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Sunday Radical Roundup: Back to Skool Edition

September 19, 2010, 1:07 pm

Is Michelle Rhee Going Down? Kendra Marr at Politico.com reviews what everyone in education reform, that eclectic field that contains many political positions (most of which revolve around high-stakes testing rather than education or reform) was talking about last week: Washington D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty’s primary loss may mean that Michelle Rhee is out of a job. Fenty, courageously in the minds of many, tied his career to the fate of the District’s schools — and lost, in a resounding smack down for Rhee’s take-no-prisoners approach. “Fenty’s defeat this week — due in no small part to community and teachers union resistance to his education push,” Marr writes, “is emerging as a cautionary tale for education reformers, who fear that it could cause others to back away from aggressive reform programs swept into the mainstream by President Barack Obama’s `Race to the Top.’” Teachers unions in Georgia and New York also played an important role in defeating primary candidates whose position on education reform relies primarily on “teacher accountability and tough standards.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: while there is no industry, particularly a struggling one, where firing people is not critical to renewal, if keeping your job is the only incentive for good teaching your “reform” has nothing to do with re-thinking education. Threatening teachers with being replaced by as-yet unskilled B.A.’s from top colleges has nothing to do with how students learn, and neither does the mind-numbing testing agenda. Asking students to memorize reams of facts, not to mention “firing” them from school when they can’t recite on command like little robots, has nothing to do with education. Rhee and Fenty needed buy-in from the teachers union, and their inability to achieve that should have caused them to create grounds for cooperation, not to dig trenches around the notion that “high standards” is the only thing a school needs to succeed.
And by the way? Voting black parents in D.C., the vast majority of whom are not teachers, also don’t seem so happy with free market education models that close schools, many of which have anchored communities for decades as white folks floated off to the ‘burbs. Funny how busing white kids into the city is a reprehensible idea, but busing black kids around the city for hours is school reform.
Please take note: on principle, I hate to see Obama go down on any policy matter. But Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is uncreative and has done absolutely nothing, except to find a way to selectively restore some of the cuts in public education in language that conservatives adore, and repeatedly refusing federal dollars to places like Connecticut where racial segregation and economic inequality between districts has produced a crisis in public education. Obama administration policies do nothing for children in the neediest school districts, and he should have appointed Linda Darling-Hammond in the first place. Can we say “Bye-bye Arne?”
Or You Could Just Fire The Department of Education: Halimah Abdullah of the Miami Herald has an interesting take on the desire of Rand Paul and other fringey Republican candidates to disband this federal agency established by Jimmy Carter. Among other things, he points to the testing mandate under No Child Left Behind which bloated the department to $150 billion budget. Much of this money is funneled into private testing companies, and for-profit education companies that districts are forced to hire to replace schools where children can’t pass the tests. The DOE underwent unprecedented expansion under President George W. Bush, revealing three things: how much small government conservative agendas can conflict with conservative privatization ideology; how much the conservative emphasis on localism conflicts with the nationalizing imperatives of the conservative voices in the culture wars who want state intervention against local progressive reform agendas; and how much the Democratic party has embraced conservative agendas — like testing and the benefits of privatization.
Defenders of the DOE include the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which consistently supports reforms and policies crafted by Secretary Duncan and faults Congress for not giving him more power to restructure the nation’s schools.
The Mad Men Approach to College Admissions: Those of us who work in higher ed have watched the selling of our campuses unfold over the last decade. We all have glossy brochures, catch phrases and themes that gin up ginormous pools of applicants — who then make us oh-so-much-more “selective” when we send most of them away. We can all talk knowingly about “three in a tree” (the images that would suggest that selective schools are at least half, if not two-thirds students of color); millions sunk into football teams to “masculinize” campuses desperate for male applicants; and the Glee-style video produced by Yale admissions last year that united queer and straight alums in mutual horror. Well, Drake University of Des Moines, IA, seems to have hit the wall with a campaign revolving around a big D+ that is intended as a novel attention grabber. According to Eric Gorski of the Associated Press, it is intended to advertise the “Drake Advantage” (or Drake Plus, I guess), but cleverly doubles as — well, the grade hardly anyone gives any more.
Applications and campus visits are way up, while alumni/ae, faculty and students are embarrassed, and wondering about why the university has hired a marketing firm at all at a moment of scarce resources. Indeed, has the business of “crafting classes” from ever-larger applicant pools gone too far? It certainly isn’t about racial diversity, since I doubt that any majority white private college has seen its percentage of minority students expand since the 1970s — and when it does, it is usually through recruiting foreign students. Are they trying to recruit smarter students? Why not just try to make the students who apply smarter by — er, educating them? And what do marketing programs, or “branding,” actually have to do with the university that students actually enter?
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