11/16/2010 06:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

All is Politics

I tell my students of the truth-seeker who trekked to the Himalayas searching for the meaning of life, only to be told "all is water." "All is water?" what does that mean. "All is not water?" was the reply.

In education, all is politics. But since the kids are watching, the type of politics we play in schools is crucial.

Joe Nocera praised outgoing New York City Chancellor Joel Klein for changing a school district based on politics and power into a system based on accountability, coherent management strategies, and competition. Nocera praised Klein for "hand-to-hand combat" with the teachers' union. If war is politics by other means, what is hand-to-hand combat? Are the politics of union-busting, of cut-throat business competition, and bureaucratic infighting not politics? Do Nocera and Klein not understand that the politics of "accountability" are politics?

Leadership is politics also. Leading a classroom is a political process, as is leading a school, or leading a system. The success of the educational politics depends on the consent of the kids to be educated, and their families. Power in schools does not reside solely in the hands of adults, and wise educators seek to empower their students and their colleagues. Schools educate children for democratic politics, not a command and control state. We should be preparing future citizens for more than being widgets in a corporate hierarchy.

Klein, Rhee, and the data-driven crowd must know that the politics of teacher evaluations are politics. The politics of "my way or the highway" are politics, also. Some evaluations are about effectiveness, while others are about power, and most evaluations in most professions are somewhere in between. And the politics of devising standardized tests and interpreting their results are politics. A neighborhood school principal in New York or the District of Columbia, for instance, who was politically tone deaf to their old bosses' contempt for progressive instruction that teaches students to "learn how to learn" might not be long for their district.

Klein and the Rheeocrats have appropriated the slash and burn politics of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. Let's not forget Rove's boast about NCLB being one of three tactics he was using to destroy the Democratic Party. The intent was to provoke a civil war between Democratic Party constituencies, with teachers, liberals, unions and people of color fighting each other.

If we seek to help kids, and not just destroy political opponents, school politics must return to an older type of progressive politics. I teach my students the censored version of the old maxim, that it is better to have a big tent with everyone urinating out, than having outsiders urinating in. The politics of inclusion are imperfect. The politics that respect our principles of a constitutional democracy are slow. The politics of divide and conquer are more effective in the short run. Scorched earth business politics might yield more immediate profits. In the long run, however, we must teach our children by example, and help them recognize that if we the people are too flawed to govern ourselves, we should question other humans who think they can manage our lives.