Sunday, June 3, 2018

Progressives and the DeVosian Embrace

In yesterday's New York Times, Conor P. Williams tackles one of the thorny problems of current reformsterism-- how do you hold onto some of your favorite charter school narratives now that the odious Trump and troublesome Betsy DeVos have planted their flag in your territory.

It's a good question, one that alleged Progressives have had to wrestle with ever since the last election stripped them of the cover of a nominally progressive President. But Williams' answer is lacking.

This guy. Yes, he has kind of a Kirk Cameron thing going on.

That's not surprising. Williams is a youthful PhD serving as senior researcher in New America's Education Policy Program. New America is a thinky tank with ties to Google, and they like school choice. Wiliams' PhD is in government from Georgetown, he writes for folks like the 74 and the Daily Beast. His bio usually touts his years teaching first grade in Brooklyn; you will be unsurprised to learn that he put in two years with Teach for America at Achievement First's charter school in Brooklyn. He has a specific interest in dual language learners, which is probably part of what led him to Hiawatha Leadership Academy, the school that he features in his NYT piece.

Williams shows his bias right off the bat, saying that Hiawatha runs "some of Minnesota's best public schools for serving such students." The link takes you to a six-year-old article, and as usual, "best" doesn't mean anything except "high score on the Big Standardized Test." And Hiawatha does not operate public schools-- it runs a charter school chain, and charter schools are not public schools. Calling charters "public" schools continues to be a way to obscure the problems of a privatized education system while giving charters the gloss of public school values which they do not possess. If "financed by public tax dollars" is the definition of "public," then Erik Prince operated a public security company and most defense contractors are public corporations. Charter schools are not public schools; their leadership is not publicly elected, their finances are not publicly transparent, and they do not take every child that shows up on their doorstep (which is one way they are able to achieve outstanding test results).

Williams point is that lefties should love Hiawatha because it's helping low-income children of color succeed. But there's the whole charter thing:

Progressives have long been open to research suggesting that well-regulated charter schools can extend educational opportunities to historically underserved children. But many also worry that charters foster segregation, siphon funding from traditional public schools and cater to policymakers’ obsession with standardized tests.

Williams' phrasing signals that he knows the research is pretty weak sauce. And he is correct to note one of the problems with the charter savior narrative-- what is the cost? Doers "saving" mean that we sacrifice a full education so that poor kids can be hammered with test prep every day? And do we "save" ten children by stripping necessary resources from 100 others?

And the new big problem, notes Williams, is that the embrace of Betsy DeVos, who loves choice and charters (although I'd argue that she loves charters only insofar as they help prepare the ground for vouchers) makes it hard to support charters and be a progressive.

Now let me take a side trip here. I'm not very concerned about political labels. I loathe the proicess by which we say, "Your position on cheese doodles shows that you're a mugwump, therefor you must be against water polo, because that is the mugwump position." Believe what you believe, support what you support, and ignore the labels-- that's what I'd prefer. But the story of school reform in general and charters in particular is the story of a conservative policy trying to masquerade as a bipartisan movement. Folks love to connect charters to Albert Shanker, the teacher labor leader, because it gives charters a lefty shine-- but Shanker's idea of charters was something else entirely, and when he saw what was happening, he turned his back on the whole thing. Charters couldn't really get going until neoliberals pretending to be progressives showed up, providing cover for privatization of public education by wrapping it in lefty language (and yes, some people did and do believe what they were saying, I know). As Wiliams puts it, "during the Obama administration, tensions over charter schools among progressives were manageable." The advent of Trump and DeVos just screwed up that whole game.

Williams tries to recast this as a personality thing-- Trump and DeVos are so "disliked" that some liberals "automatically reject" their ideas. What he doesn't is address is any of the substance of the arguments against (or for) charter schools and the privatization of American education.

Williams makes a case for Hiawatha, and captures the problems within the school in the Trump era (what does one tell a mostly no-white class of fourth graders when they ask "what does Make America Great Again mean?"). But what he doesn't address is the question of what the real nature of Hiawatha's "success" is, and what it costs (hard to do since they haven't graduated a class yet). Is there anything to learn from Hiawatha, or is the lesson here the same old one-- that with a more selective group of students and a bunch of extra money, you can accomplish more in a school?

Williams also tries to draw some sympathy for charter school teachers.

This puts the country’s many thousands of charter-school teachers in an odd place. Most come to this work to provide underserved children with a better shot at educational success, but now they’re increasingly branded as corporate stooges selling out public education by critics who challenge charter schools’ right to exist. These teachers shouldn’t have to answer for Ms. DeVos’s incompetence or wonder if there’s room for them in the future of progressive education politics.

This strikes me as a bit disingenuous. First, I don't know anybody who calls charter teachers "corporate stooges." In many cases, they are underpaid corporate victims, working without any job protections under lousy conditions for people who treat them like disposable widgets that must follow orders and stay in their place, or else. Second, many charter school teachers are not exactly teachers. Like Williams, they may be TFA temps who already know they're not sticking around for anything close like the five-to-seven years it takes a teacher to get really good. Or they are non-teachers in charters that are allowed to hire under special rules that allow them to put any warm body in the classroom. In other words, many thousands of charter-school teachers are already in an odd place.

And here's a pro tip-- if your plan is to "liberate" students by oppressing the people who work with them, you probably don't qualify as progressive.

Williams wants to argue that just because DeVos now wants to embrace charters, charter fans who came for the progressive argument shouldn't run away. But I'm not sure how many charter supporters were actually progressives, or whether progressives should have run away anyway (and conservatives, too, for that matter). Why isn't he exhorting progressives to throw their weight behind stronger support for public education? Should we be worrying about how well charters actually work instead of how they can best be lined up with one political agenda or another? Or should we start a discussion about the toxic effect of politics on education, with a eye toward getting politicians, amateurs, bureaucrats, dilettantes, and over-funded thinky tanks out of education entirely and hand it back to actual professional educators. There are a lot of questions worth asking hinted at in Williams' piece, but I'm not sure he really gets to any of them.

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