The defense of public education is not the defense of the status quo in public schools.
This is an important and essential truth that teacher unionists and other advocates of public education need to grasp. With very real enemies targeting education of, by and for the public, the temptation is to treat every criticism of public schools as a mortal threat, and to rush to the defense of ‘actually existing school systems’ and ‘actually existing schools,’ regardless of the merits of the criticisms. When we do that, too often we become apologists — unwitting apologists perhaps, but apologists nonetheless — for much of what actually harms public education, from dysfunctional bureaucracies and out of control testing to inept district leaderships and tyrannical school leaders.
The real defense of public education is the defense of the democratic educational values and vision which are central to the idea of public education. This is not some Platonic ideal: there are ample illustrations of that idea, those values and vision, in practice, and we should be highlighting and learning from those living examples. Moreover, when school districts and schools fall far short of that idea, we need to understand why, and figure out how they can be changed to realize the full potential of public schooling. In sum, the defense of public education demands of us a vision and a strategy for changing public schools and districts for the better, for the realization of the promise of public education — not an undifferentiated apology for whatever is.
There is a world of difference between that vision and strategy and the models of schooling put forward by the opponents of public education. Both employ the language of change, but the opponents of public education seek to dismantle it through privatization, and to replace education of, by and for the public with the rule of the market and technocratic elites. Our vision is one that seeks the renewal and the deepening of the democratic character of public education, because we understand that the vibrancy and power of what we hold in common as a people is the foundation of our republic [as in res-publica, the matters and concerns of the public]. Without a dynamic public square, centered on public education, the republic can not long survive as a republic.
Given what is at stake, we can not be sparing in our responses to those who would eviscerate the public character of education. But we need to understand that a response which is purely defensive, which only seeks to hold the ground we already have, is a poor and inadequate defense of public education. The best defense is one that articulates a vision of change, of advancing the public essence of public education.
Here at the UFT, we have always recognized the need to articulate a positive vision of change for public education, even before the recent rise to prominence of foes of public education. In a very real way, we emerged — as did our sister teacher unions — as an immanent critique of existing public education run along the lines of factory model schooling in which teachers were denied meaningful voice. From our beginnings as a union, we have proposed and supported efforts to improve public schools, especially for poor and working class students. One of the first proposals the UFT made with the commencement of collective bargaining was the More Effective Schools program, designed to improve the lowest performing schools. That continues to be a central concern of ours today.
The UFT’s sponsorship of its two charter schools, and our partnership with Green Dot Charter Schools, should be understood in this context, as part of our articulation of a positive vision of change for public education. Rather than simply expound a vision, we have taken on the challenge of realizing that vision in practice.
In line with our active engagement with charter schools, we bring to the world of charters the same critical approach that we apply to other public schools — not an uncritical defense of every existing charter school, but a defense of the democratic idea of charter schools and the promotion of the schools that actualize this idea. That demands that we go on the record on failing charter schools and charter schools that deny teacher voice, just as we criticize low-performing public school districts and public schools that deny teacher voice.
This stance puts us at odds with charter school advocates who, for all their willingness to be critical of the failings of district public schools, fall silent on the shortcomings of charter schools. That was the crux of our recent exchange with Eduwonk’s Andy Rotherham. [See here and here.] As a general rule, the world of charter school advocacy approaches every criticism of charter schools with a “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, and we shall fight in the hills” stance. Criticism of failing Ohio charter schools, of which they are quite a few, and the suggestion that the problem is systemic, rooted in a poorly designed state law which allows virtually any not-for-profit corporation to become an unaccountable authorizer, are treated as attacks on the very idea of charter schools. Rotherham even agrees with us that the Ohio law is flawed, but then suggests that a statement to this effect is an admission of opposition to all charter schools. That is simply not so, and demonstrably not so for the UFT, as our public engagement with charter schools — our own charter schools and our partnership with Green Dot — proves.
But the same stance which we apply to district public schools becomes an occasion for criticism when applied to charter schools, because every criticism is treated as a mortal threat. Charter school partisans like the Charter Blog have become an inverted mirror image of those public school advocates who treat every criticism of public schools as an attack on the very existence of public education. And they are no less misguided.
Consider, by way of an example here, how in the week of our exchange with Eduwonk’s Rotherham, the Charter Blog, DFER’s Joe Williams, and Rotherham himself all made a point of commending Mastery Charters’ Shoemaker Middle School in Philadelphia for improving dramatically its standardized test scores since it was converted from a district school. The turn around of this school is certainly worth celebration, but all three blogs leave out the most noteworthy part of its accomplishments: it is an aberration in the great Philadelphia ‘diverse providers’ experiment. An independent study done by the Rand Corporation, Student Achievement in Privately Managed and District-Managed Schools in Philadelphia Since the State Takeover, and the district’s own internal study, Diverse Provider Model: A Performance Review Based on Quantitative and Qualitative Measure As Described in SRC Resolution 10, have both found that as a group, the Philadelphia district public schools are vastly outperforming the privately managed and charter schools. But if the whole story was told, it would no longer be possible to infer that Shoemaker reflected the larger experiment, so the most remarkable part of its achievements — that it succeeded where the great majority of the Philadelphia charter schools in the experiment did not — is simply not mentioned.
Once one replaces an honest account of what is, in all of its complexity and contradictions, with the sort of boosterism that not only promotes successes, but also ignores shortcomings and failures, one does damage to one’s cause. We defenders of public education need take heed.