Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Save Our Schools: Revolt of the Moderates

The three main lines of critical pre-Save Our Schools spin were:

  • These people don't really have a clear agenda (Merrow).
  • These people have an idealized plan for something that has never existed in the real world (Mead).
  • These people have a hidden agenda (Quick and Ed).

With Linda Darling-Hammond leading off the main program, I'd say the overall policy thrust of the event was what Jal Mehta recently called the "international path:"

One possibility would be to follow the international leaders by making teaching a more selective and higher status profession, which would put the quality control upfront, and thus decrease the need for such extensive external testing and accountability. In terms of existing teachers, we'd seek to decrease the acrimony between teachers and their representatives and policymakers, and follow Ontario's lead in finding ways to combine internal expertise with external expertise and support to generate improved practice. We would also seek greater equalization of funding. This would require a radical shift in at least three ways: a) we'd move from taking teachers from the bottom 40 percent of the distribution to the top third; b) we'd move away from our world-leading emphasis on testing and external accountability in favor of support and capacity building; c) teachers unions would need to take on a professionalized role in addition to a strictly bread and butter one.

The idealistic vision of a school system unlike one that has ever existed belongs to the accountability hawks. This was a rally for, in broad terms, the kind of education system dozens of successful countries around the world have.

More bluntly, this was an anti-testing and punitive accountability rally. The theme was constant from Darling-Hammond's "Let them eat tests," to John Kuhn's vow to "march headlong into the teeth of your horrific blame machine" to Matt Damon's affirmation, "...none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success — none of these qualities that make me who I am ... can be tested."

As Diane Ravitch commented on Merrow's site:

To make improvement, you must first stop doing the wrong things, so it is necessary to name those wrong things: test-based accountability (aka high-stakes testing), rewards and punishments for test scores, privatization, and de-professionalization.

Especially when reformers in government find it easy to claim to have ample "common ground" when you start presenting your alternatives. Here RIDE has been simultaneously writing grants to pilot the exact type of programs they're hurriedly closing, citing examples of successes elsewhere that are inferior to similar local efforts that are being dismantled. They're in favor of almost everything (except tenure and a few other work rules). They just pursue those goals with a wide range of vigor.

But if you want detailed proposals, all the major speakers have many books you can read, or even better, look at the schools where they worked. These aren't just dreamers, they're doers.

I knew this wasn't going to be an impressively large rally. It really was grassroots. As Deborah Meier mentioned, a few people decided that there just had to be some kind of demonstration this summer in DC, so they just picked a date and went for it. It was a step in the right direction. A lot of teachers will see at least the Matt Damon videos over the next six months and know that the demonstration took place. The unions might decide to really get involved next year -- but nobody paying any attention to the AFT and NEA would think them willing or able to lead something like this.

It was primarily a networking event, and on that level I think it was more successful than most people will realize. Jennifer and I went with Jeff and Roxanna Elkner, and mostly chatted with Doyle during the demo and march. All of us ended up spontaneously meeting people from back home who we didn't know were coming or didn't know at all. Without really trying. I suspect that was a very common and potentially powerful experience.


doyle said...

Dear Tom,

You were too polite to shut me up as the speakers roared on. BTW, the mead was a lot smoother than mine--I either need to start aging it in oak casks, or let it sit more than a year or two.

You're right about the connections. This isn't going to fade away. I got a chance to sit next to Jose Vilson a couple of minutes yesterday. (Yeah, I talked too much again...) With people like him leading the way, we're in good shape for the long haul.

Next couple of years, though, ain't going to be pretty. As I said at the march, you're the best curator I know out there. Not sure you appreciate yet how much that's going to matter soon.

Not sure you don't, either.

Tom Hoffman said...

I left out the sentence about the "Doyle Test," which mean that each speaker had about 15 seconds to convince me that listening to him or her would be more interesting than talking to you. It is a pretty high bar.

So far I've tried one of the bottles of your blueberry mead. It's drier than I though mead could be, very refreshing!

Stephen Lazar said...

I had pretty much the same experience of the march. It was good to get some of the people I know through pedagogical connections together with some of my more activist comrades in the same place.