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How Do We Build Schools Worthy of Our Democracy?

01/03/2013 02:56 pm ET | Updated Mar 05, 2013

The conservative Fordham Institute's "Turnaround Merry-Go-Round: Is the Music Stopping?" featured a discussion with the Education Department's Carmel Martin, "edu-wonk" Andy Smarick, and former superintendent Jean-Claude Brizzard. No teachers' voices were heard.

Moderator Chester Finn asked if anything good in education is sustainable. He especially doubted the survivability of reforms that are wrenched from bad situations. In other words, Finn questioned whether it is possible for the government to mandate enduring excellence. He might have also asked whether corporate reformers can coerce schools into creating respectful learning cultures.

The answer should be obvious. We cannot social engineer schools that are dramatically more equitable than our society. Sustainable gains must be inextricably rooted in the strengths of our constitutional democracy. Lasting improvements must be organically connected to an open society which prizes the exchange of ideas. The following are antithetical to the Fordham panel's positions and the Duncan administration's turnaround experiment, but they are sustainable.

The Golden Rule. It makes no sense for School Improvement Grants, Race to the Top, and the NCLB waivers to spur a competition (which even funds the most strident opponents of public education) to do unto teachers and unions what Democrats would not ordinarily have the stomach to do unto anyone. The DOE's Martin was full of excuses for the inherent flaws in the SIG. She was open to toughening the law that encourages the dismissal of half or more of a school's teachers. But, Martin did not offer to fire half of her staff if SIG continues to underperform.

Power Corrupts. Brizzard would end our checks and balances on principals. He admitted that the principals' "bench" is thin. His answer is to give absolute power to those benchwarmers. If school leaders fail to increase test scores, presumably, they would be quickly fired. Surely, under-the-gun principals would not be corrupted by the temptation to narrow the curriculum, mandate nonstop test prep, drive out struggling students, and to otherwise "juke the stats."

The Liberal Arts, the Scientific Method, and peer review. The panel barely backtracked on the faith-based foundation of test-driven "reform" -- the silver bullet known as "teacher quality." On the contrary, they sought a toughening of turnaround models that encourage the firing of teachers who embrace the social science that questions whether instruction-driven policies can overcome intense concentrations of extreme poverty. Veteran educators, who want to provide wraparound social services before buying whatever curriculum de jour is that being peddled by the latest consultants, can be driven out so they do not contaminate 23-year-olds with "high expectations." Under SIG, educators who question the mandated curriculum can be dismissed a "culture killers." After all, the founding principle of turnarounds is that "everyone must be on the same page."

The panel all assumed that charter management organizations are essential to turnarounds at scale. I doubt they mourn the downward pressure that CMOs place on teachers' wages. The bigger issue, I suspect, is their role in creating schools where educators are too young to remember a time when the liberal arts were welcome in schools and education research was respected. After all, we Baby Boomers remember school policies that were sometimes subjected to peer review. And, we can also recall an era when students' were allowed to engage in class discussions, enjoy project-based learning, and otherwise deviate from the aligned and paced curriculum.

I know that a call for schools that are worthy of a modern democracy will be dismissed as naïve. It is the situational ethics of "reformers," who are imposing collective punishment on educators, however, that are unrealistic. Take away teachers' due process protections and our freedom to express our professional judgments, and schools will attract better talent because ...? That is tantamount to killing civil service protections, so that their replacements at the DOE will no longer let politics intrude into policy-making. If turnarounds fail to produce double-digit test score gains and, consequently, the careers of two of the four Fordham panelists are ended, will that produce a more far-sighted exchange of educational ideas?

Like it or not, the first rule of education policy is "the feces rolls downhill." The use of standardized testing to hold teachers accountable will inevitably result in that poison being dumped on kids. Even if turnarounds and other data-driven reforms had worked in the last two decades, we should think twice about the hypothesis that the way to help poor kids is to hurt their teachers.

Any way you cut it, the only path to sustainable school improvement will always sound naïve. We cannot strip from teachers the rights enjoyed by all other Americans under the pretense that it is just a temporary expedient which will last only until we have obtained a higher good. We cannot impose the type of rote instruction on poor children of color that we would not allow for our own children. We must commit to real equity where poor students are exposed to the earnest exchange of ideas. All students must be educated for life in a 21st century democracy.