Progressive Education Panel Offers No Solutions, Only Outrage


While at the Netroots Nation conference in Detroit last week, I attended a few panels on public education. I’ve kept up to date on the school choice movement for the past few years, but hadn’t witnessed an anti-choice meeting for quite some time.

Compared to the education reformers’ message of optimism, enterprise and fresh thinking, the Netroots discussions seemed like an alternate universe — and a grim one at that.

The session “Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education” had a hopeful title, but ultimately revealed a movement in steep decline. Perhaps the anti-reform agenda shouldn’t be called a “movement” at all since it offers only inertia. Each panelist betrayed a siege mentality, admitting they are being hit with the school choice message from all sides, even from traditional allies.

There was much lashing out, but precious few solutions. The primary complaint, as in most Netroots sessions, was racism. The moderator, Zerlina Maxwell, maintained that focus every time there was a pause in the action.

“I’m glad you brought up racism,” she said as the first speaker wrapped up his talk on race, “that was where I wanted to go next.” After the second speaker talked more on the issue, Maxwell notified the third, “but I want to talk about racism.” She then prefaced her question to panelist number four with, “Still talking about racism…”

“I’m really excited that we’re really tackling this topic,” offered Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of a teachers’ union in St. Paul, Minn. She was quite apologetic about her whiteness but claimed one of education’s main problems is semantics.

Ricker asked the audience to expose the “bootstraps/individualism narrative.” She claimed this was important because “underneath that premise is that everybody has equal access to the same boots and the same straps. Or even has boots!”

She also was frustrated at the use of the term “racial isolation” in describing inner-city schools. “We’re using dominant-narrative language to create an otherness,” she said, prompting nods from her fellow panelists.

Joe Bishop, Director of Policy with the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, continued the farrago of soft-science buzzwords. “We have to link Economic Justice to Education Justice,” he declared, defining neither term nor presenting a roadmap to achieve the goal.

Bishop also insisted that government vastly increase the definition of education to include “access to child care, family medical leave, and broad-based support from the time a person enters the world.”

Panelist Helen Gym offered a sprawling indictment of American society based on what she considers inadequate school budgets. Apparently taking her cue from If You Give a Pig a Pancake, the retired Philadelphia educator said, “it starts out with funding” which leads to “depleted resources” then “depletion of teachers” and losing “our teachers of color.” This results in excessive student discipline, too much testing, school closings and “massive segregation.” Somehow, this trail of societal ills ultimately ends with “prisons, casinos… and fracking.” (No flowchart was provided.)

Chicago community organizer Jitu Brown said the supposed lack of funds was the “intentional sabotage of schools” intended to fill the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“They are building prisons while they are shutting down the schools of the children they anticipate will fill those prisons,” Brown said. “That’s not greed, that’s evil.” Why anyone in government or business would want more people in prison was never explained, but Brown further developed the conspiracy theory.

“America has always hated its darker citizens,” he said. “We are treated as sheep and the country we helped build are the wolves. They feed on us, they feed on our spirit, they rob our creativity, and they benefit off our genius.” The audience and fellow speakers applauded Brown’s disturbing analysis.

“We have to kill the privatization movement,” he concluded. “We have to kill it!”

If these are the issues on which our public education thought leaders are focused, it’s no wonder public school kids fail at reading, writing and arithmetic. Most jarring was the dearth of solutions offered.

Much time was spent railing against incompetent government officials, especially Arne Duncan and Rahm Emanuel. But the only fix offered was to give these officials vast increases in money and authority to double-down on the existing government school system.

Advocates of the status quo in public education are losing badly and they know it. If the panels at Netroots Nation are representative, they can expect many more losses to school choice fans. This is bad news for some unions, but great news for students, parents and teachers.

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  1. FloppyDisk90 Member

    I’m in awe you managed to sit through all those panels.  I don’t think I would have lasted more than 10 min before evacuating the remainder of my breakfast onto my loafers.

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  2. user_86050 Inactive


    I recall when I was assigned to teach in a Jesuit high school, where the English Department was a notorious haven for dead-heads, and where the Department chairman told the students that the only thing you learn in college is how to drink. (This was one of those schools where Jesuits had once dominated, but the supply of priests dried up by the mid-1980s, and the lay faculty just didn’t get it.)

    Halfway through the year, the rest of the faculty complained that the students’ writing was terrible and that the English Department was a disaster. The English Department and the Administration got together and created a response plan. Going forward, to remedy the lack of English skills, the English Department would now teach twice as many classes. The fact that this plan took away class time from the rest of us, to double down on the ineffective teaching of the people who caused the problem in the first place, was deemed a necessary sacrifice.

    When public school teachers “analyze” the problems of the public school system, bet the house that they’ll advise us to double down on them … and demand more money.

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  3. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl

    Public school teacher here, nineteen years. However, since I didn’t start this career until I’d spent twenty years raising my five children, I came into the system with a unique point of view. I’d been the volunteer parent in the four school districts where we’d lived (military transfers via husband.) Here are a couple of observations:

    A really important factor in a student’s success is their family. Do you have conversations with your little kids? Do you read books with them? Do you give them crayons or pencil and paper and let them “draw” and “write” when they are tiny? If none of that happens until they show up at Kindergarten on the first day, then your child is already five years behind.

    Many people who go into teaching are idealistic, young white women. When I was accepted to the teacher credential program at a California state university in 1993, the administrator gave a little speech in which he pointed this out. Twenty-five years prior to our cohort, their candidates were 85% young white women. The LA Unified student body was also 80% white children. That year, 1993, the candidate pool was still 85% young white women, but the student body we were likely to teach in LA was now 80% minority/ELL students. I imagine, in 2014, the number of minority/English- language-learner students is even higher.
    At least 1/3 of teachers go into another career after five years of teaching. I understand. The job can be a thankless grind, and the pay can be disproportionally low for all the education requirements. If a person (especially “of color”) can get a better paying professional job without the hassles of Big Ed, then they’d be foolish not to go for it.
    Jon, you’re a hero for sticking in there—I’d have been unable to restrain myself from standing up and shouting at some of those ridiculous comments.

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  4. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl

    One problem I see with the current state of education is that it is based on a model that was created in another era. The model that we are using today for schools only works if the families and the teachers are a team. The public school system can’t work as a cure-all for society’s ills. We do need to be able to try different models and have the flexibility to see what might work in different circumstances and different communities.

    This big “top-down” monstrosity that education has become is the worst possible model. It’s the perfect example of the progressive’s concept that if it something isn’t working well anymore, we need to yell at the people who want to offer an new idea, and blame it all on racism. 

    I still love being a teacher. It’s the greatest job for me. I just laugh sardonically and acknowledge my role as a teacher as the “worst person ever” and continue to enjoy my day-to-day interaction with my students. I work around the “mandates” and subversively teach them values while I’m teaching them how to write. But, seriously—-something has to change!

    • #4
  5. Guy Incognito Member
    Guy Incognito

    Sad thing is, this panel is right about a lot of these problems, but they can’t/won’t see that they’re the cause.  Public schools are prisons, and the system is rigged against black people, and the Left made it that way.

    Another point: When you have all these people saying that black people can’t compete against white people, and that they need the government to even have a chance, is it any wonder that so many give up hope?

    • #5
  6. Member

    Technology is a wonderful thing. I wrote up a comment  about the state of education and put it through a Netroots translation app:

    “So, racism, racism, more money, sexism, homophobia, more money, Republican lies, trickle down lies, more money, tenure, racism, racism, otherness, sameness, more money, UNIONS RULE!, racism, more money, Reagan (CoC violation), racism, more money, Economic Justice, diversity, more money, Obama (may His name be praised), Noam Chomsky, more money, School Choice (CoC violation), racism, racism, more money.” 

    Huh, that did change my post a bit.

    • #6
  7. PsychLynne Inactive

    Cow Girl:

    A really important factor in a student’s success is their family…If none of that happens until they show up at Kindergarten on the first day, then your child is already five years behind.

     I’m glad you brought up the issue of family because it’s huge.  The “grade level” or sophistication level of conversations in single parent households is significantly lower than those in two parent households (which makes sense).  If education isn’t a family value then these things all contribute to kids beginning kindergarten well behind their peers.  Add in the fact that many homes are chaotic in terms of schedules and consistency of even basic things like meals and bed-times and the child comes to school with a huge disadvantage.  6 hours a day of school can’t make up for the previous 5 years in many cases.  

    Then during this six hours of schooling they are not instructed using evidenced based methods we know work to teach reading, math, and writing.  We wind up disadvantaging most the kids who are the most disadvantaged due to the use of trendy versus effective methods.  

    • #7
  8. Stad Coolidge

    Online education is the wave of the future.  The only reason the liberals haven’t hijacked it yet is because of the teachers’ unions.  Brick and mortar schools require a huge infrastructure, including a teacher for each classroom.  Get rid of the need for a building, and the classrooms – along with the need for a large number of teachers – go away.

    Oh sure, even online education needs teachers.  However, the number needed is greatly reduced, and the focus could shift on hiring only the best.

    • #8
  9. Illiniguy Member

    If you haven’t done so, I highly recommend Glenn Reynolds’ book “The New School”. It’s a great starting point for a conversation about education in the 21st Century.

    • #9
  10. user_385039 Inactive

    I remember an offer made by a now deceased cardinal/archbishop of New York City.  He offered to take the blacks and Latinos that had dropped out or been forced out of the NYC public school system and school them.  The Catholic schools (at that time) had an 80-percent success rate in getting black and Latino youth ready for a two- or four-year college.   The overwhelming majority graduated from high school.

    It wasn’t that those kids were too dumb to learn, it was the public school environment that they were mired in.  The Catholic school success rate included the fact that a lot of children weren’t raised with books and crayons and parents who recognized the importance thereof.

    The NYC school system, recognizing the fact that the Catholic schools were successful with these kid,s did not take the cardinal/archbishop up on his offer.  The exposure would have been too great.

    • #10
  11. Freesmith Inactive

    Jon, thanks for going and reporting. More conservatives should expose themselves to what the other side is saying when our opposition is comfortable in its bailiwicks. 

    As one of the commenters above pointed out American public schools have undergone a rapid racial change, especially in the major metropolitan areas were liberal institutions reign supreme in all realms. That this change has coincided with a collapse of learning and achievement within these school systems suggests a problem that liberals – and many other contemporary Americans – simply cannot face. 

    It should therefore surprise no one that emotional and fantasy-driven indictments and already-failed or utopian solutions  will dominate all discussions about education. That’s also one reason why so many people simply opt out of the government school systems: no reform is possible; might as well just move on to a private alternative.

    • #11
  12. user_17209 Inactive

    Eustace C. Scrubb:

    Technology is a wonderful thing. I wrote up a comment about the state of education and put it through a Netroots translation app…

     You forgot to mention racism, social justice, and racism.

    • #12
  13. Eeyore Member

    Freesmith: More conservatives should expose themselves to what the other side is saying when our opposition is comfortable in its bailiwicks. 

    Unfortunately, their bailiwicks are not just conferences and symposia. Another bailiwick is the classroom, where they are pushing exactly the same philosophies, but, of course, in grade-level appropriate syntax.

    • #13
  14. user_199279 Coolidge

    The description of the conference reads like an Onion parody.

    To paraphrase Hans Gruber:  You’re looking for reform in our education system, Theo?  I give you the panel session ‘Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education’.

    Hans was not offering a compliment.

    It’s an old technique, but businesses will call a group together to fix a specific problem (like “tiger teams”), pulling in experts from within the company, from disciplines specific to the problem, and from disciplines completely unrelated to the problem.  The reason the second set of people is so important is because they do not address the problem with any existing bias, or interest – they are simply there to consider the problem with fresh eyes and offer solutions that the people who deal with it every day might not have ever considered, because they’re too close to the problem.

    Or they themselves are the problem.  If you’re running around saying our system is broken, and you work in the system, there’s a good chance you’re contributing to the problem.  

    This panel is a lot like convicted felons claiming, loudly, that they’re innocent.

    • #14
  15. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy

    Solutions from the right will falter when pitted against the education unions’ phalanx of administrators and teachers. Any politicians who promises education reform without addressing the public employee unions’ power will simply deliver us another Bush 43-like travesty like No Child Left Behind.

    Of course, this warning applies to many other reform promises as well. We will get nowhere until we address the bulwarks of the progressive administrative state.

    • #15

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