School Reform and Patriotism

Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meiers co-star on one of the most popular education blogs, Bridging Differences, which seeks to find consensus (in an epistolary format) on education reform issues. It’s unclear at this point if the two eminent education historians produce any sort of counterpoint – if there is a bridge between them it’s a mighty short bridge indeed – but Ravitch more stridently makes the case for teacher unions, against the unreliability of student and teacher performance data, and in general spews bile against charter school “edu-entrepreneurs” whom are in it, she says, just for the money.

Meiers takes a more moderate, thoughtful approach than her rock star-pen pal and asks good questions about how to reconcile the urgency of instant rescue for kids trapped in failing schools with the long-term needs of poor communities.

From Meiers’ last post:
Progressive educators—in my definition of the term—are often accused of favoring very "unstructured" school environments. I've always said that it's quite the opposite. In traditional schools, the only structure is "keep your eye on the teacher and do as she says." In a progressive classroom, one needs much more explicit structures in order to insure that learning is not sacrificed to freedom, that the available choices are healthy ones, and that the rights of both the larger community and the individual are kept in balance.

That’s it right there: “the rights of both the larger community and the individual.” Somehow ed reformers are under indictment for violating the necessarily slow and incremental progress of chronically failing schools. If we respected the rights of the larger community, if we, in Meiers’ words, valued “the connections between democracy and schooling which so absorbed our founding fathers,” then we’d fight insurgent charter schools that merely “cream off” kids with aspiring parents and leave the rest to rot. If we respected the rights of the larger community, then all advocates for reshaping our public education system – Barack and Michelle Obama included – would send their own kids to neighborhood public schools. (The Obamas’ school choice for their children is a frequent target on “Bridging Differences.”) If we respected the rights of the larger community, then in New Jersey we’d let the Abbott money flow, regardless of impact, because it’s undemocratic to privilege the rights of the individual student over the rights of the whole city.

This is how the anti-reform movement gets to “we can’t cure educational inequity until we cure poverty.” Unless the kids in Camden en masse enter great schools then we’ve violated the rights of the community. Change must be global and simultaneous. It’s not only not enough to offer some of Camden’s students, say, a chance to go to a better charter school, it’s worse than offering that choice at all unless every single kid gets to go.

(How is this different than denigrating Rosa Parks for taking a seat at the front of the bus because public transportation was racially segregated in 1955 and the larger community was still stuck in the back?)

Not to be too harsh, but isn’t this sort of adherence to abstract consistency in the name of patriotism sort of self-indulgent? Tell the kids at TEAM Academy in Newark that they’re lucky to go to a public charter school where everyone graduates and goes to four-year colleges. Tell them it stinks that their neighbors, the kids in the larger community, are still stuck in lousy schools. But would you tell those kids that the founders, faculty, and families of TEAM are un-American because they support a superior education system thriving in the midst of widespread failure and their children should join the larger community until traditional public schools catch up?

What’s missing in the Ravitch/Meiers philosophical construct,of course, is any sense of urgency. Offering some children a way out right now is asystemic and individualized; it undermines the fairness doctrine. Their “all or nothing” approach makes for some elegant and self-righteous letters, but it sure wouldn’t have gotten Rosa Parks to the front of the bus.