This summer was anything but quiet on the education reform front, according to George Wood, superintendent of the Federal Hocking District in Ohio, where he was principal of Federal Hocking Secondary School for 21 years. He is a nationally known author, educator, activist and school reform leader, and founder of the Forum for Education and Democracy.
By George Wood
In Steinbeck’s “The Winter of our Discontent,” the well-meaning Ethan Hawley compromises his ethical compass to fix his family’s economic distress. Recent revelations regarding similar ethical lapses in the education community make me wonder if we have not seen a summer of discontent.
The signs are everywhere.
In Florida, new state superintendent Tony Bennet resigned soon after it was revealed that he ‘fixed’ the education accountability system in Indiana–when he was state superintendent there–to make a charter school look good. That charter school, sponsored by a major campaign contributor, was held up as a model of how privatizing public schools would save the system.
In Ohio, legislators have put in place a new two-year budget that rewards failing charter schools with more funding even as it makes punishing cuts to successful charters and traditional public schools. The big winner in this budget owns the most powerful for-profit charter management organization in the state and contributes serious campaign money to the majority Republican Party’s leadership.
Summer’s dog days set in and John Merrow revisited the testing shenanigans that took place while Chancellor Michelle Rhee ruled the schools in the District of Columbia. Rhee’s hard-line reforms yielded little improvement and lots of upheaval in D.C. schools. One wonders why such cheating allegations don’t seem to give champions of hard-line reforms pause. Do Rhee’s growing celebrity — and the money machine that her foundation has become — feed a fear of questioning her legacy?
Maybe I should not honor ethical lapses with a nod to Steinbeck. Instead, we could remember the immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” Regardless of results, folks are still able to sell their market-based school reforms to an unsuspecting public. When it comes to smoke-and-mirrors, these guys are real pros. In fact Mr. Bennett is the head of something called “Chiefs for Change,” a group of state education leaders who are able to deflect the problems in the systems they are accountable for by throwing all of the accountability onto the backs of children and teachers. Amazing.
So where is the public outrage? Hundreds of millions of public dollars are funneled, year after year, into top-down, corporate-driven “solutions” like vouchers and for-profit charters that simply do not work. Meanwhile, schools that are serving our most vulnerable students are threatened with closure or sanction because they do not meet some arbitrary test score cutoff; administrators spend most of their days meeting mountains of regulations; and too many good teachers, who have had profound, positive effects on the lives of children, are leaving the field. And it just goes on.
I must admit that aside from being outraged, I am not always sure what to do next. Many of us have spoken out against the debilitating effects of obsessive standardized testing. We’ve warned about the evils of privatizing public education through vouchers and charters. We’ve advocated for adequate school funding so that all of our students, regardless of their zip code or their parents’ bank account, get a shot at a great education.
Unfortunately, those who offer viable alternatives to Bennett and Rhee’s playbook seem to lack the political or financial clout to counter the steady drumbeat from high-profile, well-financed “reformers.” A senator’s aide, in a meeting in Washington, D.C., once informed me: “In this town we pay attention to three things, money, votes and ideas — in that order. You have good ideas, but no money or voters.”
I am afraid that many of the groups and organizations that represent public education are so caught up in trying to stay in the good graces of current state or federal bureaucrats that they hesitate to speak up on our behalf. And school people themselves know that speaking out against the current regime can lead to increased scrutiny of their schools, or losing out on grants.
Maybe we should simply follow the advice Queen Elizabeth gave to her subjects during World War II: “Keep calm and carry on.” Some of us are doing exactly that. Our district has just approved a set of deeply progressive operating principles that could put us in opposition to many of the current mandates. It will be my job to keep us within the limits of the law, but to test every boundary that stops us from acting in the best interests of children, families and teachers.
There has to be a better strategy. But for now, carrying on will have to do.