The Michelle Rhee/Jeb Bush/Rick Scott and a Tea Party /Chris Christie/Joel Klein school of reform are showing their true colors. As they have formed a united front, the choices faced by parents and the Obama Administration are more clear. These "reformers" still go through the motions of proclaiming "children first." But with Rhee's new "frontal attack on the educational status quo," we can better evaluate whether their true love is battling other adults.
As the accountability hawks adopt a shared message, we can better ask whether they are the type of people who we trust with our children. Do we feel comfortable with crusaders like Rhee who now praises the Republican landslide election for shifting our "ideological balances?" Do we want to place our children in the hands of true believers who are so completely convinced that they hold a monopoly on righteousness? Or to borrow the mature phrase of Governor Christie when he kicked off his campaign against teachers "If they'd like to conduct themselves differently, I'll conduct myself differently."
Rhee, Klein, and many others care for students, but we should consider whether the fervor of their convictions is so intense that it liberates them to adopt scorched earth tactics that should be beyond the pale. I would argue that the common denominator for these "reformers" is sharing the values of Klein's boss, Rupert Murdoch. Because the wisdom of Klein's "at the education barricades" ideology seems so self-evident, the data-driven crowd has adopted an "ends justify the means" strategy. In order to promote children's interests, they claim, "adult interests," or people who see things differently, must be destroyed.
Now that the axis of accountability has formed an united front, it will be easier to ask parents whether they want their children's schools to be such a battleground. Do parents want to take the risk that the toxicity that Rhee, Klein, and company dump on the "status quo," will not flow down and poison their children's learning?
Now that the Michelle Rhee/Jeb Bush/Rick Scott/Tea Party /Chris Christie/Joel Klein alliance has a shared persona, Arne Duncan has been handed a golden opportunity. Even though Duncan has largely tilted toward the teach-the-standardized test crowd, he has tried to maintain a balance. Duncan must know that turning around schools while fighting a war against teachers is just as futile as seeking reelection after insulting teachers and unions, not to mention parents who want more than a diet of bubble-in testing for their children, to the point where the Democratic base stays home.
Duncan presumably believes that the Obama Administration could win over the billionaires by beating up on loyal Democrats. He has adopted the pseudo-tough tactic of demonizing teachers and unions to curry favor with conservatives. Duncan should now distinguish between a school "culture of accountability," with the belief that politics and compromise are the main problems in education, and the maxim of "you are not the problem; I am not the problem; the problem is the problem."
Now is the time to return to the traditional American value of the "loyal opposition." The Secretary of Education must affirm that in American democracy "my opponent is my opponent, not my enemy." Hardball politics are fine, but we should not try to destroy persons for believing differently. Secretary Duncan could remind education reformers that the spirit of democracy is not so all-fired sure that it is right.
If Duncan rejected simple certainty of the Rhee/ Bush/ Scott/ Christie/Klein faith that they are on the side of the angels, and sought compromises with reality-based adults, previously known as "adult interests," it also could help the Obama Administration regain its footing. Who other than educators and education advocates would be better prepared to lead a respectful conversation about the future we want for our schools and for America? Is it not the job of educators to prepare our children for life in a democracy? Let us start now by modeling a constructive debate over the best ways to prepare our children for citizenship in the 21st century.
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