Response to 'Class Warrior'

10/12/2010 01:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Carlo Rotella's flattering portrait earlier this year of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in the New Yorker ("Class Warrior," February 1, 2010) makes a remarkable claim: in today's school reform battles, he asserts, "there are, roughly speaking, two major camps." The first he calls "the free-market reformers," people "who believe that competition, choice, and incentives" must lead the charge to improve failing schools; the second, characterized as "the liberal traditionalists," are those "who rally around teachers' unions and education schools." That strangled formulation ignores a vast territory and leaves out a wild farrago of approaches and actors, including prominent scholars like Diane Ravitch, traditionally from the conservative right (although decidedly in-motion now, and with The Death and Life of the Great American School System, her best-selling study of the disastrous politics of testing and "choice," perhaps the most prominent apostate from the Reagan/Bush educational agenda), Tim Knowles of the political center, and Kenneth Saltman from the left, each of whom was interviewed and cited extensively by Rotella for the Duncan profile.

This unfortunate if quite common caricature of the contemporary school reform debate -- the "marketeers" vs. the "do-nothings" -- omits, most notably, those who argue, as John Dewey did, that in a vibrant and participatory democracy, whatever the wisest and most privileged parents want for their children must serve as the baseline for what the broader community deems essential for all of its children. Any other approach essentially says that our policy toward children comes down to a simple slogan: Choose the right parents! Choose parents with access, power, and money, and the world will open for you; choose parents without access and resources, sorry, you're on your own.

The New Yorker notes that Duncan as well as the Obama children attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (as did my three sons), where they had small classes, abundant resources, and a curriculum based on opportunities to experiment and explore, ask questions and pursue answers to the far limits. Oh, and, not incidentally, a respected and unionized teacher corps as well. If that describes the features of a school experience good enough for the Obamas and the Duncans, it surely ought to be considered an aspiration and a standard to work toward for the kids on the west side of Chicago, south Los Angeles, the nation's capitol, and public schools everywhere. To me it's a much more hopeful and serious place to begin than the relentless pounding on teachers that we are treated to daily, and, in fact, any other ideal for our schools, in Dewey's words, "is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy."