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True Believers

July 31, 2012

Note: This is the post I’ve been trying to write for weeks. For as long as I’ve been working on it, I still don’t feel like it’s finished. The idea I’m trying to bring forward probably isn’t one that can be fully discussed in 1200 words anyway. After I put this on the blog, I’m sure I’ll immediately wish I had said something else. I’m sure this isn’t the last post I’ll make with this subject.

In truth, the idea for this post came to me a few months ago, before I even had a blog. I had a chance to visit with a University of Florida professor (who is also a retired superintendent) about the extent to which Oklahoma’s education reform movement mirrors her state’s – only from a few years behind. She talked openly about the problems with Turnaround schools in her state and the confusion created by A-F Report Cards. She said that charter schools had re-segregated students in much of the state. When I asked how state leaders react when presented with these facts, she said that they either don’t or can’t believe them, because they are the “True Believers.”

Her point was that the education reformers who brought us charter and virtual schools (or taken them to perverse extremes), promoted simplistic accountability systems, and in some cases, fought to funnel public education dollars to private schools, are so entrenched in their beliefs, that the idea that they might be wrong is unfathomable. I used the word “fanatics” to describe them over the weekend, and that might be a better word choice.

So where do these True Believers or fanatics come from? And where do they get their ideas?

It is simplistic and wrong to say that all of one party is out to destroy public education and all of the other party is its savior. This always has been a false premise. It’s also inaccurate to believe that all who propose education reform are out to destroy public education. There are good ideas out there, and these good ideas need to be explored. What we’re seeing now goes beyond any of this.

On the national level, one major player is a group called Chiefs for Change. If you click the link, you will see that Janet Barresi is one of the ten state superintendents (or equivalent) who belong to this group. While they don’t represent a majority of states, they are nonetheless an influential group. Just below the header on their website is this statement of purpose:

Chiefs for Change is a coalition of state school chiefs and leaders that share a zeal for education reform. Together, they provide a strong voice for bold reform on the federal, state and local level.

Below that is the organization’s mission statement:

Chiefs for Change is committed to putting children first through bold, visionary education reform that will increase student achievement and prepare students for success in colleges and careers.  

One thing that strikes me is the use of the word “zeal.” It goes with the concept of these reformers as fanatics. Another is the idea that this organization is necessary to “put children first.” Might I remind them that public school teachers have been putting children first with zeal for more than a century!

Another group of True Believers is the Michelle Rhee organization, Students First. Rhee was chancellor of the Washington, D.C. school system from 2007 through 2010. Her time in DCPS is now under scrutiny for testing irregularities.

Prior to her time with DCPS and Students First, Rhee was a teacher with Teach For America, where she used some sort of tape over mouth concoction to control students. (For the record, I’m against that.) She later founded The New Teacher Project, a group that has brought a lot of attention this week for writing a post called “The Irreplacables.” The idea in this is that good teachers are not encouraged to stay in the profession and trying to figure out who is to blame for this.

On their website, Students First is described as a “grassroots movement … designed to mobilize parents, teachers, students, administrators, and citizens throughout country [sic], and to channel their energy to produce meaningful results on both the local and national level.” Read that again, and hear the zeal. These are the reformers that national politicians in both parties listen to. These are the people who keep beating the drum and saying that our public education system is a failure. They are well-funded, and they are relentless. Students First even released a horrible, offensive, Olympic-themed ad criticizing public schools. Education Week criticized it for “playing up obesity for laughs.” Other critics of the ad claimed it to be mocking the effeminate qualities of the “athlete.”

(By the way, for fun, I follow the Twitter account of Rheefirst – a parody mocking Michelle Rhee and exposing her inconsistencies.)

Speaking of Twitter, I also follow the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and some of their employees’ accounts. The tweets from OCPA, SchoolChoiceOK, and Oklahoma Truth Council all come from the same place. And they tweets among these groups and top staff from the State Department of Education are beyond chummy. When the Tulsa World criticized Damon Gardenhire in an editorial a while back, Brandon Dutcher with OCPA was quick to his defense. The public exchange between the two included criticism of vitriol and ad hominem attacks in political discourse. Soon to join them was Jennifer Carter, formerly of the SDE (and most famous for calling certain superintendents “dirtbags.”) It should be noted that Carter’s husband is an editorial writer for the Oklahoman, and any anti-education editorial by that paper should be taken with a grain of salt. It should also be noted that OCPA tends to decry any public money spent on anything.

The connections between the SDE, OCPA (which frequently publishes anti-education columns in the Oklahoman), and the newspaper itself lead to a near-monopoly on the public discourse. These are people who are convinced that public education is responsible for the destruction of Americana. They are convinced that poverty is not a determinant of student outcomes. And they are convinced that if they create excessive burdens for public education and give parents the choice of schools that lack those same burdens, parents will begin to pull their kids out in droves.

Judging from what has happened in Indiana, Florida, New Jersey, and Louisiana (all Chiefs for Change states), we will soon be farther down the path towards charters and vouchers. We will see more obfuscation of facts in the name of transparency and more withholding of allocations in case the charter schools fill up. We will see more propaganda that fills our mind with images of children succeeding, without the offset of facts. We will see more attacks upon those who oppose the True Believers.

As the calendar turns to August tomorrow, we know that in Oklahoma City, the 2012-13 school year has already started. Soon, administrators, then teachers, and finally students will all report to public schools. This is a pivotal year in determining the future of public education. If the True Believers have their way, it will be a crippling one.

As for me…I’m just starting to fight back.

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  1. July 31, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    I’d question whether MIchelle Rhee’s Students First is “a group” of anything. It’s beyond dispute that an unknown number of her “group’s” members do not support it at all and are listed as members without their consent. So that calls into valid question how many ARE actually willing members — if any. (I know this beyond a doubt as I’m listed as a member without my consent, along with Diane Ravitch and a number of others who share my views and Ravitch’s.)

    The well-funded operation has paid staff, who presumably serve as True Believers, but do we know if any of them at all would Believe if they weren’t being paid to? Rhetorical question.

    An organization that has to list fake members has no credibility when it claims ANY members at all, so Students First shouldn’t be assumed to have any actual True Believers as members. I would even question whether Rhee is a True Believer, as opposed to setting out to provoke, reap fame, ally with the powerful and get rich.

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    • July 31, 2012 at 9:38 pm

      They are practicing fraud to list you as members when you are not. I wrote Michelle Rhee a very pointed email about my thoughts on her reputation as an education reformer and how I expected to be removed from her mailing list immediately because I’d never solicited to be mailed or listed as a member. If she is on the board of directors I know I will not share the same beliefs on education. I have not received anymore emails, but did not receive an acknowledgement reply…duh. Stand up to these groups and expose them and demand your respect. Spread the word.

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  2. July 31, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! For this blog I am very grateful.

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  3. July 31, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    Thank you for a savvy analysis! Very well written.

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