Friday, March 30, 2012

Against Evil

If we did a decent job of teaching media literacy in this country, our citizenry would know not to trust pundits who use words like "evil" to describe...well, anything short of Nazi-style genocide, really. And yet, in the current phase of education reform debates, the word is getting tossed around with wild abandon--either directly, or by suggestion.

Diane Ravitch and her acolytes call the "Billionaire Boys Club" of charter school operators evil. Alfie Kohn calls standardized testing evil. Conservatives call teacher unions evil. ENOUGH.

And these actors aren't just evil--they're all mired in evil conspiracies. Rich people are conspiring to turn America's youth into mindless worker-drones by destroying the public school system. Teacher unions are conspiring to undermine and destroy all efforts at reform to protect their jobs and their tenure.

The problem with all of this nonsense is that it keeps people from seeing the ugly facts that lie at the heart of this issue. If we could lower the heat and calm down a little--if we could talk with each other from a place of good faith, and assume that almost all the players in this arena are in the arena to do good (at least as they see it), we might understand things a little better.

Let's take the so-called Billionaire Boys Club first. The idea that Bill Gates and others are meddling in public education because they are satanic evil-doers intent on destroying our youth is idiotic. They are in this game because they want to do good...AND because, being businessmen, they think they can do well at the same time. These are not contradictory ideas to them, and just because most of us in the education business have no real understanding of business doesn't make it untrue. They see a need; they think they can help to meet that need; and they think they can make money doing it. That is business. They are not creating a need from a vaccuum. And they are not forcing people who don't want or need their help to accept it (most of them, anyway). They didn't wake up one day and say, "let's destroy public education." They woke up and saw a system in ruins, a system where the needs of children were routinely being ignored in favor of the needs or desires of the adults--a system where evidence is routinely ignored in favor of pedagogical ideology (see my previous post). And they thought they could do better.

Whether they can or they can't remains to be seen. But they didn't knock down the walls of happy, effective schools and demand to be let in. We let the walls fall down; we created the opportunity for them. And maybe even the need. The fact that some of them are proceding a little unscrupulously and ham-fistedly is unfortunate, but it's not all that surprising. They're businessmen, not saints. This is how they operate. They see opportunities and they seize them. If we were doing our jobs better, there wouldn't have been any opportunity for them to seize.

Teacher unions aren't evil, either. If they go to extremes to secure good working conditions for their members and protect them from evaluation and accountability to a ludicrous extent, none of that happened out of the blue. It happened in reaction to decades of bad faith and no trust, decades of abuse by petty, stupid, tyrannical administrators who routinely rewarded their toadies and punished anyone who got in their way. We have a school system that does everything in its power to chase away decent leaders and attract small-minded despots. The fact that we have any good principals and superintendents out there is a testament to the strong sense of mission that so many of our educators have. Because, by all rights, we should have none.

All of these actions and attitudes have grown in response to real conditions, real facts on the ground. We may not like the attitudes and we may disagree with the actions, but we need to acknowledge why they exist.

But we don't. Instead, we pass judgment--often blind judgment--on what is happening today, without understanding why it is happening or where it came from. We come up with nasty names for the people we disagree with, and ascribe the worst possible motives for them. We say, "There's nothing wrong with our schools or our teachers. Nothing. So anyone trying to start a charter school must be evil." And it's a lie. We should know better. We say, "These teachers are afraid of being held accountable and refuse to put in a full day's work. They just don't want to help those kids." And it's a lie. We should know better.

Blame is easy. Understanding is hard. Understanding requires empathy, and empathy requires shutting our piehole for two seconds--shutting down our judgment for two seconds--and listening to other people. It requires walking a mile in someone else's shoes. 

I wonder if we're capable of it. I wonder if we're even interested.

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