The Astroturf Echo-Chamber of Anti-Education Reformers

The Education Writers Association has a blog up today that describes the current battle over standards and assessments, one that reared up its divisive head during the annual convention in Boston earlier this month. The EWA post first quotes Robert Schaeffer of FairTest who insisted at a previous event that the opt-out movement is a righteous “act of civil disobedience” that is “not a top-down thing, but a genuine grassroots, bottom-up movement.”

But in Boston my colleague and friend Chris Stewart responded thus:

“You can’t close the achievement gap by erasing the data,” Stewart said at the EWA event, arguing that opting out especially hurts students of color. He describes the efforts as reflecting an alliance of “unions, right-wing people, and privileged, pampered parents.” 

Standardized testing is a critical tool to reveal “where the racial disparities are” in schools, said Stewart, the former executive director of the African American Leadership Forum in Minneapolis. “Every single civil rights lawsuit against the state around education has used test scores to prove its case.” 

A coalition of 12 civil and human rights groups issued a statement last May echoing some of Stewart’s concerns: “Abolishing the tests or sabotaging the validity of their results only makes it harder to identify and fix the deep-seated problems in our schools.”

Certainly, Chris’s points are borne out by the opt-out activity in New York and New Jersey, where the biggest fans of test refusal live in wealthy suburbs and are financially and educationally invested in local control of their high-performing and exclusionary school districts. Yesterday Jonathan Chait described the “emerging alliance between teacher unions” —  stalwart standard-bearers of, well, no standards or standardized assessments — and Republicans, both of whom share “cultural distrust” and fierce defense of local control.

Here Chait refers to Sen. Lamar Alexander’s opposition to an Obama Administration proposal to shift more federal aid to poor students and expand efforts to address the disproportionate number of inexperienced teachers in poor, minority districts, a result of current teacher tenure laws and contracts:

Local control leaves those [union-negotiated teacher salary] contracts in place. Federal interference has the potential to bust up those arrangements. The spectacle of unions lining up behind Alexander to oppose Obama’s plan to devote more funding to poor schools is not the first instance of this alliance in action. Unions have likewise opposed the Obama administration and civil-rights groups, siding with Republicans to demand a rollback of testing (which is a necessary tool to measure performance and disparities). The NEA’s president has already suggested she would back away from its longstanding, reflexive support for Democrats.

Sen. Alexander’s position is trumpeted by both AFT President Randi Weingarten and NEA President Lily Eskelson-Garcia.

The second point of disagreement in the EWA post is whether or not union-sponsored opt-out lobbying is indeed a “genuine grassroots, bottom-up movement.” This seems farcical both on its face and in reality..

Today, for example, there is a conference at Rutgers University in New Brunswick on “the intersection of education reform, communities, and social justice.” You’d think a conference that bills itself as an “education reform” meeting would include those who actually advocate for standards, accountability, and school choice. Guess again. Sessions include “Hacking Away at Pearson and the Corporate Octopus” (moderated by Alan Singer), “Opt Out as Democratic Civil Engagement,” “School Choice for Latino Students: Misappropriating the Notion of Diversity,” “The Impact of Charter Schools on Suburban Districts” (moderated by Julia Sass Rubin, founder of anti-charter Save Our Schools-NJ),  and“TFA Leadership Model and Neoliberal Education Reform” (moderated by Leah Owens, anti-TFA-er). You get the idea.

So, who’s funding this echo-chamber on educational stasis? Is it really a “grassroots” conference?

Hardly. The “conference” is sponsored by the Daniel Tanner Foundation, which describes itself as dedicated to “advancing American public education, specifically with regard to the democratizing function and design of the curriculum of nonselective elementary schools and nonselective secondary schools of the comprehensive type. (Charter schools, voucher schools and specialized academic schools are not eligible for grants.)” Daniel Tanner is a professor at Rutgers School of Education. The Tanner Foundation also funded a series of anti-school choice reports written by Sass Rubin and Mark Weber, both of Rutgers. Sounds pretty top-down to me.

What do you think?


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