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Won't Back Down

July has been what Michelle Rhee might call a crappy month for democratic public education.

• We have Emergency Manager Roy Roberts of Detroit Public Schools claiming that the new, imposed contract with teachers--which allows class sizes up to 60 for secondary classes and 40+ for elementary schools--is "good for kids."

• Not only will kids across the country be taking more tests, they'll be taking them on-line--which means that schools in poverty will come up short-handed on essential hardware. The tests are more likely to measure students' familiarity with technology than actual knowledge--and worse, the precious computers won't be put to their best use: actual student-directed learning.

• A voucher program in Louisiana:
...has the potential to shift well over a billion dollars a year in taxpayer money out of the public system into the hands of private for-profit and non-profit schools. Surely that gives state officials not just the right but the obligation to ensure that the money is well-spent and delivers quality education. But that's counter to the philosophy driving the school voucher movement.

• Michelle Rhee is busy trying to humiliate public schools and teachers on an international stage, while simultaneously offering them gift cards for making positive comments about StudentsFirst on public blogs.

• A stacked-panel Congressional hearing leads to the decision that teachers don't really need much training to be highly qualified under federal law. "We'll just scientifically evaluate the datalights out of them, and hope they turn over by year three" seems to be the new plan.

• The national organization of State Teachers of the Year, our best educators (full disclosure--I am the MI Teacher of the Year, 1993), is taking money from Bill Gates--and has named Viva, Teach Plus and Educators for Excellence as sister organizations, as they all try to get grants for teachers (certain teachers, that is) to "influence policy."

• And "Won't Back Down"--a movie about how parents can fix crappy public schools if they're feisty enough and wrest control from evil school workers--is set to launch, with great, compelling actors and a resonant (if garbled and deceptive) message. Here comes Superman. Again.

Well, you know...
In the messy world of school reform, it's hard to find people who are ideologically pure.

Can you see the Common Core standards as potentially useful, and still virulently oppose the testing that will accompany the rolled-out standards?

Would you re-think teacher compensation, breaking from the single salary schedule, if teachers' "merit" was not designated by standardized test data?

Do you revile all charter schools--including schools started by passionate teachers seeking to serve a particular population--because some schools skim off the cream or refuse special needs kids, and some charter chains are corrupt?

And here's the one I've been thinking about all month:

Should we not tell stories of change, hard work and meaningful success in turnaround and transformation schools, because the harsh federal policies that shaped them are wrong-headed?

I got a message from an important national voice in the policy discussion, after posting a recent blog on a turnaround school in Louisiana that I've been following all year. When you write stories like that, she said, you give strength to Arne Duncan's argument that the only way to fix schools in poverty is to rip them apart--you make people believe that the right teachers will compensate for years of neglect.

My response to her:

I've taken lots of heat for writing about this school, making the same point you made: Where are all the miracle teachers who wave their magic wands of efficacy over a school and "fix" it?

And I understand that the federal options for low-performing schools are bad policy. But--those teachers aren't advocating for more schools to use the turnaround model.

I kept writing about this school, precisely because it represents teachers doing what teachers have always done: taking bad policy and lousy conditions and trying to make them work, because they believe in public education.

And on that point, I won't back down.

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