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The Education War – Who is winning?

TrenchThe word “quagmire” gets thrown around pretty casually these days.

Civil unrest.  “Nation building.” Revolutions. Economic crisis. Natural disasters.  The Q-word has been used repeatedly for so many of the dangerous, sticky situations we find ourselves as a society.

Yet does the education war—the clash of “reformers” that has stretched over a decade—deserve the dreaded label?

It depends on what you hear.

Many news outlets, in print and online, picture the education reform movement as clearly on the defensive.  Attacks on charter schools have increased as never before, viewed as undemocratic, tyrannical and ultimately ineffective.  The latest report on how Eva Moskowitz’ Success Academy charter schools were caught on record attempting to push out a special-needs student is particularly galling.

New tests based on the Common Core Learning Standards showed massive drops in scores, giving a giant raspberry to all earlier reform attempts.  Companies cashing in on the testing craze—Pearson, McGraw-Hill, etc.—are under the microscope for botched questions and poor scoring in state after state.  The Common Core itself is under attack, as state after state elects to opt out of the supposedly nationwide initiative—regardless of the DOE carrot-and-stick policy about Common Core adoption.

Even reform stalwarts like Teach for America, Michelle Rhee and the Gates Foundation find themselves under siege as critics wail on their status and perceived impact on public education.

Yet if you look at actual policy, it paints a very different picture.

Education reformers, backed bipartisanly, have pushed standardized testing into almost every classroom in America.  Teacher evaluation systems across the country are aligning teacher effectiveness with student scores on state tests, with unions knuckling under in the process.  The Common Core, though embattled, is now the rule in reform strongholds like New York, California and Massachusetts.  Governors from both parties are backing more draconian measures to shut down failing schools.

Even worse, the media machine of education reform has recently launched a counter-offensive.  Long criticized for not developing effective veteran teachers, TFA and other reform movements are now saying it is BETTER to have short-term teachers who won’t become veterans because their enthusiasm, their innate intelligence and God’s good graces are enough to provide a quality education for children.

This conflict looks like it qualifies as a quagmire… and part of fault lies with the opposition.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of standardized tests, TFA, charters, etc.  Most readers here already know that.  However, I am a very big fan of improving teacher selection and preparation, which is high on the education reform agenda.   I don’t like that it’s relatively easy access into our profession, and it hurts our reputation in the process.

I have feet in two very different parts of the swamp.  They shouldn’t be.  Both sides should be having real, meaningful policymaking sessions by now.  Why aren’t they?

The education reform movement does not take the opposition seriously.

This is a similar problem with the Occupy Wall Street movement.  It was a grassroots movement, to be sure, but there was no definition of victory: no goals, no leadership, no direction.  It “started a dialogue”, and you know how much J.P. Morgan and the like shake in their wingtips over that.

Occupy Wall Street failed because Wall Street itself never saw them as a threat.  They didn’t become an electoral force, backing candidates allied to them for Congress and Senate.  They didn’t become a fundraising power, soliciting funds so that candidates from both parties kowtow to them in alternating order.  They didn’t become a lobby, oiling and adjusting the rusty gears of the filthy gearbox called legislative politics.

The Tea Party, on the other hand, though still disorganized nationally, managed to become a force because it knew how to monopolize the conversation and the ballot box.  It wasn’t just Koch Brothers money that put the Tea Party boot on the throat of the Republican Party.  The Tea Party quickly moved from “starting a dialogue” to “kicking the shit out of anyone in their way.” Moderate republicans fell like dominoes.  Their candidates, whether they won or lost, made sure the Tea Party was firmly at the big boys table in the RNC.

The Tea Party became a threat.  They became feared.  Occupy Wall Street didn’t…and the education reform opposition isn’t much of a fear either.

As much as the opposition boasts numerous media outlets, a lightning-rod leader in Diane Ravitch, and numerous movements like Save Our Schools, etc., there is little to show for their efforts other than scathing editorials, page after page of incendiary blogs, reams of online petitions and packed comments on Facebook pages.

Victory is not “opening a dialogue.”  It is when the policies of the state and nation are changed.  That does not happen with a spirited debate.

If the opposition wants a seat at the education table, rightly placed across from the reformers, it has to fight for it.

Like Wall Street, the only thing many of these reformers will listen to is their wallet and the ballot box.  The opposition needs to attack both, ferociously and brutally.

It must out-Koch the Koch brothers and out-Gates the Gates Foundation.  It must attain its own billionaire allies to fund PACs, lobbies, and candidates to state and national office.  It must push their agenda by any means necessary.

It has to turn the media conversation forcefully, repeatedly and effectively to counter the sound-bites of the reformers.   The phrase “for the children”, co-opted by both sides, is both tired and unrealistic.  It ceased to be about children a long time ago, unfortunately.  This fight is about the adults, and hopefully the policies will serve children best.  But to say that each side is exclusively serving the children is to be in an extreme state of delusion.

More than anything, however, the opposition needs to get its hands dirty with the business of politics.  I know many in the opposition, and they are smart, savvy, earnest people who genuinely want to make a difference.  They want to “maintain the moral high ground” and not stoop to the level of the Broads, Kochs, Gates and the rest.  Their methods, frankly, will do nothing but create coffee-house chatter.

To change policy is a filthy, brutal, demoralizing and demeaning business.  Only by beating the reformers at their own game can the opposition sit with them and negotiate as rivals to pound out the policies that best serve everyone.

As for maintaining the moral high ground…that only works when your opponent has morals to maintain.

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