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The Politics of Education Are Changing

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Dear Deborah,

I read your “advice to the next president” with interest. It would be wonderful if our next president could figure out how to ensure that “schools for the poor…look and feel like the schools the wealthiest send their kids to”? Let’s see, first he would propose a school construction fund to modernize school facilities. Then he might propose class-size reduction to the level that is typical at schools like Phillips Andover or Exeter (12 students per class?). And then there is the list of social programs, like good health care and nutrition.

This tracks fairly well with the recommendations of the manifesto that we both signed, called the “Bolder, Broader Approach.”

But I think you ducked the question I put to you about the rise of a competing ideology within the Democratic party. Customarily, one would associate the BBA with the Democratic party (school improvement, plus more resources), and the Education Equality Project with the Republican party (choice, accountability, and incentives). But EEP's members are now well-represented within the Democratic party as the “reformers.”

As I write, I notice an article in USA Today that makes the point. The Democratic platform this fall will “stake out a few positions that unions have long opposed.” These include “paying teachers more if they raise test scores, teach in ‘underserved areas’ or take on new responsibilities such as mentoring new teachers.” Actually, I don’t think that unions oppose paying teachers for taking on new responsibilities, but I know that they have usually fought the idea that teacher pay should rise or fall with student test scores. The article cited two mayors—Cory Booker of Newark and Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C.—who criticized unions for blocking their plans for choice (charters and vouchers) and for their “insane work rules.”

So the politics are changing. Is this the future? Is this the new face of the Democratic party? Will it be a future in which schools are run like businesses, in which unions are ousted from the workplace (as they have been in most of the private sector), and in which pay-for-performance is the rule for teachers, principals, and students?

Diane

12 Comments

I'd like to be calm and observational about the changes in the democratic party, but they scare me to death! I've been reading Thomas Frank's new book, "The Wrecking Crew," and think it all applies as well to the "educational establishment" as well as to everything else, though he doesn't discuss education. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in trying to understand what's happening.

Diane:

I absolutely agree that the politics of education have become confused. I would disagree, however, that the EEP consists of what you would expect from Republicans. First, it lays out (and McCain has articulated as well) a Civil Rights mentality with regard to education. To me, this is a surprise. I would say that accountability is also a surprise. Recall all of the fights against measures of progress towards the achievement of equal access to education in the past. The Republicans labelled this stuff "quotas" and fought hard against it.

So, I don't know where to put the current embrace of education as the next big civil rights issue. When it was George Bush and NCLB, and all means all, I assumed it was an oversight. I just figured he hadn't thought things all the way through when he included students with disabilities as a subgroup. I really have felt some urgency to see that this was acted on before somebody noticed and changed it (and in fact there has been some softening).

But here comes McCain. He has every opportunity to jump on the "NCLB bad" bandwagon, and doesn't, uniting instead with some surprising folks to sign on to EEP. Everything in me says don't trust Republicans with civil rights issues. My gut says that they can say the words, but they can't/won't make it happen (I recall Ronald Reagan's task force on poverty--they decided at the end it was a good exercise to study the problem, but there wasn't anything that they actually needed to do!).

But over on the Democratic side we have some major unions deeply entrenched in maintaining the status quo. This is what I have always been taught is the mark of conservatism. And yet, my belief has always been that the Democrats are the party to bring about change. If memory serves, Title I--the justification for federal involvement in education through NCLB--goes back to Johnson. I cannot say that the dollars spent since that time have been a resounding success in leveling the educational playing field. Perhaps it was too little--or perhaps over time the "additional dollars" to poor schools have been evened out by additional dollars to richer schools with better lobbyists and erosion of local resources (I think there is some support for both of these views). Measuring results seems to me to make sense if the dollars are ever going to make a lasting difference. We might argue over what constitutes results (instead of or in addition to standardized tests) and how to respond to poor progress, but this certainly seems like sound policy--from either side of the aisle.

I don't know that we will get very far from an either/or approach to the problem of inequitable access to education (or poor overall results, compared internationally). I cannot see that Bolder Broader will take us anywhere without acknowledging the inequities pointed out by EEP, and embracing education as a fundamental right for all. I don't think we can solve the inequities without some of the strategies called for in Bolder Broader (and establishing accountability for results).

I struggle, Margo, with the same issues. But when unions have so little reason to trust their "bosses"--who clearly simply want a free hand to run things their way--it's hard to call that conservative. Actually the union leadership may be ahead of its membership. I think some of the new Rep/Dem-style reformers are hoping to split the young teachers who are in it for a short time, from the career-teachers and older teachers as a way to gut teachers unions. For some its the political clout of teachers union (the backbone of liberal politics) that is as important as education issues I suspect.

But as an educator I think the civil rights "no excuses" line is an easy avoidance of the tougher economic and social issues facing poor people and people of color. And their children's schooling. Teaching was a way into the middle class-no question about it--for lower middle class girls, not only a "calling", a "mission" etc.

Important topic. Thanks.

Deb

Deb

Diane,

I wouldn't over-blow EEP's and DFER's influence as I think Greg Toppo's USA today article does. Don't forget that these Republicrats were forced to meet outside the convention in Denver, while Weingarten and Reg Weaver held forth at the podium.

While the issue of merit pay has been a divisive one for Dems, these guys lost out in promoting vouchers, NCLB testing madness as well as most of their conservative agenda, in Denver.

As for civil rights, Margo (above) should listen to her instincts. McCain calls education a "civil rights issue" but in the same speech says that the struggle for equality has ended.

That should console all those thousands of poor, black, Latino, ELL and disabled students being warehoused on the wrong end of Mayor Bloomberg's widening achievement gap.

Obama likes splitting the middle. It seems to me that he should articulate a position on teacher union reform. If the unions aren't doing the job, and Democrats usually support unions (at least historically), then why not help undercut criticism of ossified unions by challenging them to reform? This would also undercut EEP in favor of the BBA philosophy. - TL

I don't like the idea of teachers being paid based on a merit raise for their students performance on test scores. I do believe teachers should be paid more for what they do. Some teacher would be more motivated to teach their student more then just to the test. I don't think that all student get a fair education due to some schools lack material, and resources. I would prefer not to have a union represent me as a teacher, I just feel that's an extra dent in my pocket when i dont have to pay out someone.

Diane,

I have been thinking about this split in the Democratic party and suspect that it has been long in the making. For various reasons it becomes apparent over education, but it precedes the current education debates.

Several possible causes come to mind:

First, many Democrats, like Republicans, have come to distrust big government and big bureaucracies in general. To them, the union is yet another bureaucracy. They trust more in the small nonprofit, the rising political network, the informal associations over the internet, the dissenting groups within the unions, the small, self-governing school, the small group, and of course the self.

Second, with the decline of industry and the rise of the office job, corporations have taken pains to woo young liberals. If you're working for an internet company, you can probably show up in jeans, listen to your favorite music, talk about global justice, devote a good part of your day to web surfing, and go out with your friends after work. But you will work long hours, without any job security. Many young people (including Democrats) will choose a unionless corporate environment of this sort because it offers an attractive peer group. (And the peer group has become all-important.) To a degree, progams like the Teaching Fellows and TFA play into this mentality.

Third, good education relies on a certain entrepreneurial spirit: a belief that we can do what needs to be done, through our own wits. Some of us call this professionalism. Others use words like "accountability," "no excuses," and "success." In some ways they are talking about the same thing; in other ways not. The latter group has been growing because of the other factors mentioned above, and because of interest groups influencing the terms and vocabulary of the discussion. There is money and political power behind certain phrases. Often we use words without knowing how loaded they are.

I can think of many more causes--but in any case I suspect that the split among the Democrats has been growing over time, at least since the early 1990s.
Why is it visible now? Perhaps education has a way of revealing the cracks in a culture.

I have not always supported unions, but my support has grown over time. I support the union because I know what it is like to work in a place without one. Such places have "insane work rules" of a different kind: you work nonstop with no protection. Also, I believe that the union can stand for good education and fight some of the sillier mandates that come our way. That said, I am not actively involved in the union, because I can only take so much group work. I need time to myself. I keep my ears open and participate in union activities from time to time.

Diana Senechal

The Education Equality project and their ilk are dancing to the tunes of the hedge fund managers and the big money foundations; their views have nothing to do with equity and everything to do with disdain and disrespect for the views of actual public school teachers and parents in the large urban areas.

Unfortunately, a large branch of the Democratic party -- or at least the most vocal -- have bought into the line that it is incompetence and laziness and a lack of motivation that has led to poor results -- not inadequate funding or poor conditions.

Another thought, elaborating on a previous one and taking Leonie's point into account:

As far as I know, the term "team player" has come into heavy usage in the workplace only recently, within the past few decades. The big businesses have appropriated the small team for their own purposes. It is no coincidence that the EEP crowd supports the "workshop model"; the businesses want children working in teams so that they enter the workplace ready to do the same.

Thus teamwork becomes associated with the corporation, and one's desires for group participation are fully met and exhausted over the course of the work day. Who has energy for collective action after a day of teamwork and "accountable talk"? Well, some do, but many do not. And many believe that they the work team gives them a chance to express their ideas and take initiative.

It would be a stretch to say that the "workshop model" is a union-busting tactic, and I wouldn't go that far. But perhaps there's a speck of truth in it. At the very least, I would say that it represents a collusion, conscious or not, between the collective-minded left and the business-minded right.

Diana Senechal

Diana and leona:

You're right, it is a stretch to cast the "workshop model" (which I gather is related to cluster/team/empowered, rather than hierarchical management) as a union-busting tactic. But I also think that it is unreasonable for a hierarchical, assembly line mentality to remain in place simply because it was vulnerable to the collective action of the unions.

The industrial revolution sparked the growth of unions, not because it was the first time that the worker class was oppressed by capital. But the soft underbelly of the growth of industry was that it brought workers together into a "shop," thus consolidating capital in one place where it was extremely vulnerable to work stoppages.

The growth of the global economy has changed that landscape, not only because of the easy connection to labor in countries where unions have not taken root, but also because so much work can be farmed out technologically in a variety of ways. I recall reading that a work stoppage within a telephone company (or whatever it would be in today's world) is virtually invisible to the consumer because so much work is accomplished by technology.

The fact that teachers' unions remain strong in the face of losses by all other unions points to the fact that school systems have remained in the industrial era. For the unions to fight to keep them there is pretty likely to be a losing battle. I believe that labor--perhaps led by professional unions--is going to have to take a broader view in order to remain effective in protecting workers from the abuses of capital.

And this is where I have concerns with casting school management as "bosses" as Deb did above. I just saw a blurb in my local newspaper travel section about some small town in the coal belt that consists of mansions built by coal company owners. In its heyday the town was one of only a few spots on earth to sell Chanel No 5 (the others were Paris, NY, whatever)--just as a mark of the wealth that was centered there. It's now all bed and breakfasts and museums, but it is also a reminder of an affluent lifestyle that was supported by people who faced danger on a daily basis--and died, and were held in virtual slavery through the tyranny of scrip and the company store, and lived in poverty and squalor (the company housing in a company town), in order to bring coal out of the ground. In many cases the ground it came from didn't even belong to the coal company--only the mineral rights. People fought some incredible battles to wrest power away from these bosses who built and lived in the mansions, and establish basic rights of workers. People starved and died. They were divided by racism injected by bringing in "scab" labor of a different ethnicity.

And the stories go on of a wealthy class living off of the labor of a class held in poverty in order to hold them to the necessity of accepting their lot as "mere labor" doing the work to build that wealth. And the mill workers organized, and the shirt-waist makers organized, and the steel mill workers organized, against the abuses and tyrannies of their bosses and the theft of the fruits of their labor.

I have a problem with casting public school systems in this light. When principals and administrators, themselves almost exclusively former teachers, are cast as "bosses," I think we have lost some crucial sense of what these early union heroes were fighting for, particularly in a system that does not have a profit as its end goal--no stockholders, no mansions/foundations/trusts built from the labor of teachers. When the possibility of collaboration and empowerment is rejected in favor of maintaining clarity about who is a boss and who is a worker, I think we are dooming ourselves to at least the structure, if not the conditions, against which those early workers fought. Collaboration and empowerment mean having a voice. It also means accepting responsibility for outcomes.

As Deb notes, we already have a generation of workers (not at all unique to education) who do not see themselves as settling into a company for life. This is not a meaningful benefit for them. Other things are--the opportunity to learn and grow through a job, flexibility, collegiality. I don't know if unions can adapt themselves to the current realities. But it is important that labor does.


Diane Ravitch makes a worthwhile observation in noting the two perspectives that seem to face the Democratic Party in presenting a coherent position on school reform. The Bolder manifesto includes what could be called "hard" liberals and "soft" liberals, with the majority of the "soft" kind. That is, sympathy for the perspectives of "progressive education" are represented by a wide array of education mavens. The core idea is that successful schooling -- basic achievement skills, love of learning, expanded perspectives. work-related skills, etc. -- requires more than school improvements. The achievement gap is connected to much more than school and teachers and curriculum rewrites. The gaps between score levels correlates closely with income, wealth. home resources, etc. This broad picture characterizes all mass education systems. Simple Education 101, still the way ii is (except maybe for Sweden -- to be looked up).
So, the soft liberal Bolder approach emphasizes early childhood intervention and socialization, health issues (something like universal coverage) and school health clinics. And so on. The hard liberal take on this is summed up in the phrase "'no more excuses," directed at teachers and other education professionals who raise the broader considerations. Emphasis on testing basic skills, backed by sanctions if scores don't go up and the achievement gap isn't eliminated I gather the date by which this will be achieved is 2014. (The hard liberal' previous dreams of Goals 2000 is down the memory hole.)
The Democrats have a problem being serious and long term (and utopian?) about being Bolder and Broader or being tough, emphasizing testing and punitive accountability demands that have never worked but focus blame and don't cost much (evidently the McCain position. Remember Bush was tight with progressive George Miller when he and our almost forgotten president were claiming NCLB as their great bipartisan achievement and Miller got his Bush nickname "Big George".

ayg


Diane Ravitch makes a worthwhile observation in noting the two perspectives that seem to face the Democratic Party in presenting a coherent position on school reform. The Bolder manifesto includes what could be called "hard" liberals and "soft" liberals, with the majority of the "soft" kind. That is, sympathy for the perspectives of "progressive education" are represented by a wide array of education mavens. The core idea is that successful schooling -- basic achievement skills, love of learning, expanded perspectives. work-related skills, etc. -- requires more than school improvements. The achievement gap is connected to much more than school and teachers and curriculum rewrites. The gaps between score levels correlates closely with income, wealth. home resources, etc. This broad picture characterizes all mass education systems. Simple Education 101, still the way ii is (except maybe for Sweden -- to be looked up).
So, the soft liberal Bolder approach emphasizes early childhood intervention and socialization, health issues (something like universal coverage) and school health clinics. And so on. The hard liberal take on this is summed up in the phrase "'no more excuses," directed at teachers and other education professionals who raise the broader considerations. Emphasis on testing basic skills, backed by sanctions if scores don't go up and the achievement gap isn't eliminated I gather the date by which this will be achieved is 2014. (The hard liberal' previous dreams of Goals 2000 is down the memory hole.)
The Democrats have a problem being serious and long term (and utopian?) about being Bolder and Broader or being tough, emphasizing testing and punitive accountability demands that have never worked but focus blame and don't cost much (evidently the McCain position. Remember Bush was tight with progressive George Miller when he and our almost forgotten president were claiming NCLB as their great bipartisan achievement and Miller got his Bush nickname "Big George".

ayg

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The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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