Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Taking Back the Reform Conversation from the Politicians

Educators have one certain thing for which they can thank President Obama and Secretary Duncan: these two politicians have re-framed the entire conversation about education reform into their own terms, and at the same time, made any educators or professional educator organizations who dare to question their reform agenda look like pro-status quo and anti-reform. One can certainly debate whether this was intentional or not, but it really does not matter. Secretary Duncan has placed himself and his education reform agenda on the high ground, and any attempts that criticize him or his agenda are pegged as anti-reform. The question I would ask is, Why did we as educators not see this coming?

One obvious reason is that educators and professional education organizations trusted Obama the presidential candidate. His rhetoric about reforming No Child Left Behind and putting education on the right track was the change all educators were looking for. We believed that as President, Obama would set right the last eight years of failed education policy whose tenets saw testing as the salvation of schools. We believed that as President, Obama would engage educators in discussions about what real reform should look like. We believed that as President, Obama would be an advocate for public education. Instead, through his new education general, Arne Duncan, he still clings to the hope that testing is public education's salvation. Instead of engaging all educators in a discussion about reform, he has allowed Secretary Duncan to dictate an unproven and ineffective reform agenda that did not even work in Chicago to an education system already starved for funding. Instead of being an advocate for public education, President Obama and Secretary Duncan have reinvigorated the pro-voucher and school privatization forces in this country with rhetoric that has made teachers and educators look like the villains. In effect, educators have been had. We were convinced that candidate Obama was truly offering what was advertised on campaign banners everywhere, "Change We Can Believe In." Instead, this "Change We Were Asked to Believe In" has become "Change Dictated by Secretary Arne Duncan" and the Obama administration.

Perhaps asking questions like "Why did we trust the Obama administration?" or "What happened to this 'Change We Could Believe In'"? are not very fruitful any more. Instead, we as educators and our professional organizations need to take back the conversation from Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration. We need to move the discussion from being against Secretary Duncan's specific reforms to offering reform alternatives that are based in research and reason not the politics of the moment. We have one distinct advantage that President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and all the economists at all the think tanks do not have, We have years and years of classroom experience. We have participated in reform and had reform done to us over and over again. We need to use this advantage and take the conversation back from the Obama administration. We know that Secretary Duncan's education policy is going to fail and possibly going to harm America's schools because every bit of our experience is screaming that it will. In effect, teachers and educators have a moral obligation to move the conversation from the land of Duncan politics to a focus on what is best for the students we teach.

Secretary Duncan has boasted that he has heard no opposition to his education policy. That should be evidence enough that he and his education department are not interested in hearing from educators in the field. Sure, they put on the usual good show of going out into the schools for meetings with teachers, but the video clips I have seen have Duncan or his minions doing more speaking than listening. It's just hard to hear opposition when you are doing all of the talking. That should be reason enough to just quit trying to get the Department of Education to listen. Instead, educators and their professional organizations need to get back to the business of educating our kids. This means taking the reform conversation away from the Obama administration and really looking at what will bring our education system into the 21st century. It means remembering that President Obama and Secretary Duncan are politicians who by nature are more concerned about survival as politicians than what is truly best for our public schools system and the kids we teach.

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