Reflecting on Students First (Abel McDaniels)

About two weeks ago I attended Philadelphia’s Teacher Town Hall, a series featuring Students First founder Michelle Rhee, former Washington Teachers Union president George Parker, and Capital Preparatory Magnet School founder and principal Steve Perry.

I agreed with two points made that evening, both of which came from Ms. Rhee. We must improve the quality of the teaching profession, and we need to design rigorous standards to measure student achievement.

Those two points aside, I found the other ideas discussed that night somewhat distressing. While she acknowledged the importance of school funding pro forma, when asked why Students First had not issued a public statement encouraging Governor Corbett to release funds to the School District of Philadelphia, Ms. Rhee said throwing more money at a broken system would not change anything and supported the Governor’s plan to hold the funds hostage until the unions. Likewise, the panelists in general but Dr. Perry in particular exhibited a rather poor understanding of the relationship between poverty and education. Rightfully arguing that poverty is not an excuse for poor educational outcomes, it was suggested that poverty is nothing that can’t be overcome by a highly effective teacher. Dr. Perry complained “the single notion of a monolithic poverty experience is…unsophisticated” and conflated the socioeconomic status of graduate student with a masters degree with that of a person who simply does not make enough money. The panelists also oversold school choice as a panacea. While such systems sound favorable, they have so many limitations: school choice often does not transverse district lines and leaves only other urban schools available for “choice,” information regarding schools and application processes is uniformly accessible, such policies include parochial or charter schools but not truly private schools, and not everyone is able to attend the school of her choice.

I noticed the panelists employed a rhetoric grounded in populism and social justice to make their case. Michelle Rhee passionately proclaimed that she would not subject anyone else’s children to a school or teacher that she would not allow to educate her own children (while failing to mention that unlike the parents to whom she was speaking, she is in a position to send her children to an exclusive private school). George Parker invoked the imagery of a childhood in the segregated South to argue that education reform constitutes today’s most important civil rights issue, obfuscating the multiple mechanisms that create and reproduce educational inequity. However, this messaging seriously resonated with parents who feel trapped in a seemingly failing institutional bureaucracy and outstanding teachers who want to be differentiated from their ineffective peers.

Ultimately, the current reform movement ignores the broader social, political, and economic contexts of schools. The panelists accept current high levels of child poverty and massive economic inequalities as a given, and the reforms they propose do not call for any significant redistribution or revitalization of the urban neighborhoods that are often home to what they consider failing schools. Instead, they distill the complex processes of teaching and learning to the very technical transfer and reception of information, and when this process does not culminate in high test scores, the blame is assigned to teachers. I fear that we are seeing the development of a two tiered system of public education – a suburban one more closely aligned with the vision of leaders like Mann, Harris, and Dewey, and a standardized, partially privatized system designed to educate poor predominantly black and Latino urban students in an efficient and inexpensive fashion.