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Richard Whitmire

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Education Debate Taking a Downward Turn

Posted: 07/07/11 11:36 AM ET

Less than a year ago, as I was finishing a book on Michelle Rhee, the combative former chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., the time arrived to set up a website for the book. The website designer asked if I wanted to include reader comments. It was a sensible suggestion. That's what writers do to spark reader debate and boost book sales.
My answer: No thanks.

While reporting the book, I had monitored the comment sections in other publications as reporters wrote about hot-button education topics, including Rhee. These commentators were nasty -- I'm talking abortion-debate-level nastiness.

How did that happen? For years, education politics were noteworthy mostly for their earnestness. In other words, they were boring.

Sure, there were flareups between "reformers" and teachers unions, but generally the tone of the discourse was civil and there was genuine curiosity in understanding opposing views.

Today, that's mostly gone. What's left are take-no-prisoners commentaries and name-calling.

As an author writing about Rhee, one of education's most polarizing figures, one might expect I would experience this vitriol. But I'm hardly alone. Time contributor Amanda Ripley is a relative newcomer to education issues. "I spent my career writing about everything from abortion to terrorism to prisons, but none of these things compared to education," Ripley told me. "The nastiest emails I've ever gotten have been about education."

Last year Ripley wrote a lengthy Atlantic piece about the research Teach for America conducted on which teachers turn out to be the most effective in the classroom. Interesting stuff.

But few readers within the education world cared. What mattered was whether Teach for America, a group disliked by many traditional teachers (they resent the popular image of freshly minted teachers from elite colleges parachuting into classrooms to "save" our education system) was portrayed in a flattering light.

"In the education bubble, these education stories are read for one purpose, to see whether they support or defy your own narrative," said Ripley. "You're either with us or against us. What bothered me was that some of these people, who have significant influence on the lives our kids, seem to have lost all curiosity about this complex subject. That's ironic, given they work in a field that should value curiosity."

How did education become one of the most polarized debates in American politics? The groundwork got laid in 2001 with George W. Bush's signature education law, No Child Left Behind. The Bush line that resonated -- the "soft bigotry of low expectations" -- made it clear who possessed those low expectations: teachers.

From the perspective of many teachers, the law simultaneously targeted them as culprits and made their lives miserable with layer upon layer of standardized testing.

As a candidate for president, Barack Obama briefly made the teachers hopeful with the appointment of education insider Linda Darling-Hammond as his campaign education adviser. The teachers unions, knowing she represented the "safe" side of improving schools, working within the system to make it better, embraced her.

School reformers saw in Darling-Hammond a threat. She had dared to criticize Teach for America, the holy grail of reformers who think the current system needs shaking up with radical improvements in teacher quality. She had to be stopped.

What ensued were months of close-in combat waged on blogs and Op-Ed pages, battles for the heart and soul of Obama's emerging education agenda. In the end, Darling-Hammond was denied the throne. But the bloodletting will be neither forgotten nor forgiven.

Briefly, the unions took comfort in Arne Duncan's appointment as education secretary. Duncan seemed safe enough, but his agenda of offering states gigantic carrots to do things the teachers unions abhor, such as opening up more charter schools and imposing real teacher evaluations, set the unions on considerable edge.

This is happening under a Democratic president? Unthinkable.

In fact, Duncan was a mere middle-of-the-roader compared to Joel Klein in New York or Michelle Rhee in Washington. Rhee rushed through reforms so fast, the unions hardly knew how to fight back: real teacher evaluations that used student test scores and a performance pay system that attempted to reward the better teachers. Most controversial was her willingness to fire teachers she deemed to be ineffective.

War was declared.

Meanwhile, billionaire reformers -- Bill Gates, Eli Broad and Michael Bloomberg -- were seen as aggressively applying business principles, such as accountability, to schools. Conspiracy theories abounded. It was all about privatization!

There's no going back. From the perspective of most teachers, poverty explains education problems. A valid point. Reformers insist that school quality, especially effective teaching, can make a sizable dent in the learning inequities we see across the lines of race and income. Also a valid point.

Mostly, however, the two sides no longer engage about their differences. They just glare and shout.

Abortion has nothing on education, except bumper stickers. And I can only assume those are in production.

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Whitmire, past president of the National Education Writers Association, is the author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes On The Nation's Worst School District.