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Debunking the Fairy Tale of School Reform

11/11/2010 06:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Recently, I attempted to unpack the media-augmented narrative -- and national hot button issue du jour -- of public education reform within the context of a fairy tale. I chose the fairy tale as my medium because I couldn't think of any other storytelling device that was simultaneously so magnificently far-fetched and so widely recounted.

And yet, for me to sit here and claim that this fable from hell is complete fiction is just as disingenuous as the media's repeated insistence on its utter veracity. Because embedded among the sweeping generalizations, circular reasoning, scapegoating, and causal oversimplification of this grand morality tale are baby-corn kernels of truth. Which is why it makes for such superb propaganda.

So, allow me to clarify.

Never have public school teachers been more scrutinized, vilified -- and beset by an absolutely staggering array of challenges. Contrary to the sound bytes you hear about the scores of inexperienced teachers amassed in troubled schools, on average, public schoolteachers are more qualified than ever due to a litany of state and federal regulations. Teachers are now required to have advanced and extensive training in addressing the needs of an ever-expanding population of English language learners and students with emotional psychological, and physical disabilities (all while somehow healing the wounds of the centuries of social and racial inequity that has spawned gaping disparities in student performance). Meanwhile, classrooms are bursting at the seams; students are more easily distracted and less literate; support networks have faded into insignificance; and pay and benefits have been slashed. And yet, because teachers are neither publicists nor advertising executives, they are getting brutalized in the PR wars. Their only verbal defense against the constant barrage of denigration has been the even less sympathetic union bosses, who come off sounding more like fat-cat apologists than advocates of fairness and equity.

But lazy, emotionally detached teachers do exist. They complain about meager salaries; substitute creative instructional strategies with pointless busy work; and devour sports sections and crossword puzzles during prep periods. Some of these laggards are virtually invisible and unknowable to their students and peers, ignoring students with glaring deficiencies or mysteriously vanishing into the nooks and shadows of massive school campuses in the middle of faculty meetings. The only thing that ever really reanimates their drooping carcasses are the days leading up to major holiday breaks. Consequently, they possess an almost infinitesimally narrow window of approachability, generally limited to the times in which they're clad in ironically mirthful homemade Christmas or Easter sweaters. Astoundingly -- and tragically -- this small minority of nonperformers has done more to stain the reputation of the teaching profession than him, him, and him combined. Good teachers, whom, I repeat, comprise the vast majority of the occupation, silently resent these people: After countless hours of training, testing, self-educating, tutoring, lesson-planning, mentoring, monitoring, nurturing, grading, counseling, innovating, coaching, and explicating concepts to students with yawning spectrums of ability and ambition levels, they're tired of having to defend the five percent of their peers who have given district officials, reformers, legislators trolling for sound bytes, and the media fodder for demonizing an entire profession.

The unions, while a necessary safeguard against exploitative working conditions -- common practice during the seminal, non-union years of the teaching profession -- can lose sight of their ultimate purpose: enabling teachers to work safely and effectively in environments that foster student learning, while ensuring that their wages alleviate the need to moonlight as Applebee's busboys and hostesses. But the unions have the tendency to overreach, protecting individuals who clearly have no business in the profession; at other times, they get bogged down in an interminable process of political horse-trading. In so doing, they become lumbering, unsympathetic public relations hazards and an albatross for educators who simultaneously need them but who also cringe when they're reminded how stubbornly dogmatic they can be.

The meteoric rise in popularity and reverence for former Washington DC schools chancellor -- and grandstanding media diva -- Michelle Rhee says all you need to know about just how universally despised teachers' unions have become. The thing about Rhee is that she's been endowed with an epic lack of providence and tact. Yet, last year, she offered a shockingly semi-rational proposal to the local union, wherein teachers would be given the opportunity for significant merit-based pay increases in exchange for one year of their coveted tenure. The union, justifiably leery of an agreement that would link test scores to teachers' salaries, predictably huffed and puffed and slammed the door on Rhee. Except there was just one problem with their stratagem: Rhee's proposal had both logic and merit -- two qualities that I never would have expected to associate with a person whom I picture killing a housefly with an R.P.G., agent orange and a drone missile strike. Rather than dismissing her proposal (which, in actuality, was more of a directive) out of hand, the union could have seized the high ground, returning to the table with a pragmatic alternative. Instead, the union's intransigence further cemented their image in the court of public opinion as a bunch of Machiavellian bullies.

Endowed with the state's imprimatur to practice the creativity and independence with which traditional public schools aren't endowed, charter schools might seem to offer the prospect of being the remedy to many of education's ills. Unfortunately, they don't really work -- at least not in all the ways they were intended. Their overall lack of effectiveness is becoming steadily more apparent, despite fawning media accounts of some glowing exceptions. Some, like Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone, along with the handful of others showcased in vaunted documentarian Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for 'Superman', give us small-sample glimpses of best-case scenarios in which strong, prescient leaders employ school-parent coalitions to marshal a wide range of academic and human resources from across a community. This glimmer of promise is what makes charters so seductive. But most recent studies show that, while some charters are wildly successful, many fare worse than their traditional counterparts (only one in six significantly outperforms traditional public schools). And due to a disturbing absence of state or federal oversight, others fail abysmally.

Ultimately, it takes a force of nature with the political wherewithal and unparalleled chutzpah of a Geoffrey Canada to even begin to turn around a failing school, be it a traditional one or a charter. So, as charters increase their numbers over the next decade, expect their results to more closely mirror those of traditional public schools. In other words, today's charters are 2020's "failure factories."

Lastly, with the backing of corporate titans, and with the political winds at their collective backs, a new breed of school reformers has emerged, contributing two key ingredients to the issue failing schools: name recognition and gobs of money. Offering one celebrity to put public education at the forefront of a national debate is laudable: All high-profile public figures should likewise feel the moral pull to parlay their influence into community uplift. But for years, small groups of concerned teachers and parents across the nation have protested the unacceptable conditions under which less economically endowed students and schools have been forced to operate. That none of their last names were Gates, Buffet, Bloomberg, Broad, Murdoch, or Winfrey doomed their movement before it began.

For better or worse, it took a (virtual) village -- of million and billionaires -- to finally push these issues to the front page of our local newspapers. In fact, had these benevolent aristocrats never been bitten by the voracious liberal guilt bug in the first place, we may not even be having this conversation. But they were, and so now here they are, poised to save the world from the national blight of lackluster Home Ec. teachers. Unfortunately, most of the reformistocracy exists in hermetically sealed orbs of affluence and privilege. Never having attended or taught in struggling schools, they remain virtually oblivious to the pervasive challenges that routinely dog disadvantaged kids -- challenges that remain conspicuously absent from the fairy tale narrative. And so it shouldn't come as a shock that these aspiring altruists view public schools as irrevocably malevolent entities.

To his credit, Guggenheim admits to recently having his epiphany. While dropping his daughters off at (private) school, the filmmaker concedes in a recent NPR interview of creeping feelings of guilt while driving past some of the more ominous-looking LA school sites. Not quite enough guilt to send his own kids there, mind you, but just enough to bury those individuals he deems responsible for such an unconscionable charade.

Then, in a recent Time piece, Guggenheim, whose blistering film has him entrenched as one of the more prominent voices of the reform movement, is pictured at home, reading to his two grade-school-age daughters in a well-appointed living space. The younger one burrows into her father's side; the older one gazes up at him admiringly. In the background, bookshelves brim with Chekov, Eliot, Hemingway and what amounts to Phaidon's greatest hits. It's a portrait that's both beautiful and disheartening -- beautiful for its warmth and intimacy, disheartening because such an existence is completely alien to so many children who have no books on their living room shelves, no parent to read to them, no solace in the crook of a father's torso. Apparently blinded by his own good fortune, Guggenheim ironically fails to acknowledge the critical role that a nurturing, intellectually stimulating household plays in a child's cognitive development. Instead, in Superman, he blindly slams dilapidated schools, the unions, and the institution of public education, ad nauseum, while giving parents, school officials, and the economic and social conditions that produce intellectually hobbled children a free pass. It's discouraging: Guggenheim could have done something truly revolutionary. Instead, just like the rest of his reformist clique, he drank the Kool-Aid.