Hope and Despair (Contributed by John Thompson)

Fellow Oklahoma blogger, historian and teacher, John Thompson, has had a busy year!

a-teachers-taleIn November, John published his outstanding book, A Teacher’s Tale: Learning, Loving and Listening to Our Kids.  The book captures John’s recollections and lessons learned from 18 years as a teacher at John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City. Thompson describes his book as a teacher memoir mixed with “a case study of teaching in the inner city during an age of reform.” 

In all honesty, I have not yet had the opportunity to enjoy John’s book, but it’s definitely on my to-do list. John has been a passionate voice for teachers and students for many years, especially those in high poverty urban settings. For a brief review of John’s book, you can check out Michelle Waters’ recent post HERE.

I have great respect for John because he doesn’t shy away from tough discussions and because he’s not reluctant to “tell it like it is” and challenge people’s thinking. As a highly gifted writer with a strong voice, John’s articles are published frequently in the Huffington Post and shared on Diane Ravitch’s widely read national blog.

John is a passionate advocate for kids and public education. I learn something every time I read his work. Therefore, I am pleased tonight to post his response to my recent “hope/despair” bloggers challenge. His take on the subject is strongly worded and edgy—typical John Thompson.

Thanks for sharing, John!

Reason for Despair

In one sense I agree with NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia, who says that teachers don’t despair.  I’ve seen desperate conditions in inner city schools but, still, despair is an awfully strong word. Most problems we face in America are not the type of challenges that justify a loss of hope.  Moreover, the use of hyperbolic words that exaggerate the failings of our schools has been a key part of the corporate public relations spin machine; they claim that schools, i.e. the “status quo,” are so horribly broken that risky experiments on students are justified.

The only time despair could be justified in public education is when elites go into the most vulnerable schools, shoot from the hip, intentionally try to blow the supposedly failing system up, and then double down on dangerous, untested policies.  They have used the politics of destruction to advance test-driven accountability for individual students and educators, mass school closings, and replacing public schools with privatized online learning systems.

So, my only feelings of possible despair are the opposite of the misguided optimism I felt two years ago when Diane Ravitch articulated the most likely scenario for the end of our education civil war. She said that the elites who push venture philanthropy don’t like to lose.  But, their market-driven, test-driven policies had already failed.  After a while, they would give up and go back to their yachts.

Perhaps because the Billionaires Boys Club is so disconnected from reality in schools, they were slow to realize that their test, sort, reward, and punish mandates had failed. By now, however, even Bill Gates and, even, Arne Duncan must understand that they’ve lost the battle in terms of improving schools.

I fear that technocratic reformers, who can’t deal with defeat, have drawn two misguided lessons. First, they have despaired about public education as an institution that can offer meaningful learning for all.  Second, they blame educators for derailing their beautiful ideas.  So, I worry that Eli Broad, the Walton Foundation, and other blood-in-the-eye reformers will now seek revenge.  They could use the mass closing of schools not to help students but to break unions and local school governance. Of course, they will claim that this is “disruptive innovation” and it will unleash “transformational” change.  In fact, the result will be more “apartheid schools” and they (as in the reform laboratories of Memphis and New Orleans) will result in unconscionable numbers of poor teenagers of color wandering the streets, not attending school and not working in a job.

Reason for Hope

Test-driven reform has failed, and is headed for the scrap heap of history.  The cornerstone of their policies, value-added evaluations, was primarily (or solely?) a club for getting the attention of teachers, beating us down so we would comply. Even the recent Gates-funded study of value-added evaluations  admits that it “contributes to a growing literature suggesting state tests may not be up to the tasks of differentiating effective from ineffective (or aligned from misaligned) teaching.”

The only reason to stay the course on high-stakes testing is to provide a means of keeping score and ammunition for the battle between charter management organizations and the neighborhood schools that are targeted for closure. And, I don’t think patrons and policy-makers are in the mood to continue to let the testing drive the joy of learning out of schools in order to perpetuate that fight.

We have reason to hope that the testing vampire will be slain.  Without high stakes testing, the battle between true believers in choice and traditional public schools will become more like a bare-knuckled political fist fight than mortal combat between privatization and public education.

Secondly, the single most important education struggle of 2015 has been the fight for Hillary Clinton’s soul.  Mrs. Clinton and her husband have a long history of deferring to corporate powers in a variety of social and economic sectors.  However, she apparently has sided with teachers, unions, and public schools.  This has outraged the deep-pocket donors and they have publicly thrown a series of temper tantrums.  Their vituperative venom raises the specter of the billionaires taking their last pounds of flesh out of the educators who opposed them before going back to their yachts, but it also exposes their hubris.

Next year, there will probably be enough billionaires willing to fund the defeat of public schools in major urban districts but, regardless of who controls the White House, they won’t have the backing of the federal government. Competition-driven reformers will retain the power to kick down a few more education barns, but they will have no plausible claim to being able to rebuild them. The lack of their capacity to actually improve real schools will not be lost on stakeholders.  At that point, we can start to pull together and invest in win-win school improvement policies.

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2 thoughts on “Hope and Despair (Contributed by John Thompson)

  1. Very good piece from your guest. Reading blogs like this every day (you and Curmudgucation are my favs), however, make me more and more impatient for a conclusion to all this. The kids at risk aren’t being helped. I know that concrete steps to solve many of the issues for public education will cost money, and I’m sure that’s such a hair-trigger issue that folks want to avoid the knee-jerk reactions that will follow – especially from opponents of rational reform. But, I’d love to see some numbers for a proposal for a given school district, say, and where the funding might come from. Local, state, federal dollars all eligible. Party platforms required to include plans to solve and fund districts. Not so much what parents ‘must’ do to support efforts, but more “how they can help” in this or that particular district.
    It would be fun to see, especially from you guys who are so knowledgable about the entire situation…

  2. “However, she apparently has sided with teachers, unions, and public schools.”

    Please don’t believe this. She has made a couple of very carefully parsed statements expressing, at best, tepid support for “public” education, but please note that she considers charters to be “public” schools. Furthermore, she walked back even her one tepid statement which was seemingly against charters almost as soon as it was out of her mouth.

    Behavior is the clearest form of communication and if you look at Hillary’s behavior she has time after time supported Wall Street. She’s good friends with Eli Broad and is chummy with Bill Gates. She supports Democrats for Education Reform and she speaks the so-called “civil rights” language about testing – that we have to test or else how could we possibly know where the failing schools are? To the extent she supports teachers, it is only the “good” or “effective” teachers as measured by test scores. She is very fond of the hero teacher myth which puts all of society’s ills on teachers to solve.

    Hillary is no friend of public education or teachers. Just because she is in with the two national unions, don’t take that as a sign that she supports teachers, considering that the unions themselves have sold out teachers.

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