Reflective Practice # 6: The Rhetoric of Ed Reform

Back in the late 1990s, I did research that led to a report (co-authored with Paul Dunphy) on the privatization of public services in Massachusetts, Privatizing the Common Wealth, in which I looked at “privatization” of public education. The trend, which was still unclear at the time, was that the Right would slowly begin a process of dismantling public education using this sequence: 1) high stakes testing to discredit public schools, 2) charter schools to loosen DOE controls over education, 3) vouchers to redirect public funds to private schools. At some point in the future, when public education is throughly discredited, public schools could begin to be dismantled, replaced by private schools. Whether everyone would be able to attend these schools is unclear at best. Connected to this has been an attack on the teaching profession, which is well under way, and nearly complete in its success (Arkansas has begun hiring uncertified teachers due to lack in interest in the profession). It’s important to understand that this movement is driven by the business community, not educators primarily.

Some of this rhetoric has begun to be taken up by Kamehameha Schools, which has followed the Hawaiʻi DOE in many ways, beginning with standards development (which other private schools like Punahou do not do), so I thought it would be useful to get a sense of what ed reform (or ed deform as opponents have begun to call it) is, and what it isnʻt. To that purpose, I asked HSTA Treasurer, Mililani High School Social Studies department head and 2012 History Teacher of the Year, Dr. Amy Perruso to define ed reform. Here was her concise response:

I would say that the ed deform [yes, sheʻs “biased,” that is to say, has a position on this critical topic – welcome to the real world], properly understood, is a attempt to privatize public education primarily through an attack on teachers and teachers’ unions. It began with a manufactured crisis of low performance (Milton Friedman and Reagan’s “Nation at Risk”), for which teachers are blamed and scapegoated, and will end when the profession of teaching is destroyed, there are no more strong public schools, and access to education is limited to the social, political and economic elite.

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Amy Perruso, PhD

In the 90s, I had to admit that I could not point to a “smoking gun” – solid proof that the elimination of public ed was the goal of the nascent ed reform movement. But now the evidence is beginning to be abundant, starting with the pending appointment of Betsy DeVos (wife of an heir to the Amway fortune), whose desire to end public education is well-known, as Education Secretary.*

I began this series, Reflective Practice, as a way of being contemplative of my own teaching practice, but it is equally important to be cognizant of the context in which oneʻs practice is taking place, rather than trudging along oblivious of the forces that create the conditions within which we work with students.

* Contemplating her nomination, the Washington Post published this “scenario” regarding DeVos’s ensuing push for school vouchers:

The shift of funds away from public school districts creates further stresses on traditional public schools. They are deprived of longstanding resources that compensate for the unwillingness of most states to provide adequate levels of funding for those districts that lack the capacity to raise enough money from local property tax revenues.

As traditional public schools wither and close, more and more families are drawn to the unregulated private sector.

The loss of funds for traditional public schools makes teaching less attractive, and existing teachers leave the field in droves. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs plummets; these programs are unable to provide a sufficient supply of replacement teachers for local school districts, even as fewer teachers are needed.

The unregulated charter and private school sectors hire individuals with no formal preparation or commitment to teaching, and these schools function as revolving doors. Lacking a stable teaching force, even those private and charter schools aspiring to help their teachers develop professionally are stymied.

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