THE BLOG
11/05/2014 05:35 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

Lessons of the Democrats' Midterm Fall

Teachers have learned a lesson the hard way, and it should not be lost on the Democratic Party, the Obama administration, or Hillary Clinton. We now understand how hard it is to do our job, and serve our students with one hand, as we fend off test-driven reform with the other.

Hopefully, our opponents are also becoming aware of the impossibility of winning their two-front campaign. Corporate reformers will have to choose between defeating teachers and unions, or the single-minded focus on school improvement that our children deserve.

Similarly, the Democrats must ask whether we can ever unite if our education civil war continues unabated. Do we want to continue as Scott Walker-lite, beating up public sector unions in order to show we are tough? Some (in both parties) yearn for a Scott Walker 2.0, going for the kill against the teachers and unions who resisted their market-driven theories of school reform. But, the White House should not see our "teacher wars" as a tactic to be further emulated and scaled up. Hopefully, Democrats will see the need to broker a truce between corporate reformers and teachers.

It is time for progressives to stop worrying about being seen as wimps, and grabbing at "Sister Soldja" gimmicks of beating up on loyal allies in order to seem tough. Voters are appalled by the politics of destruction. They would like to see us get our own house in order and work for solutions.

If President Obama can find time to deal with education issues, he will discover that we have numerous advantages in deescalating the battle between the two factions -- Democrats who should have never fought each other. Teachers just want to teach. We didn't ask for a bubble-in mania to sweep through our schools and impose teach-to-the-test malpractice on our classrooms. Neither do we have plans to ravish Silicon Valley and Billionaires Row on the Chicago South Shore and destroy their corporations.

Similarly, reformers didn't begin their crusade with the intent of destroying the teaching profession and/or imposing nonstop drill and kill on poor children of color. Yes, many or most got a kick out of their macho mantra. They pledged to destroy the education "status quo," school boards, education schools, and teachers' unions. Top down reformers started with Clinton-style spin, however, seeking just enough hardball politics to defeat but not fatally undermine unions. They a sought to impose just enough high stakes testing to undercut the professional autonomy of teachers, so that we could not oppose their "disruptive" innovation and visions of "transformational" change.

Test, sort, and punish has failed to improve schools, and it has turned teachers into injured and angry momma bears. We've seen how the poison of high stakes testing has drenched our schools. We're not going to allow competition-driven reformers to continue to spew the venom that was originally aimed at us on our kids. Moreover, students and parents have joined to fight to reclaim our classrooms.

Better still, many or most reformers are saddened by the way that reform conflicts spun out of control, pitting liberal versus liberal, generation versus generation, and civil rights advocate versus civil rights advocate. Many reformers understand that it is time to turn the page.

Most Democrats should also realize the folly of the latest assault on unions and teachers' rights. If the anti-tenure Vergara lawsuit and its spawn win, they must understand that corporate reformers won't take up the fallen union banner and fight for equality and the welfare of workers.

Of course, some reformers (especially those who know schools and students only in the abstract) will seek to ratchet up their attacks on neighborhood schools and the teachers inside them. Their strategy only makes sense if they have decided to put school improvement on hold, and concentrate completely on a two-fisted assault on the educators who oppose their theories. And, President Obama would have leverage in urging them to dial down their vendetta.

If the president and the Democratic Party want to negotiate a truce, they would not have to ask blood-in-their-eyes corporate reformers to think anew about their adult opponents/enemies. Democrats could just insist that accountability hawks stop slandering their constituencies. The administration should jawbone reformers, telling them that if they want to be a part of a school improvement coalition, they must stop their high-dollar publicity campaign and quit attacking the integrity of educators who disagree with them.

If some in the Billionaires Boys Club remain so convinced of their own righteousness that they still feel compelled to condemn persons who are loyal Democrats, whose unions have long proven their commitment to justice, then they should take their money and find another cause, some other arena for using incentives and disincentives to advance their agenda.

Elite reformers must also realize that sometimes, regardless of their deep pockets, they can't get everything they want. I campaigned for President Obama in 2007, and was deeply disappointed when he placed NCLB-type testing on steroids. Despite his education policies, I remain a loyal supporter. I would like to support Elizabeth Warren, but if Hillary gets the nomination, of course, I will enthusiastically support her. I remain hopeful that reformers, who still seem to be sincere about wanting to improve schools, will become open to collaboration with persons who they disagree with. (But, then again, I don't expect to get everything I want...)

For most teachers, and most reformers, the lesson of our wasted opportunities to improve schools should be obvious. We can't successfully fight the educational legacies of poverty and oppression with our left hands and fight each other with our right hands. We need a moratorium on policies and politics where some can benefit, but only when others lose. For the next two years, we should commit our resources to win win approaches. If President Obama could help defuse this conflict that so threatens Democratic unity, he will be providing a great service for the next Democratic presidential candidate, and her efforts to improve our schools.