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Two Down! Now how do we improve our troubled schools?

Me, Elvis and My Brother
Me, Elvis and My Brother

Maybe every reform movement evolves into a fight between competing interest groups for jobs and power; and the larger picture is ignored in the passion of the struggle. These interest group struggles also prevent people from perceiving their common interests.

In Washington D.C. Michelle Rhee's ostensibly brave effort to improve a horrible school district turned into a jobs programs for former Teach for America teachers.

After Ms. Rhee fired one-thousand employees, ranging from principals to teachers to teachers' aides---too high a cost for a limited payout of small increases on minimum skills exams--the mayor who supported her lost his reelection bid and Rhee submitted her resignation.

In the Houston Independent School District (HISD), the reformers had until tonight won four school board races in a row over a three year period, creating a six vote majority for reform on the HISD school board. Rich contributors, the only daily newspaper and corporate executives united to ensure the victory of reform candidates. The backroom power of money triumphed over the majority will of communities in at least three elections.

Due to a combined effort of the Houston Federation of Teachers and minority Democratic politicians, Juliet Stipeche, a bright, energetic graduate of an HISD magnet school, tonight defeated reform candidate Judith Cruz, a former Teach For America teacher who once taught in the District of Columbia public schools. As usual, the reformers outspent the union candidate, but this time the union/politician coalition made the money race close.

A superb candidate won--Juliet Stipeche, but this election still leaves open the question of how we accomplish the laudable and necessary goal of the reformers: providing more opportunity to the children of ambitious, working-class parents, while dealing with drop-out rates of students from families with more troubles than inner resources, and ensuring we as a nation can compete with rising powers such as China and India.

Liberals have the right critique of reformers: the manipulative, elite nature of their financial backing; the transparently stupid blaming of teachers; and the inevitable failure of their prescriptions for reform.

But, historically, bourgeois-liberal descriptions of what good schools look like have produced permissive school environments designed for middle-class kids who have acquired motivation and good behaviors from home. The liberals have had little effective to offer for all but the most ambitious working-class families. Their book of school reform includes a thousand blank pages.

The sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties and this decade have passed with urban schools bending over backwards to find shortcuts to the traditional methods of school success (hard work and respectful behaviors), and it took an outside reform movement, particularly the charter schools, to reintroduce these self-respect and mutual-respect values into the modern era of public schooling.

The individualistic ethos of Anglo individualism, in its liberal or conservative manifestations, makes it virtually impossible to redress school issues based on this truth: that we are all in this together and we all must pull more weight. Neither liberals nor conservatives have pursued school reform on this elemental premise.

The liberals say we should just expand the realm of adolescent freedom; or else they mouth plattitudes about meeting the needs of every child (which parents cannot even do); they promote charity work instead of hard work; and the conservatives cynically blame teachers; or they preach market competition as the one-size-fits-all solution.

The union gang won tonight as opposed to the reform gang--good, but what difference it will make for the performance of students from low-income and working-class backgrounds remains to be seen.

The reformers' understanding of the big picture is right: we in the United States are headed for a human capital disaster: a moutainous disparity in individual capacity reflecting our canyon-size income inequities.

In an increasingly competitive world, our education status quo inevitably leads to internal disagreements and relative decline.

Diversity is an attractive idea but if its real life expression is one-third of our people remain beaten down, struggling to keep the lights on and food on the table, and either unable or unwilling to vote, unwelcome and uninvited into the American middle-class, then neither reform nor liberation pedagogy is going to reproduce the behaviors typical of students whose families trust their world based on positive experiences.


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