Character Change In The ‘Education Reform’ Soap Opera

Jeff Bryant

If you’ve ever spent much time watching soap operas, you’re familiar with this scenario: Two characters with furrowed brows, arms akimbo square off: “That’s not true,” says one. “Oh yes it is,” says the other. “If only Brock were here …” as the camera pans right. Music swells, tension builds … only, when the door opens, the person entering doesn’t look like “Brock.”

Oh, he looks Brock-like – same telegenic appearance, good style points. But he’s clearly not Brock. Then the voice over: “Now playing the role of Brock is … ” and what you realize is that the character you’re used to seeing has changed, and the person now playing the part is different.

But as everyone familiar with this knows, the plot remains the same – same settings, same confrontations over fictional creations. The cast change is disconcerting for sure, but you’ll get used to it (it’s happened before). All is in order.

That’s what happened this week in the soap opera called “education reform.”

With the resignation of reform firebrand and former Chancellor of the Washington, DC public schools Michelle Rhee from the organization she founded, StudentsFirst, what we witnessed is an alteration of a script already written by very wealthy people who’ve created an elaborate fiction for how the nation should educate its children.

Rhee-Placement

Indeed, roles have changed. Huffington Post’s Joy Resmovits broke the story of Rhee’s departure, and Politico’s Stephanie Simon provided the backstory, describing Rhee’s organization as “hobbled by a high staff turnover rate, embarrassing PR blunders and a lack of focus” and characterizing Rhee’s leadership as “imperious, inflexible and often illogical.”

The new persona has yet to take the stage, but the “Rhee-placement” seems certain. Echoing my Salon article last month, Resmovits wrote, “The change comes as the education reform movement that Rhee spearheaded has a new face: Former CNN news anchor Campbell Brown. Recently, Brown’s organization, Partnership for Educational Justice, filed a lawsuit in New York state that organized local families as plaintiffs in an effort to have tenure deemed unconstitutional. Throughout, Brown has used talking points similar to the ones Rhee has used when discussing teacher effectiveness, and Brown’s board members and the consultants she has used overlap with StudentsFirst’s.”

Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa agreed, writing, “The role Rhee had assumed as a member of the vanguard for ‘education reform’ may be taken up by Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor who is at the forefront of efforts to change teacher tenure and dismissal rules. Rhee recently hailed Brown’s effort in the face of criticism.”

And the show goes on.

It’s sad for sure to equate something as important as education policy to daytime drama. Public education is an endeavor that involves billions of dollars and millions of children, families, and public employees. Public schools shape the future of the nation like nothing else can compare to – not even close.

But the nations’ current approach to education policy is indeed a fiction – quite literally, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Failure For Sure

For sure Rhee has played a lead role in the saga of reform.

Simon quoted a StudentsFirst operative who said, “It’s safe to say that none of what’s been accomplished in the ed reform space over the past decade would have been possible without Michelle’s leadership in Washington, D.C., and with this organization.”

So what’s been accomplished?

The script had Rhee coming onto the national scene with the infamous “broom” cover for Time magazine depicting her policy to improve student achievement chiefly by firing teachers. That policy has now been abandoned.

As education historian Diane Ravitch announced on her personal blog, “District of Columbia Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced the suspension of the practice of evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores. This practice was considered the signal policy initiative of Henderson’s predecessor Michelle Rhee.”

The demise of Rhee’s signature solution for school improvement fell on the heels of yet more evidence of her failed legacy. As Bernie Horn of the liberal activist group Progressive Majority wrote on his organization’s blog, the latest round of test results from DC schools reflect the “utter failure of ‘reform’ policies.”

In Rhee’s wake, “the percentage of public school students judged ‘proficient’ or better in reading has declined over the past five years in every significant subcategory except ‘white,’” Horn explained. (emphasis original)

“This is important, and not just for Washington, D.C. It is an indictment of the whole corporatized education movement. During these five years, first Michelle Rhee and then her assistant/successor Kaya Henderson controlled DCPS and they did everything that the so-called ‘reformers’ recommend … Based on the city’s own system of evaluation, none of it has worked.”

No one should expect anything better from Campbell Brown.

Failure Times Two

Now, entering stage right is Brown whose debut “tearfully” posed a lawsuit which her script called an “incredibly brave” endeavor to “fight powers that have been fighting to maintain the status quo for as long as they have.”

The lawsuit claims it should take teachers longer then three years, the current requirement, to qualify for any due process considerations (commonly called “tenure”) should administration want to fire them. The suit also aims to eliminate “obstacles” such as teacher-evaluation laws, improvement plans, arbitration processes, and seniority considerations that teachers and administrators had previously agreed to in contracts.

Leading education “reform” advocates from across the political spectrum – including Michelle Rhee, former aides of President Obama, and Jeb Bush – promptly deemed the campaign as “an expression of the emerging consensus,” “about fairness and opportunity,” and “courageous,” respectively.

But a new report “The Real Campbell Brown” from two grassroots New York community groups, Alliance for Quality Education and New York Communities for Change, charged Brown with running a “political campaign” that is “wrong about public schools.”

“One need look no further than Campbell Brown’s lawsuit against teacher due process to see the depth of her misunderstanding or outright misrepresentation of the facts,” the report explained.

The report cites a number of “myths” that Brown and her campaign have built their lawsuit on, including “it takes 830 days to fire a teacher in New York State,” (recent data reveals it’s more like 105 days), tenure is granted automatically (it’s not), principals are powerless (they have the option of extending teacher probationary periods to four years), and eliminating seniority protections would result in a population of more effective teachers (research shows that experienced teachers are actually more effective).

When Alyssa Hadley Dunn, an education professor at Michigan State University, fact-checked Brown for her blog appearing at The Washington Post, she found a similarly flagrant denial of reality, concluding, “Quite simply: there is no research demonstrating causation between teacher tenure laws and lower rates of student achievement, which is the entire argument behind [Brown's] lawsuit.”

Brown attempted a rebuttal, claiming the high ground of being the lone actor for what is “good for the child,” yet somehow also maintaining it’s “not about me.” Someone should tell Brown that when your case is based on your moral standing rather than going “point by point,” then it is about you.

But “facts are stupid things” – to quote the “Great Communicator” Ronald Reagan, which is a comment befitting to an education agenda, like what Brown offers, that is mostly a communications plan for a fairy tale.

An Alternative, If We Care

The very wealthy people who have propped up Michelle Rhee are likely the same group of “producers” behind Brown (she refuses to divulge her backers).

Stephanie Simon reported them in her article linked to above: former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hedge-fund managers David Tepper and Alan Fournier, the for-profit charter school management company Charter Schools USA, and several philanthropic foundations, including the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation.” If the match isn’t exact, you can bet it’s something very similar.

After all, it’s really those wealthy folks who have hired the script writers, devised the plot, and determined the cast, so regardless of the players, what will continue to play on is, as classroom teacher Peter Greene described on his personal blog, the continuing campaign to “sell horrible programs through nothing – not evidence, not research, not a track record of success – but the sheer force of … personality.”

Certainly more than just a change in actors is in order.

Furman University education professor Paul Thomas has proposed something that would elevate the policy discourse to something higher than daytime drama.

Writing on his personal blog, Thomas surmised that the education debate is in a place “where the irrational and unmerited thrive.” Most of what has been pushed onto public schools has amounted to “a distraction guaranteeing we will never get to the work needed.”

Something less “distracting” – less entertaining, like maybe “being rational … calling upon evidence … be honest” – would provide a better way forward.

You know, something that’s not drama. It’s real life.

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