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Critique of NYTimes “The Deadlocked Debate Over Education Reform”

April 13, 2011

An ally and trusted Community Education Task Force colleague of mine, Howard Eagle, recently analyzed and critiqued Jonathan Mahler’s article in the NYTimes “The Deadlocked Debate Over Education Reform“. The article, featured below, has some clear issues, which Mr. Eagle breaks down.

The Deadlocked Debate Over Education Reform

Published: April 9, 2011 ,
Few would argue that she was a good choice. But as you watched the almost giddy reception that greeted the departure of the New York City schools chancellor, Cathleen P. Black, last week — “She wasn’t in the class for the full semester so it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to give her a grade,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers — it was hard not to wonder whether the debate over school reform has reached a point where debate is no longer possible.
As is often the case with morally charged policy issues — remember welfare reform? — false dichotomies seem to have replaced fruitful conversation. If you support the teachers’ union, you don’t care about the students. If you are critical of the teachers’ union, you don’t care about the teachers. If you are in favor of charter schools, you are opposed to public schools. If you believe in increased testing, you are on board with the corruption of our liberal society’s most cherished educational values. If you are against increased testing, you are against accountability. It goes on. Neither side seems capable of listening to the other.
The data can appear as divided as the rhetoric. New York City’s Department of Education will provide you with irrefutable statistics that school reform is working; opponents of reform will provide you with equally irrefutable statistics that it’s not. It can seem equally impossible to disentangle the overlapping factors: Are struggling schools struggling because they’ve been inundated with students from the failing schools that have closed around them? Are high school graduation rates up because the pressure to raise them has encouraged teachers and principals to pass students who aren’t really ready for college?
In such a polarized environment, spontaneous outbursts of candor can be ill-advised. When President Obama was asked recently by a high school student in Washington if he could cut back on standardized testing, he expressed sympathy. Critics of education reform pounced, seizing on his comments as evidence that even Mr. Obama, a champion of the reform movement, recognizes that testing has gotten out of control.
Ms. Black, an Upper East Side publishing executive who had never attended a public school, let alone worked in one, might have been destined to fail. But given how entrenched the two sides of this debate have become, it seems fair to wonder whether there can be such a thing as a successful schools chancellor in New York or, for that matter, anywhere. Ask Michelle Rhee, Washington’s crusading former chancellor, who played a decisive role, it is argued, in the failed re-election bid of Adrian Fenty, the mayor who had appointed her.
Even Ms. Black’s predecessor, Joel I. Klein, effective as he was at pushing through his changes, was forever alienating teachers and parents, enduring approval ratings that were consistently below 45 percent. Jean-Claude Brizard, one of Mr. Klein’s deputies and now the superintendent of the Rochester schools, is encountering some problems of his own, having recently received a vote of no confidence from his city’s teachers.
The nominee to replace Ms. Black, Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott, will at least have the benefit of following a chancellor with a 17 percent approval rating, but the good will that he’s enjoying now may well disappear as soon as he makes his first move. To stand any chance in this climate, a chancellor must ingratiate himself with teachers even as he forces them to accept radical changes to their contract, and push testing and accountability even as he assures parents that curriculums won’t be narrowed. In short, imagine a Chimera, the mythological beast that was equal parts lion, snake and goat.
How did we get here? The modern school-reform movement sprang to life in 1983, with the release of “A Nation at Risk,” an education report commissioned by the Reagan administration that boldly stated — note the cold-war era metaphor — that the United States had embarked upon a “unilateral educational disarmament.” From there, a line, however jagged, can be drawn through the Clinton administration’s emphasis on national standards, to President George W. Bush’s declaiming of “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” and on to the current generation of reformers, with their embrace of charter schools and their attacks on the teachers union. The policies and rhetoric changed, often dramatically, but the underlying assumption remained the same: Our nation’s schools are in dire need of systemic reform.
Opponents of reform will tell you the movement was built on a false premise, that the Reagan report was based on declining SAT scores, which weren’t really declining; it was just that more people were taking the test. The anti-reformers (for lack of a better term) have their own founding document, too: “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” a federal study released a bit awkwardly in 1966, in the midst of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s efforts to persuade Congress to devote more resources to schools through programs like Head Start. It concluded that school-based factors like money and teachers actually have little bearing on student achievement, that what happens outside the classroom is actually far more significant than what happens inside of it.
Like all battles for public opinion, the school-reform debate is in large part a matter of what the political consultant George Lakoff has called “framing.” In this struggle over storylines, the documentary film “Waiting for Superman,” with its lionization of charter schools, represented a major victory for reformers. So, too, did stories about the “rubber rooms” where New York City’s Department of Education puts ineffective teachers whose jobs are protected by their union contract. These accounts helped create an image of public-school teachers as cosseted by government largesse, our nation’s new “welfare queens.”
The critics of the reform movement offer counter-narratives. Diane Ravitch, a tireless tweeter and author of the best-selling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” argues that school reform is actually hurting students. Jon Stewart has taken to parodying the attacks on public-school teachers on The Daily Show. (“You are destroying America. Yeah. Look at you, with your chalk-stained irregular blouses from Loehmans, and your Hyundai with its powered steering and its wind shield. I guess bugs hitting you in the face doesn’t cut it for old Mr. Chips.”)
Presumably, the deadlock will eventually be broken, and a “winner” will emerge. Either the education reformers will manage to take control of a critical mass of school districts, or they won’t. Before that happens, perhaps the various narratives and counter-narratives will decalcify and some actual debate will take place.

Mr. Eagle responded, stating:

I am put off by the writer’s nonsense (below) for numerous reasons:

1. It’s important to correctly identify what the  “debate” is really “over,” i.e. it is specifically “Over [URBAN] Education Reform”

2. The idea that this is merely about “morally charged policy issues” is offensive (to say the least). Instead, it is literally and ultimately about the lives and futures of URBAN SCHOOL CHILDREN.

3. The writer has a lot of nerve to mention “false dichotomies.” His thought process is filled with the same. For example, he posits that the opposite of “a chancellor ingratiating himself with teachers” is “forcing them to accept radical changes to their contract,” and the opposite of  “pushing testing and accountability” is “assuring parents that curriculums won’t be narrowed” — What???

4. In some cases, the guy just straight-up doesn’t know what in the heck he’s talking about. For instance, he makes the totally ludicrous, thoroughly erroneous claim that those of us who are opposed to the privatization, so-called “reform movement”  — are basing our opposition on “a federal study released in 1966, [which] concluded that school-based factors like money and teachers actually have little bearing on student achievement” — What???

5. Where the writer is concerned — the bottom line seems to be that this is about so-called “decalcification and actual debate.”

He obviously does not understand that we are far beyond debate. This simply is not the time for a “Great Debate” — while urban school children are flunking out, dropping out, and dying out in larger numbers than ever before.  It’s show-and-tell time. That is, all who have legitimate knowledge and ideas about reforming URBAN EDUCATION, need to show us and tell us their thoughts about how we (parents, grandparents, students, educators, activists, elected officials, business people, etc…) can all work together cooperatively and collaboratively toward IMPLEMENTATION — period. Otherwise, people just need to get back in a corner somewhere out of the way. If those who represent clear obstacles do not choose to move out of the way — I’d like to think that we are very close to a time in which they will be rolled over by a REAL, URBAN EDUCATION REFORM MOVEMENT.

I also find this supposedly “neutral” call from many media sources to “put our differences aside” and have a “reasonable debate” interesting. Debates have been underway regarding education reform for a long time. Now I’m not saying that reasonable conversation and dialogue regarding the issues in education is of no worth. However, this fascinating urge to just “set aside our differences” and for the sake of civil discourse engage in some glorified debate frequently seems misguided when it comes from those in the media who lack a critical analysis of what is even happening in education. (perhaps it’s time for us to call for some accountability in journalism?) This ultimately brings me back to an increased need for an ideal we at Failing Schools have been a part of and actively supported: the continued push for us to create and organize our own grassroots media in order to clearly present what is happening in education.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2011 7:45 am

    “This ultimately brings me back to an increased need for an ideal we at Failing Schools have been a part of and actively supported: the continued push for us to create and organize our own grassroots media in order to clearly present what is happening in education. ”

    Mark- I believe that is starting to happen. See and . We are beginning to build out a network of activists, each with its own network of people.

  2. markfriedman1 permalink
    April 13, 2011 8:25 am

    Bob, I agree. It’s true that we have the beginnings of a strong collective of netroot activists and organizers who are building alternatives to the MSM narrative. I’m envisioning further links between netroots education organizers with agreed upon goals, strategies, and tactics. It’ll take work but it will be worth it.

  3. Dan Middleman, M.Ed. permalink
    April 13, 2011 9:27 am

    Once again, we are seeing this false equivalence to make it look like both sides of the argument have equal amounts of research to support their points of view. That is not the case. The Michelle Rhee’s of the world do not have evidence to support their idea that putting more pressure on teachers (as well as merit bonuses) increases student learning. So they have to distort and flat-out lie to get their point across. Unfortunately, as I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, the people that get on TV and call themselves education experts (like CNN’s Bill Bennett) have no freakin’ idea what they’re talking about. And there is no one who is called in to set the record straight with actual evidence. This website is the first example I’ve seen of a somewhat coordinated effort to present actual facts about the effects of “ed reform” on students in poverty/the “urban setting.” We have to get someone on TV that can speak the actual truth (as opposed to the pretend truth), and use facts to do it. We’ve had too many imposters performing their version of the “Houston/D.C. Miracle” and getting rewarded for it.

  4. April 25, 2011 8:58 pm

    Jonathan Mahler has zero credibility. His article published on Apr 10 about a middle school in the Bronx is full of lies and distortions, and the NYT has already published a partial retraction of his bad numbers. These people don’t care about facts. They care about promoting a narrative.

    • markfriedman1 permalink
      April 26, 2011 3:05 pm

      Dan and Ann, I couldn’t agree with you more. Waging a struggle for accurate scholarship and information is crucial in order to reconstruct public understanding of the issues in education reform. We need to place pressure on corporate news sources and transform mainstream media by supporting the few journalists who can effectively analyze the issues while establishing our own networks of progressive grassroots media. This is no easy endeavor but we’re got to shift the balance of power in this dialogue in order to bring about meaningful change for our students, schools, and communities.


  1. Critique of NYTimes “The Deadlocked Debate Over Education Reform … :: Daily News

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