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The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Making Enemies of ED Reform Allies

Alienating “ed reform” allies seems to be a counter-intuitive strategy, but one that “common-sense teachers” rely on more and more frequently. Anthony Cody summarizes the platforms of both “parties” in his biased Teacher Common Sense takes on Education "Reform" Nonsense. However, it is not like he did not give fair warning of his slant towards the “common sense teachers” party.

The past decade we have seen drastic changes affecting our schools, and many of these changes defy what we know as teachers and parents to be in the best interests of our children. We have allowed technocrats to drive our schools with data. It is high time for teachers and parents and students to challenge the reform nonsense that holds sway.

While he makes many valid points about poverty, teacher experience, tenure, test scores and data, I was hoping for an even-handed summary of the education reform conflict and the myriad ways the teachers' voices are ignored. What I see instead is subtle and not-so-subtle mocking of "ed reform" by using easy-to-demolish phrasing. The article also makes enemies of potential allies by redefining education reform as a political stance.

Plenty of experienced teachers and other stakeholders are passionate about education in America and want to see it reformed. If they make the mistake of calling themselves “education reformers”, by Mr. Cody's lights, they automatically oppose "common sense" teachers. We need to flee these sorts of useless and destructive either-or dichotomies when discussing issues as complicated and with as many self-interested stakeholders as education.

For example, ed reformers do not believe that “Class size does not matter.” It does matter in certain situations, but in most educational contexts, the research has not supported universally smaller classes. In fact, there are countries with normal class sizes of 45, even in the primary grades, where students consistently rank at the top of international standings. Even more telling, their below average students out perform our best students. Before someone rushes to defend American performance by discounting the achievement of these students, we must remember that like so much in education, international comparisons are complex.

It will not do to rely on tired defensive excuses. For example, claiming that our average kids have to compete against their superior kids obfuscates more than it clarifies. There are any number of opposing unexamined cultural assumptions operating within both the American education system and the systems of other countries that make it appear obvious that class size should be important. Appearances are deceiving. I will name just one American education axiom that may not necessarily be true: Children, by definition, seek attention from their teachers.

In another example, the statement "Large amounts of public funds should not be diverted to privately controlled institutions" promotes education partisanship and perpetuates charter school misconceptions. The premise ("So by the measure chosen by the reformers, (charter schools) fail") has merit, the implied conclusion does not follow. Charter schools are not "privately controlled institutions." They are a species of public school subject to most of the education code, and answerable to their public sponsor, generally a district or county education board.

The argument implies that by the "ed reformers" own criteria, charters are no better or worse than traditional public schools. Fair enough. Then let's do something about "bad" charters, instead of using them to excuse "bad" traditional public schools. Let "good" charters flourish alongside "good" traditional public schools. Furthermore, sponsoring public education entities actually profit by charter schools since they retain 15% of the charter's state funding. The charter school must meet its expenses with 85% of the funding. Some charters are cash cows for their public school sponsors, such as Hickman, which has hundreds more students in its charter school than in its sponsoring traditional public school.

We who are passionate about education must do more than reach across the aisle. We must rearrange the furniture, eliminate the aisle, and mingle.


  1. S Goya,
    Thank you for the response to my post.

    I will freely admit to being biased. I am biased (in favor of) the common public school as opposed to the privately controlled charter. That doesn't make me an adamant foe of charter schools, but, all things being equal, I would prefer that we educate our children in publicly owned and democratically controlled schools, attended by as many people as possible in the community.

    I am accused here of politicizing education. I would ask you to look at the education reform landscape, and see who it is who is responsible for this. Take a look at Waiting for Superman, a pro-charter film that attacks public schools without ever setting foot in one, with a director who falsely characterizes due process for teachers as a "job for life."

    The original vision of charters, as put forth by teachers' union leader Al Shanker, was to be laboratories of innovation. And charters do play that role to a very limited extent still. But charters are being used now as a political wedge to attack public schools, to supposedly "prove" that poverty has been used as an "excuse," and should not matter, since these schools supposedly succeed where public schools have failed. Unfortunately, as I pointed out, close examination does not support these claims.

    As far as charter schools being a subset of public schools, you can make that argument. But clearly there is a distinction, in that whereas regular public schools are governed by school boards elected by the local community, charter schools are governed by an appointed board of directors, and are not accountable to the public in the same ways.

    As a teacher with 18 years experience in an inner city middle school, I can tell you that class size matters very much. I really do not care if they have 45 or 60 students in a class in China. I taught in Oakland, California, and many of my classes had three to five different languages represented. In a single sixth grade class I had students working at a third grade level and others capable of working at an 8th grade level or higher. It absolutely matters how many you put into a classroom, and there is solid research that supports this.

    The tone that I used expresses the frustration that a great many teachers feel these days. We have been under a barrage of attacks for the past decade, which has greatly intensified in the past year. We did not start this fight, and I would not have picked it. But the blows are being struck, and teachers are being gravely hurt across the country. Just take a look at any of the public schools where the staff has been blamed for low test scores and fired. Look at Los Angeles, where the leading newspaper printed the names of teachers and labeled them as "less effective" based solely on their test scores.

    I would be happy to go back to mingling and learning from one another. Please tell people like Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates and Davis Guggenheim to stop attacking public schools and the teachers who work there, and I will be happy to stop pointing out how baseless these attacks are.

  2. Anthony Cody is a well-respected award-winning teacher. I would respect his opinion over yours simply because he has been part of the reform movement from its inception. I would also put my faith in people like Diane Ravitch who saw first hand how the reform movement has worked against students.

    When you mentioned increased class size, I knew right away you have no idea how that would work against students who need so much attention. They are not widgets in a factory. These are human beings and we need to find a way to give them individualized attention. You cannot compare this country with countries like China. The culture is different. The respect for teachers and education is different, and the government does not allow for deviations in behavior.