in the country, Andrew Cuomo of New York, has announced in no uncertain terms his intention to break public education and the unions that work there. Randi Weingarten, head of the AFT and so representative of a traditional partnership between organized labor and the Democratic party, has come out in favor of the reformster agenda of testing and VAM-style evaluation.

Well, maybe House and Senate Democrats will ride to the defense of public education? Last Wednesday's hearing reminds us that no, that's not going to happen.

Ranking Democrat Sen. Patty Murray spouted the usual reformster lines. "Assessments help parents and communities hold schools accountable," she said as the hearing opened, repeating the reformster notion that without a big standardized tests, the quality of a school is somehow a mystery. Murray also opened the hearings with the need to get rid of redundant and bad tests, a meaningless assertion that simply serves as a weak manner for insisting that the Big Standardized Tests are necessary and excellent. Murray also threw in a reference to how hard other countries are working to out-compete us in education (because China is a nation whose culture, educational and otherwise, the US should really aspire to.)

What about Elizabeth Warren, who has emerged as a Democrat's Democrat, an alternative to the corporate clubby Hillary Clinton? Nope-- Warren is also of the opinion that when the federal government gives monetary support to local schools, in the name of not having said money wasted, it should get to exercise full oversight in the form of high stakes testing. The subtext of such oversight is, of course, that those of us who work in public education can't be trusted, not to mention a failure to recognize that huge amounts of money are being wasted right now. Senator Al Franken? As Jeff Bryant reported, Franken made   

wondered if the whole darn mess could be cleared up by using “computer adaptive assessments.” (Maybe, if you want to spend a whole lot of time and money, a witness replied.)

The lone education friendly set of words came from Rhode Island's junior senator, Sheldon Whitehouse, a career politician and former US Attorney and AG in Rhode Island. I'm going to give you Bryant's version of these comments in their entirety, because they're the only high point of the hearings:

“My experience in the education world is that there are really two worlds in it. One is the world of contract and consultants and academics and experts and plenty of officials at the federal state and local level. And the other is a world of principals and classroom teachers who are actually providing education to students. What I’m hearing from my principals’ and teachers’ world is that the footprint of that first world has become way too big in their lives to the point where it’s inhibiting their ability to do the jobs they’re entrusted to do.”

Indeed, the footprint made by education policy leaders in classrooms has left behind a form of mandated testing that is “designed to test the school and not the student,” Whitehouse stated, and he described a dysfunctional system in which teachers don’t get test results in a timely fashion that makes it possible for them to use the results to change instruction. Instead, educators spend more time preparing for the tests and encouraging students to be motivated to take them, even though the tests have no bearing on the students’ grades, just how the school and the individual teachers themselves are evaluated.

Whitehouse urged his colleagues to consider more closely the purpose of testing – not just how many tests and how often but how assessments are used. He concluded, “We have to be very careful about distinguishing the importance of the purpose of this oversight and not allow the purpose of the oversight to be conducted in such an inefficient, wasteful, clumsy way that the people who we really trust to know to do this education – the people who are in the classroom – are not looking back at us and saying, ‘Stop. Help. I can’t deal with this. You are inhibiting my ability to teach.’”

So, among all the various Democrats in power, we've got one who gets it.

It seems that it's past time to pretend that the Democrats attacking American public education are aberrations or outliers. The reverse is true. The bright lights, the mainstream public faces of the Democratic Party have abandoned public education, combining the kind of pro-corporate privatizing agenda usually associated with the GOP with a cartoon-Democrat affection for government overreach.

Does that mean we should turn to the GOP? Doubtful. Committee Chair Senator Lamar Alexander is an opponent of much of the current administration's education policy, but he also loves him some charter and voucher programs, so he's not exactly a public education BFF either. And while most GOP politicians are now treating the words "Common Core" as if they are highly radioactive, that doesn't mean they are looking to support public education, either.

In terms of policy, the biggest difference between the parties may be that Democrats still occasionally feel the need to hide their druthers behind language designed to keep teachers and other public school advocates from deserting them, whereas Republicans don't try to pretend that teachers, their work, and their union matter factor in GOP political calculations.

Somehow US public education in just one short decade has transformed from the baby that every politician was ready to kiss into the ugly kid that nobody wants to go to Prom with. In this environment, I'm honestly not sure who there is to speak up for public education in the political world, but I hope we can figure it out soon, because the hearings last week were one more reminder that there is no cavalry coming any time soon.


  1. Is it up to the orphan to find a parent? Can public education survive without a political parent? If Democrats buy into testing, what will change their minds as an alternative strategy to provide an education that ultimately levels the playing field and allows all students access to a decent standard of living? I ask that question because I believe that is what politicians consider the goal of public education. Who and what will persuade them to acknowledge that testing does not level the playing field? Is this rift between educators on the one hand and administrators/politicians on the other going to grow or shrink? What needs to happen to change the tide? Apparently some people are speaking up, but that is not influencing the politicians. This leads back to my first question.

  2. Thankfulness to my dad who informed me relating to this blog, this website is really amazing.