"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Former TFA/KIPP Teacher: "Why I don't believe in 'reform'"

An interesting blog post from Education News Colorado:

Why I don't believe in "reform"

By: Marc Waxman

September 7th, 2010

Marc Waxman has been an educator for 17 years, including 12 in New York City, and the last two in Denver.

I don’t believe. I wish I could believe. I am supposed to believe. But, I don’t. I don’t believe in education “reform” in our country.

I don’t believe charter schools are a panacea, I don’t believe that linking student achievement to teacher evaluation will significantly impact education, and for that matter, I don’t believe student achievement” should be the ultimate goal of education in our country.

I am supposed to believe in all this, especially if you look at my resume and follow the major media discussion of education “reform.” Let me explain.

When I graduated from college in 1994 I joined Teach For America. I taught two years in Paterson, NJ (made famous by Joe “Batman” Clark from Eastside High School – which was just across the street from the 1,000-student K-8 school where I taught. After my two years of TFA service I became one of the first teachers and administrators at KIPP in the South Bronx. After three years at KIPP, I spent the next nine years co-founding and co-directing a new school in Harlem which started as a school-within-a school, was part of a take-over of a failing school that was closed, became an official New York City public school, and then converted to become one of only five conversion charter schools in NYC.

[Continued here]

The rest is certainly worth reading. Mr. Waxman presents the following Dewey quote before concluding by asking readers, "what's your vision of a good education?":
What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information… if in the process an individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur?
The next lightbulb that may come on for Mr. Waxman (and let's hope it does) is that the supporters of the reform movement he sees as leading us astray push their agenda because they're incapable of viewing education from this point of view: the conservatives (and so-called "liberals" or "progressives" like Whitney Tilson) who shun anything Dewey or go so far as to label his book one of the most dangerous pieces of work out there; the assorted neoliberal reformers (which includes New Democrats, neocons, and Libertarians) that use business rhetoric and practices to minimize and eventually eliminate the possibility of anything but testing dungeons (or "Dickensian prisons"); and the Tea Party-slash-religious right that irrationally fears public schools would teach communism/socialism, anti-American values, and, in general, enter into territory that only the church or family should venture if public schools were to operate in a more Dewey-esque manner. To these folks, all that really matters is test scores. A section of this crowd masquerading as "progressives" (ie the New Democrats, DFER crowd, and Gates/Broad foundations) may incorporate, like Duncan, some of the rhetoric about a well-rounded education, art classes, small classes, strong teacher-student relationships, and the disdain for fill in the bubble tests, but their actions consistently point in the opposite direction. It's really a rhetorical coup, and one the right wing is happy to watch silently unfold over the past 20 years (although they'll slip up and show their approval of the reform crowd every now and then, as Checker recently did here).

It may also strike Mr. Waxman that looking at education from a critical perspective - who gets what kind of education and why - opens up a bag of questions that the backers mentioned above cannot and will not ask themselves or society as a whole. That suits the prostisuits in various sectors just fine, leaving it to parents, a handful of advocacy groups, teachers, and children to advocate for a system of public education that philosophers like Dewey dare to ask.

A final question - and one I certainly do not have an answer for - is this: how do we build a coalition to counter those pushing us in the wrong direction? I look at it this way: We don't have the backing of billion-dollar philanthrocapitalists, hedge fund managers, political leadership in either political party, or the mainstream media outlets, but we may have to mimic some of their techniques, strategies, and methods. We may have to pull in non-educational groups to forge alliances. We certainly need to use social media to make connections and strategize. But I'm at a loss at how to go about doing such work, and this is hardly an exhaustive list of what it'd take to push back against those thrusting us in the wrong direction (including, unfortunately, the first President in a long time with a chance* of actually doing something good for education).

* President Obama's rhetoric in the Presidential campaign gave us every indication that he'd do what he's doing now: push charters, merit pay tied to test scores, competition, and the rest of the stuff his administration has done. Still, it was possible that he was just using that as a rhetorical tool to neutralize McCain's "reform" friendly agenda and convince centrist that he wouldn't walk hand-in-hand with the unions.

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