Fix schools or fix communities? “From an outsider’s perspective, one of the most frustrating aspects of the education policy debate is that both sides are right,” notes The Atlantic Monthly’s Clay Risen. “It seems bafflingly obvious that change must come both inside and outside the classroom,” he writes on the Democrats for Education Reform blog. It’s a must-read.
A backstory is required. Risen wrote a major profile of Washington, DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee in last November’s Atlantic Monthly. In the new issue, there’s a letter from the University of Michigan’s Susan Neuman, a former Bush administration education official, arguing that Risen’s piece “left readers with the mistaken impression that [Rhee and other school leaders] must make a false choice between quality teachers and ‘extras.” She also writes ”there is only so much a quality teacher, adequate classroom supplies, and caring administrators can accomplish.”
The Atlantic typically allows its writers to respond to letters and Risen replied in print that Neuman is “undoubtedly correct that improving teacher quality and improving a student’s social milieu are not mutually exclusive, and are both important means to improve student outcomes. However, education policy is not made in a vacuum, and cannot be. This is where so much of education policy breaks down: there is, sadly, a broadening gulf between teacher-quality advocates and those aligned with ‘A Broader, Bolder Approach.’ Arguably, the answer lies in a mixture of the two. Whether we can find that answer depends much more on improving our education politics than on improving our education policy.” (ital mine)
Risen’s reply caught the attention of former newspaperman Joe Williams, now head honcho of Democrats for Education Reform. Knowing that space is at a premium in print, Joe asked Risen to expand on his reply in the Atlantic’s letters section. Risen notes that the “Broader, Bolder” group and the Joel Klein and Al Sharpton led Education Equality Project are both working toward the same goal and with policies that should be mutually compatible, yet find themselves at odds politically. Says Risen:
Rhee and Co. are, in my view, too eager to reject policies that addresses anything other than teacher quality and too hostile toward anything that smacks of establishment thinking, from unions to teacher colleges. And they’re not entirely wrong–I fear that while many of the signatories to EPI’s “A Broader, Bolder Approach” manifesto are well-intentioned (the list, after all, includes Education Secretary Arne Duncan), too often this wing of the education sector falls into the role of stalking horse for those who prefer the status quo to the disruptive changes that true reform would bring.
Thus a painful paradox: At a moment when education policy is making real strides, our education politics is stuck in a narrow, short-sighted, antagonistic framework in which each side would rather paint the other as anti-student than admit that it might actually have something to contribute. That’s the irony of Michelle Rhee: As a policy thinker and a force for change she is precisely what Washington needs, but she is so politically untuned, so antagonistic toward unions and teacher colleges and the City Council and anything else that might require negotiation and compromise, that she is preventing her policy vision from being realized.
Sound familiar? In selecting Arne Duncan, who signed on to both ed manifestos as his Education Secretary, President-Elect Obama “understands the need to bring all sides to the table,” Risen believes, “not to minimize dissent but because everyone has something to contribute.” But each side, he says will have to “concede certain policy principles.”
While teacher accountability is a vital element of reform, for example, it is vital to recognize that teachers are also workers, parents, and taxpayers, not automatons who can be expected to sacrifice everything to student achievement. Nor should we expect them to build lasting relationships with their students if they are spending all their time worried about their job security. While some aspects of teacher tenure and job protections should be relaxed, making them at-will employees is asking too much. On the flip side, teachers need to recognize that they are not just another class of workers, and that they cannot always make the same demands that, say, teamsters do. Districts need the flexibility to demand a little extra from them, even if it means longer hours.
It’s a political truism that conservatives seek out converts, while progressives hunt down heretics. The party labels notwithstanding, it sometimes seems the same is true in education debates–too much concern with heresy, not enough with efficacy. Risen’s “bafflingly obvious” perspective deserves a hearing. And kudos to Joe Williams and DFER for giving Risen the space to say what needed to be said.