Can We Please Change the Conversation?

If, as suggested by last week’s Chalkbeat article, the struggle for the soul of the charter movement is between believers in data-driven accountability and believers in the magical power of the markets, then the lay of the land is worse than I had thought.

Neither the technocrats nor the free-marketers have any understanding of pedagogy. Yet both groups feel entitled to dictate conditions under which hundreds of thousands of students will learn, and they continue to be more adept than educators in turning their opinions into policy. But hearts and minds are won in our classrooms, and the fight between these two forces is a distraction from where our focus must be.

Both the technocrats and the free-marketers malign the teaching profession. The number-crunchers continue to seek a “teacher-proof” curricula and the “deregulators” want to strangle whatever is left of collective bargaining rights of teachers. Both contribute to an environment that discourages young people from entering our most important vocation.

Finally and most importantly, this “rift” neglects the real promise in the charter world, derived neither from the beauty of markets nor data. The charter movement was, at its inception, as much a means of empowering teachers and administrators and promoting democracy in education as it was an experiment with “outcomes-based” accountability and “choice.” This is our heritage from Dewey to Sizer to Meier and our best schools are examples of this theory in action.

I feel the vexation from both sides, but I wouldn’t feed either wolf. Overregulation menaces our creativity and innovation. Underregulation creates endless charter scandals and fodder for Diane Ravitch’s blog. Data-driven excess narrows our curriculum and impoverishes our schools. Turning our back on data casts a blind eye towards the kids that need our attention the most.

So, these guys could and should duke it out, but it must not be the dispute that defines our movement. It has little bearing on why most of us got into the business. The numbers mavens and the children of Milton Friedman can posture wildly but first they, and all people who care about the future of public education, need to respect the progressive and democratic underpinnings of what we’re doing in our schools.

Steve Zimmerman

Co-Executive Director


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