“Conservatism Can Cure Classroom Cancer, Blah, Blah, Blah”

George Will’s column in Saturday’s Joplin Globe touted the efforts of John Kline, a Minnesota congressman who is on a crusade—or is it a Marine expedition, since Will makes a major issue of Kline’s military background—to use his position as chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee to, oddly, get the federal government out of education.

Yes, I know. That’s nothing new.  Will’s column touted the usual conservative chestnuts: Teachers’ unions are the root of all education evil, charter schools “operating outside union restrictions” are the answer, conservatism can cure classroom cancer, blah, blah, blah.

But one of those blahs had to do with No Child Left Behind and that law’s decree “that schools shall achieve 100 percent proficiency by 2014.” Will suggested that states, which are nearly en masse failing to meet the current proficiency targets, have “a powerful incentive” “to define proficiency down,” much like the state of South Carolina, heaven-on-earth for conservatives, has.  Then Will wrote this:

There also are reasons to suspect that NCLB‘s threat of labeling schools as failures constitutes an incentive to cheat. In a number of jurisdictions, including 103 schools in the District of Columbia, machines that grade the tests have detected suspiciously high levels of erasures as test-takers changed incorrect to correct answers.

Now, George Will doesn’t say so, but any “cheating” that occurred in the District of Columbia occurred under the tenure of D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, currently a conservative hero (don’t give me any of that, “but she’s a Democrat” nonsense; she is openly cheerleading for Republican governors who are attacking teachers and their unions). 

Rhee—Will once praised her for being “constructively confrontational“—is the leader of the so-called “education reform” movement, which should really be called the “get professional teachers out of education” movement.  

I last saw Rhee, who resigned after her boss, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, was defeated in the 2010 Democratic primary, on the IQ-eroding Fox and Friends, where she exclaimed: “I’m a huge fan of Governor Christie,” referring to the current political champion of right-wingers everywhere, the governor of New Jersey. 

Indeed, it was Rhee, perhaps more than anyone else in the country, who made it safe for Republicans like Christie and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker to bash teachers and trash their unions.

But, because there is still such a thing as journalism, USA Today did an expose of sorts on Michelle Rhee and her alleged success in dramatically improving the standardized test scores in Washington, D.C., most notably of a formerly low-performing school, Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus.

Using some old-fashioned authoritarianism, as well as her laissez-faire formula for education success, Rhee fired teachers and handed out awards and bonuses for improved performance, especially using Noyes as the poster-school to validate her approach.

But it turns out that, as Will mentioned without mentioning USA Today‘s reporting, the improvement in test scores may not have been real. The paper reported:

A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.’s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes’ classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.

Gene Lyons wrote a couple of weeks ago—which is how I first learned of increasing doubts about the Rhee-inspired phenomenon in D.C.—that,  

Although the national media appear determined not to notice, similar testing scandals have taken place in New York, Texas, Georgia, California — basically anywhere school funding and/or jobs have been linked directly to multiple-choice testing. Private charter schools as well as public schools, incidentally.

“This is like an education Ponzi scam,” a teacher’s union official told USA Today. “If your test scores improve, you make more money. If not, you get fired. That’s incredibly dangerous.”

Yes, it’s dangerous.  Test-driven formulas for education excellence, as the conservative George Will and the liberal Gene Lyons both might agree, are not a panacea for the real or imagined ills of our education system. (Lyons points out that over the last 30 years “overall student performance” has actually gone up.)

Now, someone just needs to tell President Obama, who seems to have embraced the idea of test-heavy reforms.

Will says that Rep. Kline,

promises that the current system for measuring “adequate yearly progress” “will not exist when we are done.”

We shall see about Kline’s promise, but if that happens it will be an unwitting repudiation of Michelle Rhee’s effort to, in the words of education historian, Diane Ravitch, “subject public education to free-market forces, including competition, decision by data, and consumer choice.” 

Ravitch continues:

All of this sounds very appealing when your goal is to buy a pound of butter or a pair of shoes, but it is not a sensible or wise approach to creating good education. What it produces, predictably, is cheating, teaching to bad tests, institutionalized fraud, dumbing down of tests, and a narrowed curriculum.

It has also produced a conservative celebrity, sometimes openly promoted by Democrats, Michelle Rhee.

Finally, it needs to be said here that there is no magic in turning ill-nourished kids raised in anti-learning environments, mostly without an intact and interested family, into little Einsteinian prodigies, which, I suppose, is what some Americans expect teachers to do in urban schools and elsewhere.

Standardized tests won’t do it. Cutting teachers’ pay, or taking away their collective bargaining rights, won’t do it.  Devilizing their unions and starting non-union charter schools won’t do it.

Perhaps nothing will do it.

But a start might be to stop blaming teachers and start listening to them. Commenting on the anti-teacher film, Waiting for “Superman,” Richard Kahlenberg wrote in The Washington Post that the movie,

implies that teachers unions are to blame for the failures of urban education and that non-unionized charter schools are the solution. The movie includes no acknowledgment that the things teachers want for themselves – more resources devoted to education, smaller class sizes, policies that allow them to keep order in the classroom – are also good for kids.

Resources devoted to education? Smaller class sizes? Order in the classroom?

Imagine that.  Teachers actually want things that are good for the kids.

Who would’ve thunk it?



  1. Good post, as far as it goes, Duane.

    I have great sympathy for teachers – they must work within a broken system and within rules that reject meaningful discipline. I intend to expound on other thoughts in a post of my own on some of the good points you raise.



  2. ansonburlingame

     /  April 25, 2011


    I have commented on Jim’s blog in response to yours and will not repeat what I said therein.

    I don’t have any problem with teachers being in unions if they choose to do so, individually. But as with any industry, no forced unionization. Don’t bother with telling me your objections to such, I already know them quite well.

    But the real focus of my comment on Jim’s blog is to separate the issues over education (how best to teach kids and the standards that they must achieve and be held accountable to achieve) from the politics of education.

    Teachers and administrators should be held responsible to the public for the education of kids. Politicians should be held accountable to the public for those things that support education but never be allowed to intrude into the classroom.

    Want more pay for teachers, fine. Let the unions go to the BOE but not the “educators” (Supt of Schools or his administrative staff) to negotiate more pay and thus higher taxes. Keep the educators out of that fight along with more buildings, better school lunches or other social issues that seem to dominate the debate and only frustrate the real education that should go on in the classroom.

    Teachers as teachers in the classroom must TEACH and do it quite well and too high standards. Teachers as union members can protest, argue, strike, whatever but they do that with the BOE not the “management” responsible exclusively for the quality of the education provided.

    In my view BOEs duck tough issues and simply “blame the schools” meaning the management of schools. I propose holding politicians accountable for the politics of education but not the quality of it.



  3. Jim,

    I read your piece on fixing education, and I will re-post my response in this forum:

    I have to call you on what I see is a glaring non sequitur here.

    You say the result of unionizing teachers is a “failure,” but then you say, “part of the problem is permissive American culture, boring curricula, pampered, undisciplined Sweathogs.”

    Neither teachers nor their unions have any control over those things, if, indeed, they are the problem.

    You acknowledge the “local control = religious school” issue, yet offer nothing that I can see that would prevent such an outcome. Either we turn schools over to religious indoctrinators or we don’t. Your plan, while thoughtful, would seem to allow the religious zealots to control “public” education. I find that unacceptable.

    With the exception of your anti-tenure point, I don’t see much in your list of changes that most teachers would oppose. As you know, I don’t agree with your position on tenure, as even excellent systems around the country and the world have tenured teachers. Tenure isn’t the problem, in my view.

    You and Anson keep stating that government education is a failure, as if the entire system should be junked. But the problem is not the government involvement, Jim; it is the fact that it is the students themselves, or, really, the parents of the students, that are the problem, as you suggested above.

    Good schools have good students who have good parents.

    I just attended a workshop on poverty and its relationship to learning. The truth about our schools is that teachers are trying to educate a lot of kids who are not prepared to receive an education. These kids don’t speak the “language” of the middle class, which, I learned, is the language of education in America.

    Their parents don’t value learning, don’t prepare their kids to value it, or, even if they do value it, don’t know how to prepare them for success. And guess what? Teachers are suppose to single-handedly educate these kinds of kids, often when there are 35 or more of them in a classroom. Under these circumstances, you and me and Obama can test them all day and they will not meet our expectations.

    It’s not teachers, it’s not their unions (although there are some problems with rules that can be easily corrected, and unions have shown willingness to correct them), and it’s not that we’re not doing enough testing.

    Part of the problem that Anson often describes in the classroom is directly attributable to what I am describing: a lack of discipline stems from a lack of appreciation for the education experience, mostly among poor families. The question is, what causes this and what can we do about it?

    I know folks are tired of hearing about the plight of the poor and disadvantaged, but until we address the challenges that the poor face in our culture—working low-wage jobs, working multiple jobs, single-parent families, teenage pregnancy, lack of affordable child care, lack of English language skills—not much is going to change. When I say that it is a parent problem, really, it is a grandparent problem. A great-grandparent problem. A trans-generational problem.

    You can destroy teachers’ unions, pay teachers a gazillion dollars in private schools, kill tenure, conduct ACT testing, allow teachers to create their own curriculum and choose their own textbooks, and move around “failing students” or allow them to “progress at their own rate,” but you will not solve the problem of the underclass’ failure to value education or to prepare their kids to succeed in school, even if they do value it.

    I learned last week this stunning claim: That the children of the poor (welfare families), aged 1-4, here around 13 million words at home. The working class kids the same ages hear around 26 million words. Guess what? The professional class kids the same ages hear around 45 million words! Not only this, but researchers have found that low-income parent (s) have fewer two-way talks with their kids, or read to them or introduce them to books and reading, than middle and upper-income parents.

    But someone will still have to try and often fail to educate those lower-income kids, Jim. They won’t fare any better in your independent school system than they do now, without recognizing that they will require individual attention, mentoring even, to help them see the value of what we are trying to give them.

    I submit to you that rather than paying individual teachers more money, eliminating tenure and teachers’ unions, that we cut their class sizes in some poorer school districts in half or more. Give teachers no more than ten students to teach, to mentor, to convince that education is worth the effort. In order to fix the general problem with American schools—despite your claims of utter “failure,” there are many, many places where education is good—we must recognize that the major reason schools fail has little to do with the schools themselves or the teachers and their unions.

    It has to do with the raw material they are trying to mold into an educated citizenry.



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