Friday, December 21, 2012

All Hale the power of teachers

What stands out to me in this year's Nashville Scene Person of the Year is not the admittedly excellent individuals they selected to honor but the way the individuals served the writer's tidy triangulation by casting plagues on both the seeming monoliths of charter school supporters and charter school opponents:

the Scene would like to refocus the discussion of public education not on differences and squabbles, but on the enormous asset that charter and public schools have in common: the teachers who are the most active, direct agents of hope Nashville's children will face outside the home.

Reporter Steven Hale is not being any more postconventional about public education than is either the Nashville Chamber of Commerce or Jesse Register's school administration. Both of the latter strive to get the news media to frame school reform, a.k.a. privatization and tax wealth transfer, as a "bold" partnership that weds market-model charters with public mandates for education.

Hale frames the issue exactly as they have. Following two teachers as illustrations to soften the debate merely supports the dominant line in the district now.

The fact he's merely echoing their drive to privatize education is made clear by the high fives they're giving him for what amounts to free advertising for their project. Federal, state, and local governments fund what Hale is advocating. Democrats and Republicans already agree on it (to the point that Democratic officials, sustained by Gates and Walton family wealth, are abandoning teachers unions across the country). To overplay rancor on the subject among powerful elites is disingenuous. His editorial advocacy hits dead center of the power matrix of education policy. Wealth flows to that center like iron filings line up in a magnetic field.

Hale's framing mechanism is symbolic: teachers, that is, "the enormous asset that both charters and public schools have together". About the only exception that charter school advocates would have to that value-framing is to insist that charter schools are thoroughly public schools.

Otherwise, education reformers are consistent and evangelical in the emphasis placed on the role of teachers in the education process. I have found them loath to talk about the role of parents, the difference that socio-economics and income inequalities have on learning, or the simple matter of children getting enough food for breakfast before they come to school in the morning. They put their speculative, peppy views of the influence and optimism of teachers on such an unrealistic plane that it often defies logic and detracts from the real impact of more profound, everyday drags on student performance. That idealism fits hand-in-glove with the emphasis on calls for "quality teachers" and on demands that testing be the stick by which quality is measured.

Within Hale's writing, current school board member and former Bredesen henchman Will Pinkston pays lip service to the teaching pedestal Hale erects (Pinkston's claim that the "teacher-quality camp" has been missing from the debate is disingenous. I've heard that saw spouted by reformers constantly for years as well as in PTO meetings and in the halls of my kid's elementary school).

The Pinkston seal of approval.

Hale's writing seems like it strives to amount to Pinkston's "teacher-quality camp" myth and to provide an echo chamber for education reformers who scale up the influence of teachers and downplay other factors that affect achievement. Hale also neglects the irony that counsels that if we have or hire high quality teachers they should be proficient enough to organize for their own self-interest without being criticized as self-serving by reformers. More importantly, they should have more influence in determining student achievement than testing does.

But Hale's pedestal is beset by the same ironies that plague the reformers' arguments. It is notable in a tribute to teachers that Hale mentions teachers unions only once (and then as a foil). He also says very little about giving "great teachers" a freer hand in determining performance. While I can only think of one objection that reformers might have with Hale's framing of the issue, I can think of many that union members might have. One is precisely the point that he does not address the positive influence unions have for teachers and the civics lesson provided to students. Another is that part of the "innovation" that charter schools advocate is not really innovative at all: charters are not regulated to hire certified teachers and they are "free" to use practically anyone they deem as qualified. A third is the drag that flooding public education with less skilled, cheaper workers has on the salary and benefits that may attract qualified teachers who are skilled at navigating government bureaucracy to begin with. The list of objections could go on and on.

And most of these objections defy the Nashville Scene's oversimplification of their views of charter school teachers as "moonbeams". I may be a charter school opponent, but I'm not surprised by anecdotal evidence that there are good teachers in charter schools. But that is hardly the larger point that I am trying to make.

The tribute that Hale pays to teachers is consistent with the idealism of education reform driving both Register's office and the Chamber of Commerce lobby. I'm not saying that the two individuals he lauds are unworthy. They read like outstanding individuals. I do not deny Hale's grasp of their characters. But there are many outstanding individuals in the teaching profession who don't fit squarely in Hale's value frames that box out larger questions that matter in public education and the process of privatization, which he apparently has come to embrace (does he have children in public schools, by the way?).

Those of us who are not journalists rely on reporters to write more level-headed, critical and investigative analyses than Hale's narrational, sentimental riff, which triangulates as if it actually departed from the school reform project. It does not. In spite of his claims, separation is never really achieved, which is exactly why Metro and Chamber flacks have not shivered his commentary. It frames their values perfectly.

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