Reporting from the recent AFT convention, Sherman Dorn makes an important point w/r/t a discussion led by Susan Ohanian (who is waaaay out there on the fringes of anti-NCLB absolutism, to the point where she recently took to the pages of Kappan to denounce the NEA for being too moderate on No Child):
Ohanian worried about the statement by Obama that “the single most important factor in determining a child’s achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from; it’s not who their parents are or how much money they have. It’s who their teacher is.” Ohanian argued that this statement is rhetoric that sets up blaming teachers for all sorts of problems they are not responsible for. A few minutes later, she claimed that the real danger of high-stakes accountability was the destruction of children’s imaginations and the creation of a compliant workforce. But there’s a logical inconsistency here: how can schools create worker robots if they are not powerful in shaping the lives of children?
I worry (and I said towards the end of the event) that Ohanian’s criticism undercut arguments about the importance of the public sphere. You can say that teachers are not crucial to children’s lives, but then it’s hard to argue that schools should be well-funded. You can say that teachers are not crucial, but then it’s hard to argue against all sorts of problematic policy proposals that take authority away from teachers or that position teachers’ professional judgment as irrelevant. Ohanian was nodding in acknowledgment at the time, so I think (or I hope) she knows that her impromptu remarks were not consistent with either her deeper views of schooling or that of most teachers.
Dorn is being entirely too generous; this inconsistency is deliberate and sits at the heart of everything Ohanian and her ilk have to say. At the risk of being simplistic, one can divide attitudes about public education within the policy sphere into three basic camps. The first is “Public education doesn’t work so let’s get rid of it.” This is your arch-conservative John Derbyshire-type stuff, which consists of various loosely coupled theories involving IQ determinism, the miracle of free markets, the evils of taxation and organized labor, etc. It enjoys durable appeal in some circles but is almost wholly marginalized in policymaking, owing to the fact that it’s completely dumb.
The second is the basic reformist position: “Public education works so let’s make it work better.” It’s the view that informs this blog, one that begins with a belief in the importance of public schools as tremendously vital and fundamentally egalitarian institutions, but proceeds to a fairly critical stance that’s centered on ideas like increased accountability for results. It’s sympathetic to the need for more educational resources but skeptical that the money we’re spending now is being put to maximum use.
While the two positions don’t have equal value (in that the first is wrong and the second is right) both have the advantage of logical consistency. If you really believe half of all students are uneducatable and we’d be better of in an all-vouchers-all-the-time world, than destroying public education as we know it makes sense. Similarly, if you believe that schools and teachers have great potential to help students, particularly disadvantaged students, then we should invest in them while also tying that investment to real accountability for student learning.
Then there’s third position–the Ohanian position–which is really less a coherent position at all than a set of attitudes and individual agenda items rooted in defensiveness and a desire to maintain established institutions and arrangements as they are. To be clear, some of this defensiveness is quite justified — there really are first position adherents out there who wish public education harm. But much of it boils down to the idea that while public education needs substantially more funding and teachers deserve much more respect (both of which ideas are, in and of themselves, true) it’s unreasonable to suggest that either the funding or the respect ought to be accompanied by any commensurate expectation of enhanced, concretely defined educational results. Or, similarly, the idea that we have to protect children from policies that will either deliberately or inadveratently turn them into dead-eyed grist for the capitalist machine a la Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2, yet at the same time schools have little or no upside potential to help economically disadvantaged students learn enough to lead a fulfilling, productive life.
This position is based on no core beliefs regarding the efficacy of public education, but rather shifts back and forth on that question depending on the issue at hand. Of course it’s possible to be too optimistic about what schools can do in the face of large social problems, but the Ohanian position seems unwilling to give an inch here, or admit under any circumstances that a not-insignficant percentage of schools and teachers could be much better than they are.