HOPE AND DESPAIR
I waver back and forth between feeling DESPAIR and thinking we can’t possibly compete with the billions and billions of dollars being poured into school “reform” by the foundations of Bill Gates, Eli Broad and Alice Walton…and thinking that we do have HOPE that somehow we’ll get our message across that school “reform” is actually a
thinly-veiled movement to privatize public education. It’s true we have numbers — very likely a majority of the 3+ million public school teachers in the country — a large number of parents who are aware of what’s going on, and social media to connect us all. The “reformers” on the other hand, have both major political parties and the media.
On the HOPE side are people who are spreading the word.
This morning I watched a presentation at Vanderbilt University by Finnish Educator, Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons. In the two hour presentation he talked about the differences between the countries who are now under the status quo of GERM, the Global Education Reform Movement, and Finland. He listed 5 differences…and the Finnish alternative to each. It’s his contention that these, along with other changes made to their education system (especially changes in teacher training) has made the Finnish public school system one of the best in the world. In a nutshell, then, here’s what he said (for a more in depth look, see his book, Finnish Lessons),
- Instead of academics, focus on the whole child. Take a holistic approach to education.
- Instead of standardization, move towards personalization.
- Instead of competition, build community. He said that there is a lot of competition in Finnish society, but not in education.
- Instead of choices for different schools, establish equity. Give the schools what they need to do the job no matter where they are.
- Instead of accountability develop responsibility, and trust.
At the end of the 11 minute clip below he said, “Don’t try this at home” meaning that we can’t just transplant the “Finnish Model” in the US and expect it to work the same way. At the end of the talk he said that instead we should use Finland as an example of hope…that change is at least possible.
In order to change our direction in education and adapt some of the things that have worked in places like Finland we would, he said, have to work together in a unified way…something not likely to happen in the US right now.
How can we, supporters of public education, overcome the damage and misinformation coming from the corporate offices of the Gates, Broad and Walton Foundations, groups like Stand For Children and Students First, governor’s offices and statehouses across the country, and the US Department of Education?
Another voice on the HOPE side is Diane Ravitch, one of the nations most vocal supporters of public education. She has a new book coming out in a little less than a month (pre-order here). Yet, before the book has even been released, the privatizers and “reformers” are attacking it. After accusing Ravitch of making straw man arguments and ad hominem attacks on “reformers”, Peter Cunningham does exactly the same thing in attacking a book he hasn’t even read yet.
Discussing Cunningham’s article, Anthony Cody wrote that that we have to present facts in such a way as to make it impossible to ignore.
…Unless we actually connect in such a compelling way that we cannot be ignored. That is what happened when I pointed out that President’s off the cuff comments at a town hall meeting were actually a devastating critique of his own administration’s policies. That earned me an email from one of Peter Cunningham’s staff, Justin Hamilton, with the subject line “correction to your post,” offering to “clarify any confusion” over the administration’s position. This was the most substantive exchange, as he had put himself in a position where I could ask him some real questions in order to clear up all this confusion. This exchange even made it into the New York Times.
And it is about to happen again, in spades, when Diane Ravitch releases her new book. That book will be the best rebuttal to Cunningham that we could wish for. It is packed with evidence of the failure of the phony reform project led by Duncan and Gates. And solid proposals to improve education for all children.
I have two thoughts about the fact that critics are trashing Dr. Ravitch’s book even before it’s published. On one hand, they are not going to let her get away with telling the truth without a fight. This “review” by Cunningham is, I’m afraid, just the beginning of an all-out attack by “reformers.” On the other hand, and more important, if “reformers” are attacking her book before it’s published, then they know that it is now impossible to ignore her.
I’m reminded of the words of Randy Olson, a marine biologist and filmmaker whose 2006 film, A Flock of Dodos highlighted the debate between proponents of Intelligent Design and the scientific consensus that supports evolution (Actually I was reminded of the film just last week when it was mentioned in another blog somewhere which I can’t remember).
He talked about getting the message out…and I think his words have some meaning for public education supporters in our current situation. To paraphrase his words from the end of the film so they reflect our topic here…
So in America today we now have two voices for public education. The first voice, that of supporters of public education, is handicapped by its blind obsession with the truth. The second voice, emerging from corporate board rooms, hedge fund operators, politicians, and billionaire philanthropists, understands the need to tell simple, clean stories not constrained by the truth.
There’s a famous quote that nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution. We can modify this quote to account for our situation now by saying that nothing in our society today makes sense, except in the light of the information explosion.
Our cultural environment has changed drastically over the past 50 years as we’ve witnessed our knowledge and information increase exponentially. The result of this changed environment is a general public that is less interested in processing the surpluses of information they’re handed. And this has led to new techniques for mass communication.
Privatizers and “reformers” have figured out the need for simple slogans, and instead of wasting time explaining entire stories to the general public, they know how to jump to the conclusions and provide followers with what have come to be known as the talking points…
- public schools are failing
- the problem is bad teachers
- the problem is bad schools of education
- testing will solve everything
- poverty is just an excuse to fail
- …and on and on and on…
And so we’re faced with a question of who will dictate public education policy for our society. Will it be the supporters of public schools? Or will it be the privatizing “reformers?”
Will public school advocates adapt to this new communication environment, or will they go the way of species who failed to change along with their environment?
We have to “connect in such a compelling way that we cannot be ignored”. Our voices must be heard above the money…
All who envision a more just, progressive and fair society cannot ignore the battle for our nation’s educational future. Principals fighting for better schools, teachers fighting for better classrooms, students fighting for greater opportunities, parents fighting for a future worthy of their child’s promise: their fight is our fight. We must all join in.