Who’s Who in the Education Wars?

Written by: Mitchell Robinson

Primary Source : Keep Talking, October 17, 2015

A recent blog post from Sam Chaltain suggested that what he terms “the battle of the edu-tribes” is finally nearing an end, and both sides of the reform debate (Mr. Chaltain calls them the “practitioners and the policy makers”) have aligned around a particular vision of the future of schooling. Others, like my friend and fellow blogger, Nancy Flanagan, are not quite so sure that the conflict has been resolved, and question the perhaps “sanitized” version of events described by Mr. Chaltain.

Whether the war is actually coming to an end or not, it’s useful for those on the front lines to know who they are actually fighting, and who is standing beside them in their daily struggles. It’s become clear to me through many recent engagements with those on “the other side” of these debates that the “combatants” on each side share certain important characteristics that inform their beliefs, ideologies and loyalties.

The Deformers and the Guardians

Mr. Chaltain’s descriptors for the two sides in the war on education are revealing, in that he sees a clear distinction between those who actually teach (the “practitioners”), and those who establish and enforce the rules and policies that govern that practice (the “policy makers”). Perhaps unintentionally, his labels also highlight a major flaw in our current education enterprise: public education policy is being written and administrated largely by persons who have not themselves attended public schools, have no degrees or certification in education, have never taught, and have spent little time in public schools. Whatever meager educational background that the members of what I term the Deformer “edu-tribe” may have is often accrued through alternative routes to the classroom (i.e., Teach for America, The New Teacher Project, the Michigan Teacher Corps), and their educational credentials are often received via online programs that require little or no actual teaching experience, residencies or interactions with other teachers or professors with actual teaching experience.

Many of the “foot soldiers” in the Deformer army wind up in high-level positions in state departments of education, policy think-tanks, on school boards and as leaders of high-profile charter school networks. They reach these positions of power and authority with shockingly little experience in classrooms, or working with children, but exert out-sized influence on the shape and nature of public education. These members of the Deformer “advance force” parrot a regressive agenda of union-busting, tenure-smashing, and teacher-demonizing, paired with an obsessive devotion to standardized testing, “data driven decision making”, charter school expansion, and privatization as the “answers” to the “crisis in public education”–while remaining seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was their policies that manufactured the crisis they claim to be addressing, and which are paying off so handsomely for the investors who fund their charter schools and pay their generous salaries.

Supporting the efforts of the Deformer army are legions of well-educated, poorly-paid “deputy directors,” “social media managers,” and “communications interns,” all of whom have been tasked with patrolling the blogosphere for anything even remotely critical of the Deformer agenda. None of these staff support personnel ever taught or hold education degrees–their sole purpose is to vigorously refute any posts or articles that are deemed “negative” or contrary to the Deformers’ mission–which is to destabilize schools, demonize teachers, and privatize public education.

Many of these support staff work for outfits like the Education Post, a billionaire-funded anti-education website created purely for “pushing back” against critics of the Deformer agenda. The leader of the Education Post, Peter Cunningham, is in many ways the poster child for the Deformer cause. Mr. Cunningham holds a BA in philosophy from Duke and a masters in journalism from Columbia; he has no degrees in education, has never worked as a teacher, and yet ascended to the position of Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach in the U.S. Department of Education under Arne Duncan (who also never taught–see the pattern here?).

On the other side of the debate are what I refer to as the Guardians of public education. The members of this army largely consist of teachers, retired teachers, and teacher educators, most of whom have significant experience as classroom teachers, multiple degrees in education, and a career commitment to children, schools and education. Few Guardians entered the profession by alternative routes, instead earning their credentials in traditional colleges and universities, under the tutelage of professors who had themselves been classroom teachers before moving to higher education. Many of these activists earn graduate degrees in their chosen field–even as states now refuse to pay for additional degrees–and seek out weekend and summer professional development opportunities at their own expense in order to remain certified.

The activism practiced by these Guardians is not their sole focus as professionals–rather, these teachers blog at night after lessons have been planned, and kids put to bed, or on rare quiet weekend mornings and afternoons when a few minutes can be stolen from other tasks and responsibilities. And the conflict in which they are engaged is a non-linear war–they are  fighting not just the Deformers, but also their support staff in their underground bunkers, typing away on banks of sleek laptops as they push back against kindergarten teachers furiously hammering out their frustrated rants on the ridiculousness of testing 6 year olds, or 3rd grade teachers pointing out the illogic of retaining 8 year olds who struggle with reading.

While the Deformers are funded by the usual suspects in the education reform business (Broad, Walton, Gates), the Guardians are led by a 77 year old education history professor, Dr. Diane Ravitch. Like Mr. Cunningham, Dr. Ravitch was a former assistant secretary of education, but has now turned her professional energies towards leading the resistance to the Deformer agenda. Her self-published blog has now attracted over 24 million “hits,” and has become a highly-respected and influential voice in the education debates.

The members of the Guardians come from the ranks of practicing and retired teachers, teacher educators and other professors, and parents concerned about the quality of education their children are receiving as a result of the Deformers’ efforts. These writers and activists don’t receive a penny for their efforts, in stark opposition to the Deformers’ forces, who are stunningly well-compensated for their work. Instead, these bloggers often toil away in anonymity, providing a voice for the thousands of teachers that have been silenced for speaking out against the reform agenda.

Among the leading voices in the education debate for the Guardians are:

Despite Mr. Chaltains’ claims, it appears that the education wars are far from over. The promise of billions of dollars in potential profits has proven too intoxicating to resist, and the Deformers are well-funded, emboldened, and buoyed by recent successes. The only thing standing in their way is a plucky band of part-time, volunteer activists who are committed to an agenda that includes:

  • every child having access to a rich curriculum, including music, art, physical education, and libraries
  • teachers not being rated and ranked by high-stakes evaluations based on student test scores
  • all schools being adequately funded, with well-maintained facilities and equipment for all programs
  • the elimination of for-profit charter schools, and ensuring that all charters that receive public funding are held accountable and governed by the same rules and regulations that pertain to all other public schools
  • the forceful defeat of efforts to privatize the public schools

Until that time, the Guardians will be around to defend and support our children, our teachers and our public schools.

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Mitchell Robinson
Mitchell Robinson is associate professor and chair of music education, and coordinator of the music student teaching program at Michigan State University. Robinson has held previous appointments as assistant professor and coordinator of the music education area at the University of Connecticut; assistant professor of school and community music education at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.; and director of wind activities and wind ensemble conductor at the University of Rochester. Robinson’s public school teaching experience includes 10 years as an instrumental music teacher, music department facilitator and high school assistant principal in Fulton, N.Y.