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John Thompson: Could Rick Hess Become a Reluctant Warrior for Teachers?

Guest post by John Thompson.

Most teachers who I know would heartily endorse Rick Hess's top two blog hits of 2012. Common Core is likely to join the DeLorean automobile on the ash heap of history. And rather than viewing technology as a "miraculous balm," it should be seen more like Hamburger Helper." Education loves those sorts of quick fixes but, as the year's third top post observes, successes that produce great schools (like those in Finland) grow out of cultural values, including those that "lead to big differences in youth behavior" or that are enhanced by two-parent families.

Teachers often condemn the search for such "silver bullets" as a legacy of education's "culture of compliance." Hess (post #4) calls it a "culture of can't." Who could quarrel with either term?

Most of us also agree with Hess's 10th top post. Administrators name it "differentiated instruction," while teachers call it the central offices' favorite method of "Cover Your Ass." But, few teachers would quarrel with Hess's explanation of why those policies can be a "recipe for mediocrity," and that "the question isn't whether we should serve all kids; it's whether we think every school, or every classroom, ought to be expected to meet every need of every student." (Oops! Hess's post was a defense of charter schools. But, surely he would not seek a double standard where only neighborhood school teachers serve all kids in each class ...)

Teachers and unions helped elect and reelect President Obama. We agree with Hess's 9th favorite post that Obama's Education Department is full of good sincere people, but that their policies have not been different than those of Republicans and that Mitt Romney would have likely kept them up for the next four years. We also agree that the year's greatest victory was the Chicago teachers strike, where we beat back "Rahmbo."

We who have actually been in the urban classroom, unlike Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other true believers in test-driven accountability, agree that John Henry is "a cautionary tale--not a role model." Educators should "indeed work hard and lead by example. But way too many K-12 leaders work ridiculous hours, slogging through breaks and weekends."

But, what about the other side? How come an analyst who is so vivid in articulating the basic concerns of teachers is not our champion? Why is it that Hess remains joined at the hip with bubble-in "reformers?"

For instance, Hess is eloquent in condemning supporters of value-added evaluations for their "crude, inflexible policies that turn good ideas into caricatures." Then, he seeks balance, "On the other side, we've got teachers and 'public school defenders' who aren't content to challenge simple-minded solutions, but who argue that we can't really distinguish good educators from bad ones." I have never seen such a public school defender; perhaps Hess has never seen Linda Darling Hammond's proposal for a comprehensive system of evaluations.

Hess admits that, "contracts, laws, and regulations assuredly handcuff school and system leaders. But the ardent drumbeat for 'reform' has obscured the fact that school and system leaders can actually do much that they often complain they can't, if they have the persistence, knowledge, ingenuity, and motivation." Then, he inexplicably defends the test-driven firing of good teachers in Washington D.C. because D.C. is different than the affluent Fairfax County!?!?

Sadly, Hess' Chicago strike outburst may reveal his fundamental motivation. Perhaps, he just likes to fight.

The Chicago teachers' victory prompted the jab that "Walker-style GOP school reform is looking pretty good." In his preceding sentence, he describes Karen Lewis as a big winner in the strike. Then, out of nowhere comes this attack on Diane Ravitch, "Lewis comes out of this as an icon for anti-testing, pro-LIFO teachers, finally giving them someone besides a seventy-something former academic to cheer."

If the combative Hess revisited the classroom, could he sit through the interminable professional development meetings that teachers endure? Could he hold his sharp tongue as the central office dumped one CYA gimmick after another on him? So, maybe it is our willingness to endure those indignities that invites his contempt.

Or, perhaps Hess cannot go where his evidence and his logic direct him and become pro-teacher because he is congenitally unable to be pro-anything. Is he a leader of the brass knuckle school of reform just because he loves brass knuckled political battles?

What do you think? Should teachers not take Hess's attacks personally? Should we read him as a modern-day H.L. Mencken lambasting everyone? But, wouldn't it be nice if his eloquence could be put to the service of students, teaching, and learning?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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