Sunday, May 28, 2017

Politics vs. Ed Reform

Derrell Bradford is the head of NYCAN (and some other CANs too), one of the reformy arms of 50CAN, a reliably reformy group. He turns up in many of the usual reformy places, including Campbell Brown's the74 site, where he recently wrapped up a three-part series about the state of the reform movement, adapted from his speech at the Yale School of Management’s Education Leadership Conference in April. It's the third piece that I found most interesting; in it, he addresses the growing partisan problems that the reform movement has faced ever since Donald Trump became President.

I know what I think I see-- reformsters who self-identified as Democrats faced a challenge in a President whose politics they opposed, but whose policies were pretty much in line with what they've been advocating all along. But I'm curious about how they see it, and Bradford has always been an articulate advocate for the reformy world.

Party allegiance is the new litmus test not just for political philosophy, but for personal belief and social inclusion. Answering the wrong way on the wrong question not just on reform — but on anything — carries the weight of possible ostracism from both the left and the right. 

Agreed. In fact, that fits the trend I've seen presented that we are entering an era of "tribal epistemology," where the truth of any proposition or observation is not tested by any objective means, but by whether or not the proposition is supported by the tribal leaders. This has the effect of turning everything political-- if Beloved Leader says the sky is green, to look up at the sky yourself becomes an act of political defiance. You must prove your allegiance to the tribe.

Bradford notes that the election was tough to navigate.

I ultimately supported Clinton despite my firm belief that she would appoint a secretary of education determined to make our lives harder, not easier. In the professional sense, I voted against my own interests because I thought it might be best for America.

Agreed. Pretty sure that's a broadly held position in the education world.

He notes that These Times have led to many reformers heading further into their hard right or hard left positions, and this would be the place where I'd like to see further explanation because it remains hard for me to see the "left" wing of the reform movement as being all that leftist. But here he offers a pretty simple encapsulation of the political split of reformsterism:

We don’t have an education reform movement because liberal Democrats believe in civil rights. And we don’t have one because conservative Republicans believe in market solutions, low regulation, and freedom. We have one because they could believe in them both, at the same time, together, and at the same table. The golden age of “reform” that folks associate with President Barack Obama exists only because of a history of this sort of collaboration.

Out here in the cheap seats, I'm not sure that's what I saw.

First of all, what's up with putting "freedom" on the GOP list, as if Democrats aren't interested in freedom?

Second, this model suggests that reformsters came together as equals in this coalition. I'm not sure this is true-- the charter movement (which is about all that's left when we talk about an "ed reform movement") has been almost exclusive a business-driven movement. Corporate and privatization interests have used a variety of ideas as protective cover, including progressive ideas about equity and civil rights, but after years of this, I remain unconvinced that the major players have any real political bent at all. But we're talking about the left because it's impossible under the current administration to pretend that ed reform policies are about social justice or equity. And it is telling that when the language of equity and social justice is stripped from ed reform policy, hardly anything about the actual policy actually has to change.

In other words, charter and choice policy that doesn't explicitly pursue equity and social justice looks almost exactly like charter and choice policy that claims to care about equity and social justice. Mostly you just have to change some language in the PR.

In fact, Bradford is very correct to put "low regulation" on the GOP list, because that is the one significant difference between reform policy that does or does not pursue equity. Regulation and accountability are a necessary element if you don't want the reform landscape to be clogged with fraudsters and scam artists, not to mention operators who are racist and classist. 

The golden age that Bradford speaks of could exist not because reform had protective cover on both flanks. Obama could not easily be accused of being anti-progressive, and yet his neoliberal leanings put him in perfect tune with the corporate privatization approach. 

Bradford recaps some reform history to underscore that it has been built on bipartisan deals. True enough. Dems and GOP politicians have put party aside for something else. Bradford suggests that something else has been, and should be, For The Children. My cynical sided suggests that the something else has been For The Money, or For the Deep-Pocketed Private Interests Driving So Much of Ed Reform. 

And Bradford offers an interesting example of working across lines of personal and political belief-- Martin Luther King, Jr., and his willingness to work with all manner of people (including the hugely racist LBJ) to achieve goals of social justice. 

"Keep your eye on the goal" seems like an excellent piece of advice (it's actually one of my rules), but it highlights exactly the problem that Bradford is trying to address. Bradford suggests that the goal to keep eyes on is the needs of 

 a boy on a corner in Bridgeport who just needs you to be on one side — and that side is his. He’s actually the last person who needs you to be a partisan — steeped in what you won’t do and closing off policy opportunities that make you uncomfortable because of your political beliefs — because in the end, it’s his life, not yours, that depends on it.

First, there are huge differences of opinion about how to serve that boy's needs.  

But more importantly, that boy's future is not the goal that all reformers have their eyes on. For some, choice for its own sake is what matters, and if a choice system leaves that boy in a lousy school, well omelets and eggs. For some others, the goal has always been to open up that billion-dollar marketplace so that they can get in there and compete for those sweet, sweet dollars. And some reformsters are in no hurry to help that boy on the corner until he proves himself to be worth the trouble, because it's possible he's not a striver and out on the corner is where he deserves to be left. 

On the most fundamental level, we have two philosophies of school operating-- one that sees education as a means of raising up every single child, and one that sees schools as part of a way to sort the deserving form the undeserving. The sorters thought they had to at least pretend to get along with the uplift crowd to get what they wanted, but now they are ascendant, in power, and damned sure they're not going to stop the bus to pick up some ragamuffin on the streetcorner who is just looking for a hand out paid for with some deserving wealthy person's tax dollars.

In any coalition, as the endgame approaches, the different views of what that end should look like become more evident as coalition members pull apart for their special. It's easy to carpool from Omaha to New York City for the first several hundred miles. But once you get to the city limits, if one car is headed for the Bronx and another is headed for Wall Street and another is headed for Long Island, your carpool is going to have problems.

The ed reform coalition was always going to fall apart. Well, unless you take a cynical view of the movement. Because maybe it was never a coalition at all, but a big solid core of pragmatic opportunistic corporate privatizers who surrounded themselves with just enough of people from different political viewpoints that they could protect that core. Maybe the "coalition" was just a thin candy shell, and now some parts of the shell are being sloughed off.

There is one other thing that always strikes me about these calls for cooperation within the ed reform community. I realize that Bradford's original material was a speech for a particular audience, but if we are talking about social justice activists working with racists and Democrats working with Republicans, couldn't we also talk about folks who want to remake the education system working with, talking to, even listening to the people who work in that system. Everyone should think about working side by side with everyone else-- except teachers. And I don't mean some carefully handpicked we-know-they-mostly-agree-with-us teachers. Bradford says that real progress is uncomfortable, and yet reformsters largely remain unwilling to suffer the discomfort of listening to actual working teachers who might disagree with them. 


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