Who's Who in the Education Wars?

A recent blog post from Sam Chaltain suggested that what he terms "the battle of the edu-tribes" is finally nearing an end, and both sides of the reform debate (Mr. Chaltain calls them the "practitioners and the policy makers") have aligned around a particular vision of the future of schooling. Others, like my friend and fellow blogger, Nancy Flanagan, are not quite so sure that the conflict has been resolved, and question the perhaps "sanitized" version of events described by Mr. Chaltain.

 

Whether the war is actually coming to an end or not, it's useful for those on the front lines to know who they are actually fighting, and who is standing beside them in their daily struggles. It's become clear to me through many recent engagements with those on "the other side" of these debates that the "combatants" on each side share certain important characteristics that inform their beliefs, ideologies and loyalties.

The Deformers and the Guardians

 

Mr. Chaltain's descriptors for the two sides in the war on education are revealing, in that he sees a clear distinction between those who actually teach (the "practitioners"), and those who establish and enforce the rules and policies that govern that practice (the "policy makers"). Perhaps unintentionally, his labels also highlight a major flaw in our current education enterprise: public education policy is being written and administrated largely by persons who have not themselves attended public schools, have no degrees or certification in education, have never taught, and have spent little time in public schools. Whatever meager educational background that the members of what I term the Deformer "edu-tribe" may have is often accrued through alternative routes to the classroom (i.e., Teach for America, The New Teacher Project, the Michigan Teacher Corps), and their educational credentials are often received via online programs that require little or no actual teaching experience, residencies or interactions with other teachers or professors with actual teaching experience.

 

Many of the "foot soldiers" in the Deformer army wind up in high-level positions in state departments of education, policy think-tanks, on school boards and as leaders of high-profile charter school networks. They reach these positions of power and authority with shockingly little experience in classrooms, or working with children, but exert out-sized influence on the shape and nature of public education. These members of the Deformer "advance force" parrot a regressive agenda of union-busting, tenure-smashing, and teacher-demonizing, paired with an obsessive devotion to standardized testing, "data driven decision making", charter school expansion, and privatization as the "answers" to the "crisis in public education"--while remaining seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was their policies that manufactured the crisis they claim to be addressing, and which are paying off so handsomely for the investors who fund their charter schools and pay their generous salaries.

 

Supporting the efforts of the Deformer army are legions of well-educated, poorly-paid "deputy directors," "social media managers," and "communications interns," all of whom have been tasked with patrolling the blogosphere for anything even remotely critical of the Deformer agenda. None of these staff support personnel ever taught or hold education degrees--their sole purpose is to vigorously refute any posts or articles that are deemed "negative" or contrary to the Deformers' mission--which is to destabilize schools, demonize teachers, and privatize public education.

Many of these support staff work for outfits like the Education Post, a billionaire-funded anti-education website created purely for "pushing back" against critics of the Deformer agenda. The leader of the Education Post, Peter Cunningham, is in many ways the poster child for the Deformer cause. Mr. Cunningham holds a BA in philosophy from Duke and a masters in journalism from Columbia; he has no degrees in education, has never worked as a teacher, and yet ascended to the position of Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach in the U.S. Department of Education under Arne Duncan (who also never taught--see the pattern here?).

 

On the other side of the debate are what I refer to as the Guardians of public education. The members of this army largely consist of teachers, retired teachers, and teacher educators, most of whom have significant experience as classroom teachers, multiple degrees in education, and a career commitment to children, schools and education. Few Guardians entered the profession by alternative routes, instead earning their credentials in traditional colleges and universities, under the tutelage of professors who had themselves been classroom teachers before moving to higher education. Many of these activists earn graduate degrees in their chosen field--even as states now refuse to pay for additional degrees--and seek out weekend and summer professional development opportunities at their own expense in order to remain certified.

 

The activism practiced by these Guardians is not their sole focus as professionals--rather, these teachers blog at night after lessons have been planned, and kids put to bed, or on rare quiet weekend mornings and afternoons when a few minutes can be stolen from other tasks and responsibilities. And the conflict in which they are engaged is a non-linear war--they are  fighting not just the Deformers, but also their support staff in their underground bunkers, typing away on banks of sleek laptops as they push back against kindergarten teachers furiously hammering out their frustrated rants on the ridiculousness of testing 6 year olds, or 3rd grade teachers pointing out the illogic of retaining 8 year olds who struggle with reading.

 

While the Deformers are funded by the usual suspects in the education reform business (Broad, Walton, Gates), the Guardians are led by a 77 year old education history professor, Dr. Diane Ravitch. Like Mr. Cunningham, Dr. Ravitch was a former assistant secretary of education, but has now turned her professional energies towards leading the resistance to the Deformer agenda. Her self-published blog has now attracted over 24 million "hits," and has become a highly-respected and influential voice in the education debates.

 

The members of the Guardians come from the ranks of practicing and retired teachers, teacher educators and other professors, and parents concerned about the quality of education their children are receiving as a result of the Deformers' efforts. These writers and activists don't receive a penny for their efforts, in stark opposition to the Deformers' forces, who are stunningly well-compensated for their work. Instead, these bloggers often toil away in anonymity, providing a voice for the thousands of teachers that have been silenced for speaking out against the reform agenda.

 

Among the leading voices in the education debate for the Guardians are:

Despite Mr. Chaltains' claims, it appears that the education wars are far from over. The promise of billions of dollars in potential profits has proven too intoxicating to resist, and the Deformers are well-funded, emboldened, and buoyed by recent successes. The only thing standing in their way is a plucky band of part-time, volunteer activists who are committed to an agenda that includes:

  • every child having access to a rich curriculum, including music, art, physical education, and libraries
  • teachers not being rated and ranked by high-stakes evaluations based on student test scores
  • all schools being adequately funded, with well-maintained facilities and equipment for all programs
  • the elimination of for-profit charter schools, and ensuring that all charters that receive public funding are held accountable and governed by the same rules and regulations that pertain to all other public schools
  • the forceful defeat of efforts to privatize the public schools 

Until that time, the Guardians will be around to defend and support our children, our teachers and our public schools.

 

 

 

 

Write a comment

Comments: 29
  • #1

    David Burks (Saturday, 17 October 2015 21:32)

    The madness has to end. Stop blaming teachers for political failure!

  • #2

    Debbie Rakestraw (Sunday, 18 October 2015 08:40)

    Good descriptions. Anyone listening?

  • #3

    Amy Flatt (Sunday, 18 October 2015 15:39)

    It's David verses Goliath but it's not hopeless. I proposed a method to test the efficacy of teacher evaluations based on test scores this week. I can clearly see these scores have very little relavance to the teacher and much more to the burdens the children are carrying. We have got to lower the poverty rate or we are going to lose any hope of a bright future.

  • #4

    Lance Fialkoff (Monday, 19 October 2015 00:52)

    Ed. resistance is winning the blogging war (guardians are pretty much all bloggers foremost), and getting butt kicked on every other front. Unsurprising, and not very auspicious for the future of public ed.

  • #5

    J. Chaffee (Tuesday, 27 October 2015 08:28)

    Don't forget the Opt-Out Movement. They are a powerful voice which it is increasingly difficult for the Deformers to ignore. They are all "volunteers," but they are organized, informed, and growing in numbers.

  • #6

    Laura H. Chapman (Tuesday, 27 October 2015 08:41)

    I count myself among the guardians. Thanks for your voice and good work.

  • #7

    Judy Palac (Tuesday, 27 October 2015 10:20)

    Articulate as always! I have a name to add to your "leading voices" list--Mitch Robinson!!! Thank you, Mitch!

  • #8

    Duane Swacker (Tuesday, 27 October 2015 10:33)

    And there are many more bloggers, activists, parents, students and teachers like Laura Chapman, who is one of the most astute commentators on these educational "wars" around-Peggy Robertson being another. And there are many many more. The "guardians" have the numbers and truth on their side while the "deformers" have the oligarchs-money and media on theirs. The truth will win in the end!

    What's interesting about the "Davids"-the practicioners-in this fight for the future of free, open to all,and democratically run public community schools is that, having met with most of them at the NPE conferences, they are down to earth, down home, humble individuals who have taken it upon themselves to do battle with the "Goliaths" of the edudeformer world. They didn't start the fight but they surely will help end it in favor of the everyday Joe and Jane students who are suffering mightily under the educational standards and standardized testing malpractices, the quantification and monitization of public education by/of the supposed "elite" policy makers.

  • #9

    Wilma de Soto (Tuesday, 27 October 2015 15:16)

    Brilliant blog post! I count myself as one of The Guardians. The great storm is about to hit us with a vengeance as a result of President Obama's alleged test reduction plan.

    It is glaringly obvious this 'plan' has been in the works for some time. The new buzzwords are "Competency-based Learning", which has used students and teachers as Guinea pigs in at least three study trials. What this would set the stage for would be the eventual replacement of teachers with technology. After all, computers don't require a union, do they?

    It ascribes heavily to the "Good Child/Bad Adult", school of thinking, that children will learn much better if we adults would just get lost.

    Unfortunately, the folks making these policies and the technology companies which would benefit financially from this "new"approach, don't know a thing about children and what makes them tick, and won't listen to those who do. Children actually look to adults for guidance and structure and are not as self-reliant and motivated as these policy makers seem to think. That is not a slur against children, it's just who they are.

    A lot of them will founder and eventually with illegal intervention by the teacher, come to an answer or completion of a project after spending weeks on it, that a teacher could have taught them in a couple of class periods. High-needs students will founder even more as many lack schema to build upon.

    This war is not over by a long shot!

  • #10

    Sarrand (Wednesday, 28 October 2015 14:11)

    I see smaller classes as a part of this too

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