Ostensibly, the recent debate over the federal budget was about dollar amounts that are trivial compared to the size of the deficit and the structural mismatch between revenues and government services. But what’s really on the table is the balance between the private and public sectors in American life. Even the most ardent Republicans (save for some radical Libertarians) recognize that the government provides essential services that make capitalism and civil society possible. And even the most liberal Democrats recognize that America’s future depends on a successful, expanding private sector. It’s only the relative size of each sector that the two sides debate.
For the most part, the same is true among those who debate the best ways to improve our schools. Those to the furthest right politically do call for the privatization of public education and attack what they see as indoctrination in “government” schools. And those to the furthest left want the public schools to be inviolate, untainted by the filthy lucre of private capital and the slightest influence of outsiders, which they define as anyone who has ever been involved in business.
The latter group has been out in force over the past week. In this post on the Nieman Watchdog site, Diane Ravitch offers reporters lots of good advice about questions they can ask to avoid being misled by educators trying to make their schools’ test scores look better than they are. Then, this historian-turned-angry tweeter, veers off into the realm of the conspiracy theorists, where anyone who has money and cares about improved education is the enemy. Ravitch doesn’t come right out and say this. Rather, she asks a series of questions and infers that the answers are obvious. “Why the huge interest of Wall St. hedge fund managers and big real estate moguls in charters?” she asks. Perhaps her like-minded followers know the answer but I’m stumped. Why would hedge fund managers, who according to everything I hear, make a gazillion dollars, be interested in charter schools? In most states charter schools receive less in public funding than regular schools and have to seek out private grants and donations just to operate. So, where does the river of money in which these capitalists want to wet their beaks flow?
A tweet from Ravitch over the weekend called my attention to this full-throated screed by Chris Hedges, the former New York Times foreign correspondent who now writes a column for a progressive web site called Truthdig. Hedges offers an illogical answer to Ravitch’s question. In Hedges’ dark, dystopian world the “money managers and corporations” want employees who don’t “ask uncomfortable questions or examine existing structures and assumptions.” They want “men and women who are just literate and numerate enough to perform basic functions and service jobs.” Hedges draws on Immanuel Kant, Socrates and even Hannah Arendt to argue that standardized tests are part of an evil Wall Street plot to get rid of good teachers and condemn most Americans to perform meaningless tasks that will maximize profits. Huh?
We know routine jobs are being offshored by American businesses and that high-value jobs will require critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity as well as deep knowledge in a variety of fields. That is why President Obama has said from the first weeks of his presidency that improving education will be the key to strengthening the economy and spreading prosperity. We also know that our current education system disadvantages the poor and limits them in some of the ways Hedges abhors. Hedges may think he’s railing against the oppressors. But what he and Ravitch and others are actually doing is supporting a system that ensures that the poor will never have a chance to become as well educated as they are
This morning I was perusing my usual news sources and came across this piece by Michael Winerip, who writes about education for the New York Times. A hallmark of Winerip’s work over the years as a reporter and columnist has been his opposition to the No Child Left Behind law. In this column, Winerip goes over the top and snarkily ascribes ideas to reformers that they would not recognize. (Setting up such straw arguments is a common theme among those who see reformers as an invading force.)
But the real purpose of the column is to point out that many of those he identifies as reformers—among them the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee and, oddly, Mitt Romney—all went to private school. He asks whether “a private school background gives them a much-needed distance and fresh perspective to better critique and remake traditional public schools? Does it make them distrust public schools — or even worse — poison their perception of them? Or does it make any difference?”
Like the questions raised by Ravitch, Winerip knows the right answer. Only those who attended public schools, labored in public schools and sent their children to public schools have any standing in discussions of public schools. Winerip tones down Hedges’ diatribe but his point is the same—only those who think like they do are qualified to try to help our schools do a better job of serving the needs of all children.