Check Missionary Zeal among All Education Advocates

Ask several self-proclaimed education advocates their opinions about charter schools, Common Core, and Teach For America, and the responses, to the general public who do not think daily about education reform, are likely baffling since some claim all three of those are necessary commitments for better schools and others claim all three are misguided commitments that are harming not only education and democracy but also our students and teachers.

For several months now, I have been in contact with Sarah Matsui during the publication process of her in-press book on Teach For America, focusing on how TFA impacts corp candidates. As the publication date of Matsui’s book approaches, our conversation has turned to the education reform debate—notably how divisive and thus distracting that debate tends to be in terms of the larger goals of universal public education, social justice, and race, class, and gender equity.

Throughout my career as an educator—over thirty years—and then the more recent decade-plus seeking a public voice for education and equity advocacy, I have struggled with being an outsider in the “both sides” nature of policy debates concerning education.

As one example, I took an immediate stance against Common Core that, obviously, situates me in opposition to Common Core advocates—but my reasons for rejecting Common Core as just another failed commitment to accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing also alienate me from those determined to reject Common Core as uniquely flawed standards (and thus some good standards exist) or as over-reach by the federal government (specifically President Obama).

In other words, I have—with little success—tried to move the critical gaze away from Common Core specifically and toward the larger problem with accountability policy.

Yes, having states back out of Common Core and the connected high-stakes testing contracts is a credible goal, but if those acts simply mean states then embrace yet a different set of standards and high-stakes test, that is not victory at all; in fact, it is proof that we are missing the larger picture showing us the root causes of inequity in both our society and our schools.

Matsui is anticipating the same dilemma for her since her TFA work—nuanced and detailed—will come in the wake of rising criticism of TFA as well as the appearance that political, public, and individual support for the program is waning.

What Matsui and I have been discussing has helped me once again reconsider my own work, my own advocacy in much the same way Andre Perry’s recent commentary has tempered my discourse and goals related to charter schools.

I think advocates for public education as a foundational institution for seeking and insuring our democracy and building equity for all people have an obligation to criticize charter schools, Common Core, and Teach For America, for example, as misguided and often harmful education policy—despite claims that these are all designed to address the same goals of equity.

I think we also have the right to unmask the missionary zeal behind what has come to be called corporate education reform.

However, we cannot remain fixated there, and we must check our own missionary zeal.

Here is where I think reconsidering TFA can be a significant turning point in how we begin to build a movement toward something positive—equitable society, equitable schools—instead of simply calling for this or that reform to be dismantled.

As I noted above about Common Core: Yes, I believe, defunding TFA and eliminating TFA in its original form are important and credible goals, but even if those happen, we cannot be fooled into thinking we have addressed a root cause of the larger problems that face us in society and formal education: race-, class-, and gender-based inequity of opportunity.

Here is the key. How often have we asked: What are the conditions that created the possibility for TFA (or charter schools, or Common Core) to exist in the first place?

If black, brown, and poor children were being served by well-funded schools and taught by experienced and qualified teachers, would TFA have had a problem for which they could offer a solution (regardless of how flawed we believe that solution to be)?

As I worked through the school choice debate, I found myself asking people trapped in the “both sides” frenzy to consider an education system in which choice wasn’t necessary—a school system that genuinely offered all children the sort of education that the affluent already insure for their children.

I concede that it may require a certain amount of missionary zeal to attract the attention of the wider public not often concerned with education and education reform. But as those of us advocating for equity and social justice may now be witnessing a turning point—greater skepticism about accountability, charter schools, and TFA—we must check that missionary zeal so that we do not misrepresent our ultimate goals.

Those goals must be framed in the positives—the lives and schools we are seeking for all children and people—and not mired in the negatives—defeat Common Core, close charter schools, defund TFA—that will likely, if achieved, not produce the outcomes we claim to seek.

Currently, it is a lonely place to say that I have real problems with charter schools, Common Core, and TFA, but that I really think they are not the problem; they are examples of how too many in power have misread the problem, or even ignored the problem.

Can we set aside the “both sides” debate and begin to build a conversation, a conversation open to all voices and to listening so that we can work together toward the difficult and complex goals of equity?

I sit in my home state of South Carolina the day after yet more protests were held in the state capitol of Columbia by the KKK and the New Black Panther Party.

When my daughter, granddaughter, and son-in-law left my house yesterday, my daughter texted that they passed several cars on the highway with Confederate battle flags waving.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “but it bends towards justice”—his nod toward faith.

Life is short, I fear, and that arc is incredibly slow when you are among the living, the very real faces and eyes of the ones you love.

I sit in my home state of South Carolina, and I worry about allowing the removal of a flag from state grounds to become the victory instead of simply a moment on the journey to the victory we all deserve.

And that has forever shaded my eyes as I witness this march toward social justice and educational equity.

“Remember,” cautions Langston Hughes:

The days of bondage—
And remembering—
Do not stand still.

Let us be guided not by the blindness of missionary zeal, but grounded by the long-range focus that leads to action.

9 thoughts on “Check Missionary Zeal among All Education Advocates

  1. I’ve said repeatedly that we cannot allow our desire to beat back some of these reformy programs sucker us into pretending that there are not real problems behind them. Reformsters offer false solutions, but they offer them in response to real problems, and if we act as if we can just go back to what we were doing before this mess hit, we are doing a real injustice to the many Americans that the old ways did not serve at all.

  2. “If black, brown, and poor children were being served by well-funded schools and taught by experienced and qualified teachers, would TFA have had a problem for which they could offer a solution (regardless of how flawed we believe that solution to be)?”

    Yes, the money behind TFA would have manufactured another problem—a fiction pretending to be nonfiction. In fact, they already have manufactured the problem. For instance, the Waltons have been funding this war for decades. I remember reading about their efforts to destroy public education with vouchers as far back as the 1980s, because that’s when I stopped shopping at Walmart and the Walton campaign was based on the manufactured, false and flawed fraud of A Nation at Risk study that came out thanks to the Reagan administration. Will this country ever shed itself of the damage caused by that B-rated actor living in the White House?

    The challenges of teaching black, brown and poor children and funding the schools and staffing them with nothing but teachers who go through year long urban residencies (arguably the best teacher training programs around) is still not going to end segregation, racism and poverty. We area always going to have these problems to deal with, and if we are going to improve the situation, it will mean an endless war to fight back against what can only be called the forces of ignorance and evil.

    I think I know what I’m talking about because I was one of those poor children growing up with all the challenges we read about for children born into poverty in a dysfunctional family, and somehow in spite of my severe dyslexia and life threatening health challenges as a child growing up with an alcoholic, gambling father who cheated on my mother as often as my older brother, who spend about 15 years of his life in prison, cheated on both of his wives, I ended up teaching the same children I was when I was a child, but many of them didn’t have my mother who made sure I learned to read when I didn’t want to and fought her every step of the way becasue reading and writing was hard with my scrambled dyslexic brain.

    The greatest teachers in the world with the best funded k-12 public schools are not going to bridge that gap and reach enough of those black, brown and poor children to make the corporate Rheeformers stop what they are doing, because it isn’t those children they are waging this war for. They are waging this war for the money used to fund public education and the power that money will buy them as they stamp out any resistance to their dysfunctional neo-liberal, neo-conservative or libertarian tea party agendas.

    All TFA recruits are either dupes, fools or psychopaths, who are no different than the billionaire oligarchs who are funding this war against democracy and the public schools. In the end, no matter what happens, the black, brown and poor children will still have the same challenges to overcome but they won’t have much help to make it.

    The United States may never fix this problem. In fact, it may be un-fixable because throughout history in most if not every civilization on this planet there has always been racism, discrimination and segregation and there has always been poverty—even in countries like Japan. But we can improve on this situation. To make that wor better, we have to come to a consensus based on what we know works and not what we think or want and we already know what works best and that is something the Rheeformers are ignoring as they go for the money and power that money buys because there is no profit in doing it the right way.

  3. Hi Paul, I am going to push back on this a little starting with the framing. There have always been people doing the work of pushing for education as liberation, seeing schools as sites for struggle, and they have always been attacked or marginalized, their numbers dwindling. What we haven’t seen in a long long time is a grassroots movement willing to fight for the changes our schools (and broader society) need. It is not an accident that under neoliberalism, after the failures of the social movements of the 60s and 70s, that the hope of building the kind of groundswell needed for change has been stifled. Now, neoliberalism’s thirst for greater profits has turned its eyes on public education which is the hell we have been living under for the past decade or so. To frame the issues as “both sides” is to ignore the powerful forces behind edreform.

    I am spending my summer organizing with the Chicago Teachers Union. We are being trained on having organizing conversations to mobilize our members in order to build power to actually CHANGE the unjust realities. You always enter the conversation from the member’s issues. Whether it’s testing, principal bullying, or lack of resources-just about any issue can draw people into the broader conversation around power, racism, and inequality in our city. And that leads to people coming out into the streets. That is CTU’s power.

    So when I hear people dismiss the fights against Common Core or TFA as “side issues”, I disagree. In fact, those fights are the perfect vehicles to open people up into the broader issues. And those small wins, whether its Common Core being yanked or TFA starting to crumble, they BUILD OUR POWER.

    For me as a teacher, Common Core is severely impacting my ability to teach the way I want. And it’s hurting my students with special needs. I can’t stand seeing them spiral into feelings of inadequacy and watch the spark of learning be extinguished in their young eyes. This is not ideological. And when I find others across the country experiencing the same harm, it provides fodder to organize resistance to ALL the forces that brought something like Common Core into our schools.

    The existence of TFA is a real existential threat to my profession. TFA was born out of poor working conditions leading to teacher shortages, and its existence perpetuates those terrible conditions. Why would a district listen to teachers and pay for the kinds of improvements that would encourage teachers to stay long-term when there is a steady supply of people (both from TFA and its offshoots) who will be bodies in that classroom, who will likely never participate or join in unions to fight for better conditions, and who will not stick around long enough to collect a pension, nevermind TFA’s central role in neoliberal education reform. If TFA was not allowed to exist, our asks as a union would have more power. We could bargain to actually improve working conditions. As it is, I don’t how I can possibly survive for the long term. Teachers like me need a win in this. So do our students.

    So I encourage you to see these fights not as the wrong target, but as the perfect target to direct people to the broader struggle. People are getting activated across the nation over these issues. Let’s organize them, not scold them. The ultimate goal is to build our power so we can actually change this messed up system.

      • I guess I’m confused as to who is seeing that as the end game? In Chicago, we are really clear about building our understanding of the complex, interrelated nature of issues. Then we choose a target and fight it. And different people can do different work on different projects and its all meaningful and necessary. But the CTU uses these issues to organize people to the streets and other actions. Maybe the problem is there are not enough groups pushing action? Not enough people organizing the anger into something bigger?

  4. Stopped following you and a bunch of people for a while Paul. Happy to talk about it in realtime. This post though…this post is exactly where my head and heart has been for the past 6 months. Brilliant post. I will check in regularly!

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