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John Thompson: A Bad Week for Anti-Union Education Reformers

Guest post by John Thompson.

I first recoiled at Arthur Levine's tired old vision of schools in his Education Week Commentary "The Plight of Teachers' Unions." Levine seemed to argue that resistance against high-stakes testing is doomed. He seemed to believe that the future belongs to a new generation of standards-driven schooling. He implied that unions, for instance, were on the wrong side of history in resisting NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg's test-score-based evaluations and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's school closing campaign.

Then I read the rest of the newsmagazine of record. Not all is lost! Nearly a half of the issue described various aspects of today's backlashes against school "reform." Around 40% of the articles discussed promising new approaches to school improvement. So, I went back to Levine's dusty old analysis in the hopes that Ed Week was merely reprinting a twenty year old commentary from back in the day - before test-driven "reform," epitomized by the assembly line, tried to turn the clock back to the early 20th century.

It was an irony worthy of post modernism that Levine's retrograde vision of schools was at the end of the Ed Week which featured Michele McNeil's "Rifts Deepen Over Direction of Education Policy in U.S." The issue was also full of articles and comments about the malfunctioning of standardized testing, the potential abuses of testing data, cheating, and other bubble-in failures, as well as the fast-approaching Common Core implementation crisis. It included two accounts of dubious school takeovers in Michigan, as well as protests against similar efforts to close schools and disempower teachers, parents, and students in Chicago and elsewhere.

Nearly as much of the issue was devoted to the future of school improvement efforts that are the opposite of corporate reform pedagogies. An article co-written by two leaders of pro-"reform" institutions proposed a novel idea for saving the data-driven "teacher quality" experiment. They suggested that accountability hawks listen to teachers! Another story described a few schools that have turned the Race to the Top (RttT) on its head. Rather than use RttT funding for online differentiation of instruction, they focused on the socio-emotional health of children. An article described a corrective to a consequence of market-driven "reform," which has reduced diversity among teachers, and attempts to recruit more black and Latino teachers. Another story on "citizen science" was the opposite of the drill and kill pedagogies imposed by "reform." It described the potential for students to gain real-world experience with hands-on science fieldwork.

Two stories dealt with the research-based, win-win strategy of high-quality pre-school. Another documented new evidence on why pre-K is cost effective. Another commentary, by the Schott Foundation's John Jackson, explicitly repudiated the thesis of Levine's commentary.

Jackson explained that the output-driven accountablity crowd was on the wrong side of history. He argued persuasively that standards-based accountability has not been a game-changer. He explained how, "Standards-based reform creates an inherent system of winners and losers by raising the bar and assessing who makes the cut." Standards and standardized test-driven "reform" failed because it ignored the root cause of the achievement gap - poverty. Because of its focus on tests for punishment, standards for children who are academically drowning have moved the shoreline further away in order to teach them how to swim.

Rather than concede defeat as Levine would recommend, teachers, unions, parents, and students should demand "supports-based reforms."
We must strategically align:

  • High-quality early education for all students;
  • mandatory kindergarten with assurances that all students are achieving at grade level by 3rd grade;
  • recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers, along with supplying the training and resources those teachers need to provide more learning time and deeper learning approaches;
  • access to student-centered learning and personalized academic, social, and health plans to keep all students on a college path;
  • equitable resources and policies so that all students remain in engaging, high-quality educational settings.

Unfortunately, Levine's commentary was not a reprint. It was a kinder, gentler retread of the soundbites of the teacher-bashing movement, previously known as "reform." His mind seems to be back in the heyday of corporate "reform's" political victories that occurred before the extent of their educational failures was clear. It is possible that public schools may still be defeated by market-driven "reformers," but, today, it is the true believers of bubble-in accountability who are on the ropes. Levine, obviously, was too quick to throw in the towel on teacher unions' behalf.

What do you think? Was it just a coincidence that one issue of Education Week was so full of defeats for test-driven accountability and so full of promising stories about real reforms? Is our long nightmare of teacher-bashing and attacks on public schools about to end?

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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