Addressing a group of civil rights leaders and advocates at this week's meeting of the Urban League, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan accused people who criticize his Race to the Top grants and other education policies of being "intentionally misleading or profoundly misinformed." As highlighted by Paul here at Open Left the other day, President Obama immediately reinforced the message by scolding critics of his education reforms for making "a fuss" over something that shouldn't be seen as "controversial." Then, to complete the triumvirate, the supposed progressives at the Center for American Progress castigated Congress and anyone else who would dare lay a finger on the Obama administration's Race to the Top and other "reforms."
As Paul explained yesterday, what's seldom discussed - not only among leaders of the Democratic party but also in the progressive community - is the actual "evidence" for and against the dangerous proposals being championed by those who consider themselves to be "on the left" of America's political spectrum. Instead people on the left are generally in denial about issues of race and class that are at the heart of the matter. And educators themselves are being played for suckers by the Democratic establishment.
Nowhere was this situation more painfully obvious to me than at last week's Netroots Nation conference in Las Vegas. As lots of lip service was being paid to "saving teachers' jobs," not much of anything in the agenda addressed the destructive education policies of the Obama administration. Of course, lots of presenters had high-minded declarations about the importance of schools to democracy and the progressive cause. But no one had anything particularly progressive to say about the direction of school reform.
As news came out during the conference that another 241 teachers were being fired by Washington, DC's autocratic chancellor Michele Rhee for being "ineffective," no one of any prominence at the meeting pointed out the blatant unfairness of the Obama administration's push to evaluate teachers on the basis of students' scores on standardized tests.
In fact, an attendee I was having coffee with as the news broke was absolutely gleeful about it. "There are too many bad teachers," she explained to me while coolly scrolling through the headlines on her Blackberry, "And they're never made accountable for anything."
At the conference's Education Caucus, which all too symbolically never made it to the final agenda distributed to attendees as they arrived, educators exhorted the progressive blogosphere to push politicians in DC to pass the "edujobs" bill to save hundreds of thousand of teaching positions, a prospect, by the way, that seemed incredibly remote even as the declarations were being made.
The NEA's terrific spoksperson Lily Eskelsen informed the caucus crowd about the vagaries of for-profit education entrepreneurs, the creeping corporate influence on local schools, and out of control charters. And D Kos education blogger annie em backed her up with information about the corrupt Imagine charter schools chain. Yet in the ensuing discussion, a frontpage blogger from MotherTalkers (sorry, didn't get your name) explained how much her audience "like charter schools."
So as the rest of Netroots Nation rolled along on the general affirmations of the first year-and-a-half of the Obama presidency, all of us who care about public schools were left talking among ourselves about the abyss that we all too clearly see our country's school children heading toward.
But when your message isn't getting through, it's never a good idea just to blame the audience. You can have all the facts of the matter at hand, but when facts go up against feeling, you're going to lose every time. So all of us who care about public schools to retool to better engage an audience that has too long looked the other way.
Due to events since Netroots Nation, it could be that the "cat is now out of the bag", as Paul maintained on Friday. Even though the criticisms civil rights leaders aimed at the Obama administration's education policies withered in the face of an actual confrontation, they may have succeeded in at least put civil rights as the frame for the pushback against these policies. Which of course, it is.
Arne Duncan was correct when he declared that education was "the civil rights issue of our time." Unfortunately, he happens to be on the wrong side of it. His clulessness, and that of most other people on the left who support his policies, is steeped in the culture of their context. While they would stand by their claim that it's admirable to turn schools which poor black and brown kids attend into test-taking factories because that's the type of education that's best for "those kids," they would never want to send their own children to such institutions.
"Ignored is the fact that there is a three-tiered system of schooling in the U.S. . . . The top two tiers (which over half of U.S. students attend) are considered by most parents to be either good or good enough for their children. In the third tier, however, big city and rural schools enrolling mostly poor and minority students have largely failed to educate children and youth. Surely, the three tiered system is obvious for anyone with 20/20 vision living in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and other metropolitan areas, particularly to parents who shop around for schools to send their children.
What is also plain to see but is seldom mentioned by policy elites and 24/7 media is the constant conflating of urban and rural failing schools with all U.S. schools. Such a mindless mistake propagates misinformation and sustains a 'crisis' mentality that continually bashes teachers and undermines trust in public schools. Large foundations, enamored by the romance of gritty urban schools, have profited and furthered the idea of a systemic 'crisis' by failing to distinguish between urban low-performing schools and those many schools in the top two tiers that meet parental demands, have low dropout rates, and send over 90 percent of their graduates to college."
(h/t Core Knowledge Blog)
That the political leadership of our country - even when the top person is black - is pushing policies that are antithetical to the equality of children of different races and income levels should not be a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, and especially not to anyone at Netroots Nation who heard Tim Wise explain all too clearly how an antiracist analysis has to remain at the heart the progressive agenda because popular notions about public institutions, like schools, are positive among the white majority until those institutions bcome more populated by students who happen not to be white.
Also critical to more effectively pushing back against the Obama administration's education agenda is for educators to see to some extent that they are being played for suckers in the media. Even as Duncan and Obama appeared to be pressing for money for teacher's jobs - as it became more and more obvious that the Congress would be resistant to funding those jobs - they were working on the other end of the spectrum to use opposition to teachers unions as a way of placating business interests. From Politico:
"Going into November's elections, the administration is now actively trying to counter critics who contend Obama shows an 'anti-business' attitude. The teacher unions make a convenient foil, and Emanuel has argued that business should respect Obama's willingness to stand up for education reform at the expense of labor."
(h/t Rick Hess)
Of course, all of us who care about public schools should lobby the government to provide funds for saving teachers' jobs. But if this is about "the children" then lett's make the argument based on what losing jobs will do to children. For instance, during the education caucus at NN, Lily pointed out that a high school senior who needs to take a second year of foreign language in order to qualify for the college he wants gets royally screwed when the French teacher gets canned for budget reasons. More examples like this please!
Also, all of us who care about public schools need to do a better job of making our case for jobs at the local level, all the while understanding that only about a third of the audience we're talking to even has kids of school age. We need to remind them that what's at stake is the success of a future generation who will be paying their social security and medicare.
So as a new school year is just around the corner, are we also approaching a corner in the debate on education reform? With New York's standardized test-based "success" now becoming exposed as a fraud, and with the racism and classism of the Obama administration's policies being openly discussed in the media, are we witnessing an awakening in the progressive movement?
As Paul explained, "Readers of Open Left know very well who is 'intentionally misleading or profoundly misinformed.' So let's get the word out.