A New Conversation Conversation
September of 2014 has become New Conversation Month in the reformstersphere. There has been much noise about fresh starts, new conversation, inclusive tones, and shiny new wrapping. What does it all mean?
Why now, anyway?
If I were conspiracy minded, I might imagine a smoke-filled room somewhere in August, filled with prominent privateers and thinky tank guys and Core boosters and maybe a few feds as well, all clutching printouts in their hands and saying, "Well, damn. This doesn't look good."
Surveys from Rasmussen Reports and Phi Delta Kappa and even reformsters' own Education Next showed the same general trend--plummeting support for the great white whale of Common Core and all its attached barnacles. The details were only more damning; teachers who had spent the 2013-2014 school year getting to know the Core came out of the experience loving it far less. Reformsters tried to spin some data to say that people loved the idea of the Core, but the name was tainted by bad marketing, but one could as easily argue that having gotten to know the Core, people recognized that it had none of the delightful qualities in the description. In other words, "Yes, I would date an unattractive person with a nice personality, but this dog you hooked me up with is unpleasant and annoying."
The summer held other problems. NEA and AFT voted "no confidence" on Arne Duncan. NEA president-elect Lily Eskelsen-Garcia slammed testing and other "stupid" reforms, hard and repeatedly. The more charters spread, the more often charter operators were caught misbehaving. And it was clear to almsot everyone but former future President Jeb Bush that Common Core was a toxic political brand.
Let the new conversations begin
"Boys," I imagine someone in the dark room saying. "We need to start a new conversation, because we are sure as hell losing the old one."
There were rumblings. In August came word that Michelle Rhee was leaving the education field, with some commenters quietly asserting she'd been pushed while others suggested she was just a rat leaving a waterlogged ship.
And in late August, Mike Petrilli stood up in front of an Oklahoma Chamber audience to say that A) CCSS had more than just a marketing problem and B) Core opponents were not all deluded dopes.
On September 1st (almost as if some folks had been hired on a monthly basis), the new conversations began to bloom like a thousand roses. Cramped, pointy, vaguely familiar roses. Let's just take a look at the various New Conversations and how they bloomed.
McClusky and Petrilli
On September 1st, the Washington Times ran a piece from Michael "Fordham" Petrilli ("the CCSS are swell") and Neal "Cato" McClusky ("the federal gummint is overreaching") in which they proposed "restarting the Common Core debate." They proposed a list of things on which two sides of the debate could agree, and it was not a terrible list. The article had the virtue of a civil tone and the retirement of some tired old talking points.
Also debuting on 9/1 was Education Post, a PR venture with a website that has "Better conversations, better education." as its subheading and declares
It's time for a different conversation about public education and what our children need -- an honest and civil conversation of many voices, united by a common belief in the power of education to transform lives.
They also declared an end to uncivil fact-free rhetorical blather. However, all of this high-sounding statement of purpose (lovingly profiled in a debut-covering puff piece at Washington Post) soon took a back seat to the group's clearer intent-- to be a political-style rapid response group more intent on controlling the conversation than renewing it. Within just a few weeks they leaned on argument by anecdote and, most tellingly, attacking Carol Burris's integrity. The site is headed by Peter Cunningham, and old Duncan aide, and adheres closely to the administration's party line.
The Broad Academy announced a tweaking of its legendary "Wishing Will Make It So" Superintendents school by turning it more explicitly a training ground for future edu-business execs. A signal that the Real Money and Power are going to be found somewhere other than in actual schools.
Hess has never been intellectually sloppy, and he's often been willing to call a dumb idea dumb, no matter where it came from. But in September, he brutalized Common Core supporters with a five-point critique that went after some of the foundational selling points. He actually made some of the same points for which EdPost attacked Burris (international benchmarks and research base are fictions). Later in September he could be found taking the anti side of a CCSS debate.
Riccards called on his fellow reformsters to listen to teachers and consider that they need to be treated as potential collaborators and not evil, deluded obstacles to education. He still misses a crucial point, but he still strikes a inclusive tone, coming very close to scolding his allies for their recalcitrant teacher-hating ways.
The Center on Reinventing Public Education has proposed "A New Start on Accountability". In terms of accountability ideas, it doesn't offer anything new, but it does acknowledge that there are some real obstacles to implementing their dumb ideas (okay, "dumb" is my word) and they identify the obstacles correctly. So, a step forward of sorts.
The good signs
There are some good parts of all this conversational change-age. Reformsters have stopped insisting that their opponents are all dopey liars, mostly (lookin' at you, EdPost). And reformsters have started to acknowledge some of the real logistic, tactical, educational, pedagogical, financial, and even common sensical problems with their beloved ideas.
That, and powerful, connected and well-financed people do not generally call for more civil and respectful debates when they are winning. If you want a sign that reformsterism is failing, look no further-- they didn't talk about how to fight nice back when they were sure they had victory already locked up.
The "new conversation" is likely also about political triage. In the face of multipronged pushback and opposition, reformsters have to pick their battles. The new conversations suggest that nobody wants to fight on the hill that is a Big Fat Pile of Oppressive Standardized Testing. The new conversations also suggest that reformsters are drawing the wagons in a circle around charters, choice, accountability, and teacher job protections (or rather, the removal thereof).
So, can we talk?
Hard to say. The New Conversation seems to open the door to discussion of issues from standards to teacher training to materials to the Core itself (the New Conversation insists that local control is totally alive and well). The New Conversation allows that maybe teachers are actually important when it comes to schools and education (and not in the old "you are so important that everything bad must be your fault" way).
But the New Conversation holds onto many old beliefs about excellence and achievement and choice and charters and accountability and teacher job protections.
And worst of all, the New Conversation is still the Reformster conversation. Teachers are invited to the table, but it's not their table. The New Conversation still involves a whole lot of folks who are in the conversation because they have wealth, power and connections-- not because they've been elected, or have proven education track records, or have earned the respect of actual teachers. At the end of the day, no matter how much they modulate their tone, they are still saying, "You have to talk to us and deal with us and explain yourselves to us because we say so."
Both the New Conversation and the Old Conversation are unlike any conversation being held in any other profession. No group of rich amatuers have set themselves up as arbiters of medicine or law or engineering or welding. I do appreciate the shift in rhetoric, even if it turns out to be mostly motivated by a desire to preserve profits, market share, and power. But as long as the conversation is founded on a fundamental disrespect for teachers' professional expertise and personal investment of a lifetime in the field, renewing it will be an empty gesture and a tough sell.