Reflections on Yelling Past Each Other

I.

In The Signal and The Noise, Nate Silver writes about the current state of political punditry:

The McLaughlin Group, of course, is more or less explicitly intended as slapstick entertainment for political junkies. It is a holdover from the shouting match era of programs, such as CNN’s Crossfire, that featured liberals and conservatives endlessly bickering with one another. Our current echo chamber era isn’t much different from the shouting match era, except that the liberals and conservatives are confined to their own channels, separated in your cable lineup by a demilitarized zone demarcated by the Food Network or the Golf Channel. This arrangement seems to produce higher ratings if not necessarily more reliable analysis.

Later, he cites a review of a bunch of political scientists by Philip Tetlock concerning how accurate these political scientists were in their predictions:

The experts in his survey–regardless of their occupation, experience, or subfield–had done barely any better than random chance, and they had done worse than even rudimentary statistical methods at predicting future political events.

II.

Yesterday, there were people with the Larouche PAC standing on the corner of the main street of my hometown collecting signatures that they said would help impeach Obama. The first time I drove past them, I was in a rush to get somewhere. When my family asked my opinion on the impeachers, I rolled my eyes and said, “Only in Springboro.” The second time I drove past them, I stopped to talk to them. I figured if they were going to be a butt to my jokes, the least I could do was listen to a five-minute pitch.

Turns out, the Larouche people and I have way more similarities in political philosophy than I would have thought. They, too, were angered with the American involvement in the Middle East. They, too, were worried about the NSA and the government treating American citizens as terrorists even before a terrorist act has been committed. In the end, we still disagreed. I don’t really think impeachment is the answer. But it’s now a little harder for me to pigeon-hole the Larouche people as wackos.

III.

In Chapter Two of Whatever It Takes, Paul Tough describes how the American public conception of poverty has fluctuated between two poles for the past century. In times of boom, the general consensus is that the there is something wrong with the poor–that they have been tested and come up lacking. In times of bust, the general consensus is that there is something wrong with the government and the system. The poor are only victims. Poverty could happen to anyone.

In short, these rotating ideas about poverty have a lot to do with historical moment and (perhaps) very little to do with the objective truth of the matter. And these ideas have affected the way we think about education–what its role should be. If the poor are somehow poor because of something they’ve done, our education system (this line of thinking goes) is working; it’s just that some people aren’t using that opportunity appropriately. If the poor are poor because of systems, the education system is probably one of the systems contributing to their poverty.

IV.

If you’ve had your ear to the ground in the field of education for a while, you know that it often seems like people are talking past one another. Nate Silver’s description of the echo chamber era extends to education. Very few people are listening to all of the thought leaders in education. (Say what you want, but both Michelle Rhee and Diane Ravitch are both thought leaders.) When the two sides of the debate do talk to one another, they usually do so to call into question the other’s authenticity or reputation (or call each other names). Then the opposing side gets to act like a righteous saint for a hot second; the offending side apologizes; and then the opposite happens within a couple of days.

Both sides exhibit the characteristics Nate Silver accuses pundits of having: a commitment to upholding their viewpoints. New information is simply used as fodder to attack the other side. Even when these arguments are packaged to seem nice and sweet, they often reveal a certain closed-mindedness.

V.

A couple weeks ago, a friend who is very critical of TFA asked to speak with me about TFA. He had some questions, he said. Because I’m a horrible person, I didn’t make good on my promise to talk to him until a couple days ago. But the conversation was very productive. He was asking some important questions:

  1. How can we elevate the entire teaching profession so that any teaching job is seen like the accomplishment of being accepted into TFA?
  2. How can we raise the consciousness of all new teachers so that all teachers feel like their job is a way to promote equality?
  3. How can we provide better support for all teachers so that they have the kinds of resources that will make them successful?
  4. How can we recruit the best of the best into the field of education even without using a problematic organization like TFA?

Perhaps, then, this is the promise of getting outside of our echo chamber. We can start asking and answering questions that matter.

#EdDefeat

I am not meant to be an ideologue. I make a poor leader, too, I think. Criticism gets to me. It sits in my pores and hangs on my shoulders, and people around me notice. I am plagued with the ability to see the reason in even the most ignorant of arguments. And the worst part is that most arguments aren’t ignorant. Most arguments are made by reasonable, intelligent people.

It’s not that I don’t think my arguments aren’t valid. I know they are. I know they are important. But I am one kid. I am 21-years-old. Most of the issues I think are important, I’ve only been thinking about for five years tops. And for the first two or three years of that, I thought Atlas Shrugged was the fifth Gospel. So, obviously, I’ve been misguided before.

I tend to ignore absolutes. If someone says they are “for charter schools,” I usually take that to mean that they have seen charter schools do good things, not that they think that charter schools are good 100% of the time. The latter would be an indefensible position.

There is too much truth in both sides of any argument that we should never completely write-off an opposing side.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been dragged firmly into the ed reform debate. Not the childish one that goes on at most college campuses where people honestly don’t know that there is an achievement gap, but the real one. The one where people have opposing ideas about how to close that gap.

Mostly this has made me want to tear my hair out. I’m not a debater. It’s not in my blood.

Because here’s the thing: both sides have legitimate truths. The typical TFA/SFER/DFER/Students First angle is that advocating for student and parent choice is the quickest way of ensuring that a lot of students (much more than are being served now) can receive excellent educations. The typical Ravitch/teacher union/anti-reform angle is that choice isn’t the best way long-term of ensuring an equal education for all. Both of these ideas are probably right. Charter schools aren’t going to solve the problems of classism and racism in this country unless we pair them with intense laws concerning integration and maybe also outlaw private schools altogether. And if we are going to go the charter route, we should probably also start thinking seriously about if we want for-profit schools. Admittedly, that does sound a little scary.

The design of neighborhood schools, though, is probably outdated. The middle class isn’t staying in one place anymore. The lower class is stuck in cities and rural areas. So while the middle class can move to good school districts and make choice that way, the lower class doesn’t have that benefit. In Ohio, the way we fund schools has been ruled unconstitutional on several separate occasions. Funding by income tax DOES NOT provide an equal education for everyone.

I would love to see a completely socialized education system that works in the US. But that’s probably a long ways from happening. We don’t like socialism in this country for various reasons. And even if we got rid of charters and parochial schools, we would still have to deal with the fact that our upper class parents were sending their children to private schools.

Mostly, I feel defeated. I feel like I’m up against a rock and a hard place. I’m not a politician or a millionaire. I can’t walk into my Statehouse and say, “Hey, instead of worrying about charter schools today, let’s start thinking up ways that we can free teachers and administrators in traditional public schools to replicate some of the things that have made some charters so successful.”

I feel defeated because I know that there are bad teachers, and I know there needs to be an objective way to identify them, but I also know that standardized testing is problematic.

I feel defeated because I suspect that there are many Republicans who support ed reform because it might mean union busting, and I don’t want union busting.

I feel defeated because while we argue about what’s the best way to fix the education system, even more students drop out, get a bad education, and are incarcerated.

What War On Teachers?

Now, we believe that the majority of teachers in America know our system must be reformed, to put students first so that
America can compete, that teachers don’t teach to become rich or famous.  They teach because they love children. – Chris Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stated his belief in the good-will of teachers on August 28 at the Republican National Convention. It’s not a hard stand to take. According to the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, Americans almost universally support teachers. About three fourths of Americans say they have confidence in K-12 teachers. Compare this with the way Americans would grade schools and the difference is striking – over three fourths say they would give the US public education system a C or lower. Governor Christie, then, is by no means stretching himself when he supports teachers. Most people hold teachers fondly. Most of us had a couple dozen of them before we graduated high school, and we associate the majority of them with helping us navigate our formative years.

It’s confusing, then, when leading critics against the education reform movement, like Diane Ravitch, say there is a “war on teachers.

What war on teachers?

I have never met a person who universally hates teachers. In fact, basically everyone I know in education, education reform, and education policy absolutely adores teachers.

But Diane Ravitch is not alone in the war on teachers claim. Teacher unions claim it, too.

On Tuesday night, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers Union, tweeted about Gov. Christie’s remarks.

The remarks Weingarten probably takes issue with are these:

They believe the educational savages will only put themselves ahead of children, that self- interest will always trump common sense, they believe in pitting unions against teachers, educators against parents, lobbyists against children. They believe in teachers’ unions. We believe in teachers. – Gov. Christie

But this is not an attack on teacher’s’ unions. It’s an attack on Democrats (which, quite frankly, is to be expected at the Republican National Convention). This is a sentiment with which unions should agree. Unions should not be set up to perpetuate themselves but to support teachers.

This, then, is where the divide begins.

For the teachers’ union, the interest of the union is the interest of teachers is the interest of children. The problem with this line of thinking, of course, is that these three interests are not the same. They are definitely related and often overlap, but they are not the same. Critics of ed reform, however, believe that they are the same. One need look no further than Diane Ravitch’s interview with Randi Kaye on CNN.

In the interview, Kaye asks Ravitch about merit pay. Ravitch answers matter-of-factly that “teachers don’t want merit pay.” Kaye challenges this idea by showing Ravitch a comment from an inner-city teacher that says merit pay is not a war on teachers.

Ravitch, of course, is making the mistake I outlined above. The interest of the union is not necessarily in the interest of every teacher. That’s not how unions work. Most everyone who supports merit pay supports it precisely because it is a way to reward the teachers they hold most dear. No one supports merit pay in a sinister attempt to divide teachers. There is no war on teachers.

It’s important to note that there are thinly veiled attempts at union busting that are lauded as ed reform. Ohio faced this issue with SB5 a year ago. The bill would have outlawed collective bargaining. This bill did not have children at interest. It had the state’s budget at interest.

With all of that being said, it’s surprising to see Weingarten express distaste for Gov. Christie. Just a couple of weeks ago, Gov. Christie signed a law into effect that makes it harder for teachers in New Jersey to gain tenure. Teachers’ unions helped shape the law, and it was met with bipartisan support. This is the kind of compromise we should be working for.

But we can’t hope to promote this type of compromise when we are demonizing sides. Saying there is a “war on teachers” implies that the supporters of teacher tenure laws are enemies of teachers. This is damaging rhetoric. If teachers’ unions feel like they aren’t being respected, they should speak up and say so, but they also need to respect that the ed reform movement loves students and loves teachers.

War metaphors, in general, are lazy. So let’s try a little harder.

 

Why I SFER

Recently, there has been a lot of alarm about an organization I am a part of – Students for Education Reform. I think this alarm mostly started with this post by a really smart girl from Rutgers named Stephanie Rivera. Diane Ravitch, a prominent player in the education reform conversation, then got hold of  Rivera’s post, and applauded her and took a stance against SFER. And next thing I knew, my Twitter feed was blowing up. I have been thinking about this the past week or so, and I think it would be helpful to explain why I, a student, started a chapter of Students for Education Reform at Ohio University. This is going to be a long post so I thank you in advance for your patience.

My name is Spencer Smith. And I SFER because I think that every child deserves a great education right now.

I went to school K-12 in Springboro, OH. Springboro is the ninth richest school district in Ohio. Our graduation rate is over 97%. Of those 97%, most go on to college. I tell you this knowing full well that if critics want to throw the privileged spear at me, they can do it now. But better I come out and say it then someone think they are digging up the information. 

I didn’t get into my top choice universities. I landed at a great honors program at the very public Ohio University. OU is routinely ranked as the number one party school in America. When I would tell my high school friends where I was going, they would wrinkle their noses. But really, OU is a relatively good school. It holds its own against the much bigger Ohio State University and the slightly more prestigious (maybe) Miami University. The middle fifty percent of admitted freshman are a good bunch. They are good students. Not great students. But good students. Probably B students, most of them. Additionally, because of its location in Appalachia and its middle-of-the-line tuition, it’s home to many first generation college students.

For my first two years at Ohio University, I didn’t think much about education. I had made it to college. I figured that everyone who wanted to be at college was there. It was a done deal for me. I grew a beard, and started thinking about things like racism, sexism, and heteronormativity the way only a white straight dude from the ‘burbs can – theoretically. Then, at the end of my sophomore year, Teach for America invited me to be part of a series of leadership seminars. I heard about the achievement gap for the first time. My world was rocked. There were places where only 8% of students graduated from college? This was huge news for a kid coming from a place where it seemed like 80% of students were going to graduate from college. (This is probably an exaggeration, but that’s what it felt like).

I stayed in contact with Teach for America. I participated in a summer book club. One night, I was on a call discussing Mike Johnston‘s In The Deep Heart’s Core. Mike Johnston was on the call and he offhandedly mentioned Students for Education Reform. I sent an e-mail to Alexis Morin that night. Because she was listed as a co-founder on the website, I didn’t expect to hear back from her. But I heard back almost immediately. That summer I learned a lot about the organization. I learned how it started in a dorm room with e-mail blasts between the early members. I learned how it was infectious. And certainly, Alexis’s and Catharine Bellinger‘s enthusiasm and optimism is infectious. They come from a tradition of thought that says when you believe something, you do something. You don’t sit on the sidelines. You get up and say something. I wanted to do something, too.

So I did. And for the past year I’ve been the Chapter Leader at Ohio University. In that year, my knowledge of the education crisis in this country has grown more nuanced. I used to think that there was someone to blame for the whole thing. And that wasn’t anything SFER taught me. That was just me being a dumb college student. Thanks to SFER and other opportunities, I had the chance to study ed policy more in depth. Through Chapter Leader training and the weekly discussion series our chapter held on campus, I was able to approach issues from multiple angles. A lot of the members of our chapter are future teachers. (I’m a future teacher, too!) We aren’t calling for the abolition of teacher unions or the privatization of education. What we are calling for is conversation. We want to put everything on the table. We want options.

Because of SFER, I have done and seen things that I would have otherwise never done or seen. I organized a school visit to KIPP Journey in Columbus. I learned that whether or not you agree with charter schools, there are kids who are benefiting from them. And those kids can articulate that. They know that they are going to college. And they know that precisely because of the school they are going to. I was so impressed that I interned with them for a while.

SFER hosted a national summit for all the chapter leaders. By the time the summit rolled around, there were almost 100 chapters. I was struck by our diversity. Sure, I was a dude from the ‘burbs. And sure, there were Ivy League schools represented. But there were also chapter leaders who were mini-miracle stories. They had beat the odds in low-performing school districts, made it to college, and were now working to make sure that more students had that same opportunity.

Additionally, because of the SFER national summit, I learned about the Breakthrough Collaborative. I applied to Breakthrough, got accepted, and spent my summer teaching ninth grade English. I learned that 30 high school and college students can alleviate summer drain for over 100 middle schoolers.

Because of SFER, I believe that education reform is not just a conservative thing, a liberal thing, a union thing, a student thing, a teacher thing, a parent thing. Education reform is all of those things. We aren’t going to get anywhere by eliminating each other from the conversation. Maybe you don’t agree with SFER or Teach for America or Democrats for Education Reform. That’s fine. You don’t have to. But don’t be against them. Be against the achievement gap. Be against the failing education system. I promise you we can work together.