I was reading my news feed yesterday morning, when I saw that Chalkbeat had retweeted an article from New York Magazine entitled “Teachers Unions Turn Against Democrats.” Having noted that NEA members voted to call for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s resignation, and knowing that a significant factor in Fordham Law School professor Zephyr Teachout’s campaign to challenge sitting Governor Andrew Cuomo is Cuomo’s enthusiastic embrace of current education reforms, I was prepared for an interesting article. Certainly, someone with Jonathan Chait’s experience and rhetorical talent would have an interesting examination of reform advocates’ efforts and rationales combined with the growing frustration of rank and file teachers and the balancing act attempted by union leaders trying to maintain their traditional coalition with Democrats and advocate for their members.
Boy, was I wrong.
Chait does acknowledge that Democrats have been forceful in pushing reform efforts that are more historically comfortable ground for Republicans, but his portrayal of the reforms themselves is entirely problematic and he ultimately chalks up firm opposition as the work of reactionary “hard liners”. In Chait’s view, the center of this hard-liner coalition is New York University’s Diane Ravitch who has been blogging on the agenda of education reformers for several years now.
The leadership of this movement has fallen to Diane Ravitch, formerly a right-of-center education activist who has converted to the cause of teachers-union absolutism with an evangelical fervor, maintaining an almost superhuman schedule of public speaking and prolific blogging.
Ravitch has depicted education reform as a plot by corporate elites to privatize schools and destroy unions. If charter schools claim to help poor children by providing longer school days, then Ravitch is certain thatlonger school days cannot work. Having identified their enemies with the cause of pure evil, Ravitch and her fellow hard-liners have taken to defending not only the practice of paying teachers by length of service, but the structure and form of the school day (created in an era of stay-at-home mothers and designed around the summer harvest) as a standard of perfection that must be defended absolutely. Ravitch and her allies have found the leadership of the unions disturbingly faint of heart.
Does Chait expend even minimal effort in examining what in education reform is actually agitating teachers? Beyond acknowledgement that the administration and its allies have embraced accountability and charter schools and implying that resistance to those efforts is the work of unthinking hardliners, not much. He doesn’t examine teachers’ frustration and anxiety that the largest curriculum experiment in American history has been implemented with almost no study and little time to prepare at the behest of one man’s exceptional wealth. He doesn’t examine how the “accountability” measures favored by reformers come from statistical models that are not accepted as valid measures of teachers’ impact on student learning. He doesn’t look at the impact on students, teachers and schools of the constant drive for more testing of students, nor does he look at the corporations that are eager to monetize the results of those tests.
He does not consider the ways in which the rich and influential have used charter school expansion to line their own investment portfolios, nor does he consider the corrupting influence on Democratic politicians of hedge fund manager created political action committees that use campaign donations to ensure charter schools keep expanding. He does not examine that many charter school “successes” come at the expense of their appalling attrition rates, nor does he reference the new reports of widespread fraud and abuse of public money in the rapidly growing and poorly regulated charter sector. He mentions the Vergara decision in California and opines that it “embarrasses” teacher unions by highlighting the “least-defensible aspect of their agenda and its most sympathetic victims,” but he does not mention the extremely questionable research that was used to support the case, nor does he mention that the victims in question could not name a single teacher who was “grossly ineffective”. Since Mr. Chait deems Dr. Ravitch to be unreasonable, here is the post trial brief that explains the issue.
Jonathan Chait is an experienced journalist and editor. He had it entirely within his power to write an interesting piece on the potential of a rift between Democrats and one of their traditionally reliable constituencies, and to examine, fairly, the different sides of the issues. Instead, he took it as a given that charter schools are successful alternatives and only union absolutists have any qualms about accountability and tenure reforms.
That, of course, would have taken more work than portraying Dr. Ravitch as the Abigail Williams of the teaching profession.