School politics and the English language

Language matters when we write about education. If we want to have honest conversations about the topic, we should use honest words and phrases.

As George Orwell wrote in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” it’s obvious that lazy thinking can corrupt language, but “language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”

Here are a few that, in Orwell’s words, should be sent to the dustbin where they belong.

Education reform. I wrote an entire post on this in 2012. Reform doesn’t just mean change; it means change for the better. We shouldn’t use reform to refer to a set of policies – charter schools, vouchers, test-based accountability, etc. – that haven’t been proven effective.

At-risk students. Journalists use this phrase to refer to children who are poor or who live in what are often called blighted neighborhoods. Unfortunately, some educators use it too. But what does it mean, really? At risk of what? Read this powerful essay by Jason Buell and you’ll think twice before putting a label on children.

The civil rights issue of our time. This is a favorite of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and also of politicians who, believe me, would not have marched with Dr. King. As recent events in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., have made clear – and as Shree Chauhan, Audrey Watters and others have written, civil rights is the civil rights issue of our time. Continue reading

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‘This Is Not a Test’: a passionate book on schools, teaching

Jose Vilson’s blog is a must read for anyone who follows and cares about public schools in the U.S. It’s a smart take on education policy and politics with a strong focus on the crucial issues of race and poverty.

His new book, “This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class and Education,” is even better – an open-hearted account of the joys and frustrations of teaching in an era of polarizing disputes about how to improve schools. With teachers, especially teachers of color, too often voiceless, the book fills a big gap in the conversation.

ThisIsNotATestBut readers looking for a political tract or a detailed expose of reformist errors won’t find it here. Neither is it a slog through the pros and cons of various education policies. The book is structured as a memoir, grounding Vilson’s perspective in his own experiences.

“What you’re about to read,” he writes, “is the most honest account of my life up to this point and how my sense of self has influenced my identity as an educator.”

The son of a hard-working Dominican mother and a mostly absent Haitian father, Vilson grew up in poverty in New York. He was a good student, a “math nerd” who mostly thrived in public and Catholic schools and went on to study computer science at Syracuse University. Continue reading

Don’t let schools be an excuse for not fixing poverty

It’s a mystery. Why are people who call themselves education reformers comfortable with the status quo when it comes to poverty and economic inequality? Why are they OK with social circumstances that are convenient for adults but aren’t good for children?

Why can’t we talk about poverty and the challenges it presents for schools without being charged with excusing failure? As Adam VanOsdol of Indiana Education Insight noted recently: “Anyone raising the poverty issue these days gets accused of letting schools off the hook. These allegations stand in the way of serious form.”

Folks in the reform community like to say schools are the solution to poverty. Certainly good schools are part of what’s needed. But to suggest schools by themselves can solve the problem is naïve. And to suggest there’s nothing we can do is just giving up.

Just for a start, we could:

  • Raise the minimum wage.
  • Quit passing laws to weaken unions.
  • Create a fairer tax system.
  • Fund safety-net programs like food stamps, housing and unemployment.
  • Ensure people have access to health care.

And, yes, we could take on the shameful segregation of America’s education system Continue reading

Reform from the ‘radical middle’

There’s a lot to like about a column that Leslie and David Rutkowski wrote recently for Education Week, but one of the best things about it is this: It reclaims the word “reform” from the distorted meaning that has attached to it in education policy circles.

The Rutkowskis, who are education professors at Indiana University, note there are reformers on the right and left and in the center. And they do this without making an argument, but by simply using “reform” in its dictionary meaning – an effort to improve what’s wrong or unsatisfactory.

“Education reformers are firmly parked … in one of two camps,” they write. “The ‘schools good’ camp argues that taxpayers have no right to demand a standardized accountability system that emphasizes student achievement. On the other hand, the ‘schools bad’ camp gives every indication that there is an easy way to hold schools accountable.”

School Matters argued a year ago that we should just say no to using “reform” to refer to the menu of policies advocated by Jeb Bush, Tony Bennett and friends: giving letter grades to schools; weakening unions; promoting, paying and firing teachers on the basis of student test scores; promoting charter schools and vouchers, etc.

But the Rutkowskis’ approach is more honest and more accurate. Continue reading

Just say no to the term ‘education reform’

Years ago, editors and reporters at a mid-sized Indiana newspaper sat around a conference table and talked about what to do about two words that had entered the political lexicon: pro-life and pro-choice.

We decided not to use them, except in direct quotes or if they were part of the names of organizations. Instead we would refer to “abortion opponents” and “supporters of abortion rights,” or something like that – an approach that now aligns with Associated Press style used by most newspapers.

Our rationale was straightforward. Both pro-life and pro-choice were simplistic, inaccurate and designed to demonize the opposition. People who opposed abortion didn’t have a monopoly on supporting “life,” whatever that meant. And people who opposed abortion did so because they believed it ended a life that was precious to God, not because they opposed anyone’s “right to choose.”

Both terms were, at best, misleading. Politicians can mislead. Advocates can mislead. Journalists should just tell the truth.

The issue comes to mind with the current use of the word reform for a menu of approaches to education policy – typically including giving parents more choices through charter schools and/or vouchers; using student test results to evaluate teachers and make decisions about compensating, promoting and firing them; and limiting the power of teachers’ unions and the authority of elected school boards.

The problem is that reform isn’t a neutral word. It doesn’t just mean change; it means change for the better. According to Merriam-Webster, it can mean “a) to put or change into an improved form or condition; b) to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses.”

So people who oppose, or are skeptical of, the policies characterized as education reform are by implication the champions of faults and abuses. Or they are “defenders of the (abusive) status quote.” Even if, for example, they rage against the educational status quo, with its segregated schools, savage inequalities and inattention to poverty. Continue reading

Bennett on reform: Get on board or get left

Education reform in Indiana is like a railroad track, state Superintendent Tony Bennett told a Bloomington, Ind., audience today. One rail is the competition provided by private-school vouchers and more charter schools. The other is new teacher evaluations and limits on collective bargaining.

The cross-ties? Those are accountability, as in the A-to-F letter grade system for schools and state takeover of low-performing schools.

It’s an interesting metaphor; a little clunky, maybe, but good for keeping the conversation going.

“Quite honestly, I see that railroad track as the big divide,” countered Monroe County Community schools Superintendent Judith DeMuth, who joined Bennett and others for a panel discussion sponsored by the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce.

Noting that Bennett admits to being influenced by school reforms in Florida, she said, “In Florida there are haves and have-nots, and I don’t want to see that for my children and grandchildren.”

While Bennett focused on the structural reforms that the Indiana legislature passed this year, DeMuth and Steve Kain, superintendent of Richland-Bean Blossom schools, had other priorities in mind. They said Indiana needs to provide adequate resources for public schools, which haven’t yet made up for the $300 million in funding cuts they suffered two years ago.

And they called for more state support for early childhood education. Indiana boosted funding for full-day kindergarten this year, but not enough to cover the full cost. It’s one of 10 states that don’t fund public pre-kindergarten programs, said panelist Terry Spradlin, director of education policy for the Center on Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University – who, in the spirit of transparent accountability, gave Indiana grades of C and “incomplete” for early childhood programs.

But this was mostly the Tony Bennett show, and the superintendent has in fact become quite adept at selling his views on education, even to a somewhat skeptical audience.

He batted away a question about vouchers providing tax support for religious and political extremism, insisting he’s “pretty agnostic” about what types of schools should get public support. The point, he said, is that low-income parents should have the same choice for their kids that more wealthy parents have. “Why shouldn’t they go where their needs are best met?” he said.

He hailed education reform as one of the few public issues where there seems to be some bipartisanship, with Democratic Secretary of Education Arne Duncan supporting the same charter-school and merit-pay initiatives as Bennett and other Republican state officials.

He insisted that passionate disagreement and debate is ultimately good for education. “We have reached consensus for so long that we’ve gotten complacent,” he said.

He could take an old bluegrass hymn as his theme song: “Keep your hands upon the throttle, and your eyes upon the rail.”

Education reform idolatry

If this education thing doesn’t work out for Tony Bennett, the Indiana superintendent of public instruction may have a future in reality TV.

Check out his performance at the recent Education Reform Idol competition hosted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute – where Indiana walked away with the title of the “reformiest” state in the nation.

Bennett’s fellow contestants, the chief state education officers of Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin, appear slightly uncomfortable to be taking part in a sort of questionable inside joke about changes that, for better or worse, will affect the lives of millions of students and teachers.

The “celebrity judges,” Jeanne Allen, Bruno Manno, and Richard Lee Colvin, seem never to have heard of American Idol’s Simon Cowell, never mind trying to imitate him. Despite prompting by emcee Michael Petrilli, most of the folks on the stage act like they’re at an education policy symposium.

Not so Bennett. He goes for the gusto, talking trash about his opponents, repeating his mantra of “competition, freedom and accountability” and drawing political lines in the sand.

He sets the tone by claiming he’s like Larry Bird at the first NBA 3-point contest: “I’m just here to see who’s going to finish second.” He scoffs at the notion that Illinois could be reformy: “Illinois is the state where Indiana legislators ran away to get away from education reform legislation,” he says, referring to the Indiana House Democrats’ walkout this session. He says reform in Indiana took off after we – that is, Republicans – seized control of state government.

Tossed a friendly question about helping teachers improve, Bennett takes it as an opportunity to zing education schools. He says Indiana lets teachers earn license-renewal credits through professional development “so no longer are teachers held hostage by the cash cows of higher education.”

“If you want to talk about flashy legislation, and implementing flashy legislation in a streamlined fashion, come to Indiana,” Bennett says.

If the judges won’t be Simon Cowell, leave it to Bennett.