“I support our teachers, but my daughter was traumatized by an unfirable 1st grade teacher,” so read a tweet I received after expressing concern that Vergara v. California decision – which declared K-12 teacher tenure unconstitutional for violating the civil rights of students – had nothing to do with civil rights, little to do with students, and everything to do with the continued efforts to privatize public education. If you publicly critiqued the Vergara verdict, you no doubt received a similar reply, which I’ve described by the following equation, dubbed VAM [Vergara Attack Method]:
Compliment of teachers in general [“I love teachers”]
– [BUT] there are “bad teachers”
+ vague and/or extreme personal anecdote about “bad teacher”
= you must be a “bad teacher” and hate children if you support tenure or any other rights for teachers. Also, you are against civil rights, likely a socialist, and most definitely are destroying the economy.
Rhetorically, it’s almost impossible to respond to VAM – Who can disagree that there are “bad teachers?” Who wants a child to be subjected to such a horrible person? Who wants a child to be traumatized?
VAM works especially well when coupled with civil rights rhetoric, as I wrote about in my last essay “A Tale of Two Vergaras: Of Stardom and the End of Teacher Tenure.” Who could be against civil rights? And so, in a masterful rhetorical twist, if you’re for tenure, you’re also against helping impoverished minority children – you’re standing in the way of equality. In more advanced versions of VAM, civil rights rhetoric is seamlessly connected with fixing the sagging economy as we see in an op-ed in USA Today claiming “There is no war on teachers.” The author assures us that there is “no such war,” and that if anything, the focus is on firing just a “very small minority of teachers” who are not just harming children, but according to his calculations, would actually fix our current financial crisis:
The gains according to historical economic patterns would be measured in trillions of dollars and would be sufficient to solve our national fiscal problems as well as the vexing income distribution issues currently being debated.
Yes, that’s right – firing this “small minority of bad teachers” will ultimately create trillions of dollars for the economy, along with solving civil rights. It’s a magic bullet – one that just needs be fired in right direction, towards “bad teachers.”
In short, VAM rhetorically checkmates those who are critical of the Vergara decision. This pervasive linguistic trick pins all of the nation’s problems not on teachers (who are wonderful), but on those “bad teachers,” who are destroying lives, destroying civil rights, and destroying the economy. No wonder, in the exact same issue of USA Today, a shocking ad illustrates a teacher throwing a child into a garbage can – and this doesn’t seem an act of war, given the current zeitgeist. After all, it’s only about “bad teachers” – not you. You’re a good teacher – that is, unless you think tenure is acceptable. In which case, what do you have to hide? Who are you protecting?
Outside of the outlandish, ill-supported leaps in logic which are now in the realm of “common sense”, the biggest problem VAM, though, is the impossibly vague term “bad teacher,” or the slightly more technical sounding, but equally meaningless “grossly ineffective teacher,” which Judge Treu used in his decision. Since the propaganda documentary Waiting for Superman, the “bad teacher boogeyman” has been in heavy linguistic circulation, which I noted in my 2010 essay “The Myth of the Bad Teacher:”
The Bad Teacher is no one specific, but rather, a sort of free-floating, ill-defined stereotype: he is an inept, uncaring, self-interested bureaucrat waiting for his pension, not only disinterested in students, but actively engaged in standing in the way of student achievement, rather than encouraging it. I imagine the Bad Teacher as slovenly dressed, with stains on his shirt, showing up to class late, and once there, reading the newspaper while his students throw paper airplanes at each other. He looks up at the clock occasionally, waiting for his time to be up in order get out of school as fast as possible, so he can get home and watch “Glee” on his plump, faux-leather couch. Or he could be a really “Bad Teacher,” such as the one soon to be depicted in a 2011 movie of the same name, which is focused on a “foul-mouthed, junior high teacher who, after being dumped by her sugar daddy, begins to woo a colleague – a move that pits her against a well-loved teacher.”
In essence, the “bad teacher” is a not just a basic strawman, but a hologram, an insubstantial projection of whoever you want him to be, whatever you – or your child – perceives him to be. He could be lazy; he could only lecture (or only use group work); he could be physically abusive; he could not know his content; he could take controversial positions; he could be a hard grader (or too easy of a grader). Indeed, at the college level (where I teach), high teacher ratings are highly correlated with teachers that give less work and higher grades, according to a recent study. In some cases – such as assigning “too much homework”, being called a “bad teacher” would be a compliment, in that the educator might actually being doing her job.
“In hundreds of classrooms, I have never seen a ‘grossly ineffective’ teacher,” Dr. David Berliner says in a must-read Slate article, an expert whose testimony was primary evidence in Judge Treu’s decision. “I don’t know anybody who knows what that means.”
And this is a professor who has spent his career exploring teacher quality, and was asked to testify on the other VAM – Value-Added-Measures, a statistical measure which uses standardized test scores to rate teachers. VAM gives the comforting illusion of objectivity so cherished by education reformers. But this method, also, has major limitations – the American Statistical Association cautioned use of this measure. Further, even if these metrics work very well at showing growth in a particular area of learning in a particular subject, they don’t show a lot of the attributes that educators – and lay-people – would associate with “good” teacher. Berliner observes (as paraphrased by reporter Jordan Weissman) “low test scores [don’t] qualify somebody as a bad teacher. They might do other things well in the classroom that don’t show up on an exam, like teach social skills, or inspire their students to love reading or math.” Indeed, a teacher can have great test scores – but could have earned them through abusive methods, ones which make the student great at test taking, but not learn anything about the subject, and hate it to boot.
Thus, a “grossly ineffective teacher” could be inspiring, could be challenging, could be wonderful. In short, this “bad teacher” could be any of us – especially those of us who believe that the current set of reforms that are focused on standardized testing and curriculum are harmful to students. Indeed, our very best teachers – those who stand up to the intense pressure from parents and students to be “easy,” those who refuse to submit their students to the testing regime that kills the love of learning – could be labeled as our very worst. As a case in point: one of the teachers accused of being a “bad teacher” in the Vergara case was Pasadena Teacher of the Year, and received numerous teaching awards.
What message is Vergara sending to committed, competent educators, those who love children, and who hate what NCLB and Race to the Top is doing to those children?
Now, don’t get it twisted: this is not a defense of child-molesters or otherwise horrible people; it’s not a defense of poor practices, such as giving worksheets to students every day (which is encouraged under the standardized testing regime). Nor is it a defense of the “status quo” – which, need I remind readers, is No Child Left Behind, which most teachers abhor. To defend tenure – due process in a highly-politicized workplace – is not to defend whatever horrible projection of “bad teacher” the reader has conjured.
Please, don’t VAM this essay.
And please, as the post-Vergara dust settles, as we’ve gotten our rants out of the system, let’s retire the “bad teacher” – in all its euphemistic forms. Rather, let’s work to foster constructive, explicit discussions about what it means to be an excellent educator – not just in terms of outcomes (which are framed in the most limited, unimaginative way under the current regime), but in terms of the actual practices that happen in the classroom, and as critically, the environment in which our teachers teach and students learn. Keep in mind, California is first in poverty (and in billionaires) in the nation – and discussions of “bad teachers” allow us to avoid substantial conversations about the impact of inequality on our children.
In letting the “bad teacher” go, we’ll find educators and the public – which are one in the same, remember – have shared interests and goals, despite the best efforts of corporate reformers to undermine public confidence, and put us in conflict with each other. In this fashion, we will repair the damage done by Vergara, and more broadly by the corporate reform movement, which has used VAM (both of them) to disrupt and destabilize the public commons to maintain the real status quo – of massive economic inequality and top-down elite control, which is the primary cause of the civil rights and economic emergency in our schools.
Originally published as a guest essay on Anthony Cody’s “Living in Dialogue” blog at Education Week.
Type “Vergara” into any search engine – as I was repeatedly this morning – and you’re likely not to find what I was looking for. Instead, you’ll find supermodel and actress Sofia Vergara – best known for her role in the sitcom Modern Family. An immigrant, and before she was famous, a single-mother in her early twenties, “Vergara is certainly the embodiment of [the] American dream,” notes one magazine – famed not just for her beauty, but her talent and determination to overcome hardship.
Another Los Angeles based Vergara – Beatriz – is who I was actually looking for. And her story, too, is about the American Dream; while this story will be on the cover of newspapers and is already trending on Twitter, it’s not a pretty. There is no glitter, no glamour, no red carpets – rather, it’s about pink slips and broken dreams.
Beatriz Vergara (along with the other student plaintiffs) filed and won a lawsuit against the State of California and the California Teachers Association claiming that teacher tenure and other protections (around dismissal and seniority) are unconstitutional. Invoking the seminal Brown Vs. The Board of Education case, Judge Rolf Treu of the Los Angeles Superior Court released a decision June 10, finding that California students – especially in poor and minority schools – are deprived of their right to an equal education, and thus, an equal opportunity to achieve the American Dream. Indeed, according to Politico, Treu “adopt [ed] the language and legal framework of the civil rights movement” delivering his verdict as part of the long march to justice.
Just how did dismantling worker rights become part of Civil Rights? How did teachers – those like my wife and myself, who have devoted their lives to working with children and adults in public schools – become their greatest enemy?
The answer, in part, has to do with the other Vergara – Sophia. But I’ll get to that in a moment.
First, let’s go back to the late 1990s, when Diane Ravitch, a distinguished professor of education history and reformed “reformer” who blew the whistle on the corporate takeover of public education in her best-selling book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, worked at the Manhattan Institute, a New York based conservative think tank. They were having difficulty selling the public on vouchers, and realized that their policies needed to be reframed. Because “vouchers” didn’t have popular support, they decided to throw their weight behind charter schools, “because they achieved almost the same result as vouchers–a transfer of government dollars from government to private control.” But changing from “vouchers” to “charters”, by itself, wasn’t enough. Nobody really knew about charters, then, nor could they personally relate to the sterile economic theories and language which informed their philosophies.
And therein, a new strategy was born – co-opting progressive language to sell privatized education policies to the public.
“There was explicit discussion about the importance of presenting the charter idea as a way to save poor minority children. In a city and state that was consistently liberal, that was a smart strategy,” Ravitch recalled in an email. Conservative think-think American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess has noticed these strategies used throughout the country, observing that “the case for school choice was thus not argued in terms of efficiency or deregulation, but instead presented as a moral imperative — an obligation to give poor, black inner-city parents the kinds of educational choices taken for granted by suburban home owners.” Indeed, the heart-wrenching propaganda documentary Waiting for Superman relies on this “social justice” narrative, while selling the audience on charters, and against unions, and teacher tenure. Today, co-opting liberal language, values and morals appealing to “social justice,” “civil rights,” and “equality” has become standard. Ravitch, herself a life-long Democrat who become such a reformer, lured in by similar promises, concludes: “In retrospect, it seems strange that so many liberals bought an idea that emanated from conservative think tanks and conservative thinkers.”
In much the same way that vouchers and charters have been sold via civil rights language, so too was Vergara v. California argued in court and marketed to the public as a moral imperative, with a solidly social justice lexicon, composing a compelling narrative which is attractive to liberals, while at the same time, appealing to economic conservatives who have long worked to abolish teacher tenure.
Like Sofia Vergara, the Beatriz Vergara case has massive cross-over appeal – and, the most powerful PR team money can buy. Indeed, Vergara is a significant milestone in the corporate reform effort, one that demonstrates that the multi-million dollar marketing campaign to rebrand privatization of public education as part of a larger civil rights movement has worked.
It’s no longer funny when Mitt Romney, or another plutocrat, snidely claims “education is the civil rights issue of our generation,” and blames unions and poor teachers for creating inequality (which he did, right after calling half of America lazy). No, today it’s now common sense to blame teachers for inequality in our schools – and, if Vergara is upheld, a matter of law.
Beyond carrying the burden for the very real inequality in our schools, teachers have now been legally pit in opposition to students and parents – this is the most concerning outcome of Vergara. Corporate reformers – StudentsFirst, most notably – have worked hard (and successfully) to convince the public that teachers and students are at odds – that the rights and interests of teachers are fundamentally in conflict with those they serve. Vergara legitimizes this false division between teachers and the community, straining critical relationships needed to support children – especially in those communities facing the worst learning (and living) conditions.
More broadly, Vergara situates teachers outside of the fight for social justice – indeed, it describes us as barriers to equaility, on par with racial segregation. Yes, yes, I know the verdict is focused on “grossly negligent teachers,” whom I too don’t want teaching my students, nor my two-year old son, who will attend public school. But with the rise of high-stakes standardized testing, the poor quality of evaluation based on that testing, the increasing top-down management styles that dismiss teacher opinion, the constant drum of the “failing schools,” and the generally hostile attitude towards public workers, it’s not hard to feel that we’re all targeted – that any of us could be a “bad teacher.”
In the 1990s, it was just conservative think tanks on the edges of the debate that would invoke the bad teacher boogeyman – now, the Executive Branch of a “liberal” administration agrees: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has hailed the verdict a victory, employing the same civil rights framing he has used in selling President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top. In other words, Vergara doesn’t just represent the point of view of billionaire businessmen, conservative scholars, nor an isolated, “activist judge” – it now reflects the perspective of my Department of Education, and the President himself, who now believe that “bad teachers” are the root of our educational challenges, rather than the wide-spread poverty and systemic racism which the original civil rights leaders fought against, and which still exist today.
As angry and frightened as teachers are of more scapegoating, we must refuse to be cast as villains in a very well produced fictional drama staged by the elites, one that distracts us from looking at the very real causes of inequality of opportunity, of broken dreams, and lost chances. The Vergara verdict must push teachers to make stars of themselves, by reclaiming their role as public servants working on behalf of social justice, working on behalf of students, working on behalf of communities and the country for the public good, working towards civil rights, and better opportunities for all students – or, it will signal the concluding act in public education, and a shot at the American Dream for all students.
[i] This interview with Ravitch was published in my two-year study of corporate media coverage on education reform. Further citations can be found there, as well. Adam Bessie.“GERM Warfare: How to reclaim the education debate from corporate occupation.” Project Censored 2013. Ed. Mickey Huff. Seven Stories: New York. 2013.
This School is a Musical Masterpiece: The “Four Rs” to Reclaim Public Education from Corporate Colonialism
This is Karran Harper Royal, a real parent of a teenager in the New Orleans public school system, whom I interviewed for the second part of the Disaster Capitalism Curriculum (with graphic journalist Dan Archer for Truthout), about the “New Orleans Miracle,” as its been dubbed by corporate education reformers who believe Hurricane Katrina, which killed nearly 2,000, and displaced 400,000, was “The best thing to happen to the education system in New Orleans” (And yes, that’s a real quote from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan). In 2012, amidst the polarized presidential election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, New Orleans was solid ground: they both argued that the free-market, privatized model that Royal has seen replace the public school system represents a model for the country. For Royal, a prominent, nationally recognized public education activist, the “New Orleans Miracle,” also represents a model for American education – a bankrupt one, a well-funded “fairy tale” that purports to be about empowering kids, but is really about unleashing the market to dismantle the “government monopoly on education.”
While Royal speaks with unrivaled passion, hard evidence, and personal connection to the community, her voice is largely marginalized. Royal’s experience is not an isolated one, as those who are closest to children – the parents, the teachers, and especially the children themselves – have the smallest voice in education reform debate, which has been colonized by the language, ideologies, and policies of outsiders – politicians, think-tankers, Wall Street funded non-profits, and CEOs who have no direct connection or personal interest in the communities they seek to mold in their image.
Previously, I’ve dubbed this phenomenon the Gates Paradox: the power of your voice in the education reform debate is proportional to the distance from the classroom multiplied by the amount of money you earn. Of course, each additional media outlet owned increases the influence by a factor of ten. Or, expressed in the native language of the refomers, the Gates Paradox is: VαDsv*$ [MSNBC/]10 = INFLUENCE]
Indeed, the corporate colonists control the education debate, imposing the terms and language of the discussion, as they largely control the medium in which the debate takes place: it doesn’t take a complex algorithm to demonstrate that corporate media favors corporate education policy, especially when the media channel is funded by the same billionaire also funding the education policy (as is the case with Gates and both NBC and PBS).
How does a parent like Royal fight against this corporate colonialism, which floods in her hometown of New Orleans, displacing local schools, dismantling local communities, and imposing foreign values and policies? How do we get Royal – and other real parents, children, and educators – heard over the “fairy tale” of reform?
How do we overcome the Gates Paradox?
By going back to basics: The Four Rs – Recognize, Resist, Reframe, and Reclaim.
RECOGNIZE: Education reform is trending right now in popular culture – and not towards a progressive, grassroots vision. While the agit-prop documentary Waiting for Superman started the pop culture assault on public schools, there is a cottage reform media industry devoted to putting out stories which support the reform vision of education, pumped out of the big screen, the TV, the radio, the newspaper, and underwritten by reform friendly billionaires like Gates, who have spent millions on messaging. This propaganda arm of the reform movement propagates stories like the “New Orleans Miracle,” that float about in the public consciousness, supporting these policies throughout the nation.
Less obviously and more perniciously, these reform “fairy tales” provide a language for discussing education that reinforces this worldview: phrases like “failing schools” and the “cradle to career pipeline” are normalized, and in doing so, unconsciously frame the issue for a reader or speaker, as I observe in my comic with graphic journalist Josh Neufeld “This School is Not a Pipe.” (for Truthout.org). Thus, the first step towards reclaiming public education is in seeing through the propaganda, in even recognizing the stories and language of reform.
RESIST: It’s not enough just to see that the propaganda of reform doesn’t fit the reality of schools that most children, parents, and educators experience. Indeed, I became passionate about advocating for public education upon seeing such an astonishing chasm between what the media said about my profession, and what I saw every day as a teacher in a community college. Thus, I began to call out these false stories – much like Royal has (and of course, Diane Ravitch), to expose both the “fairy tales” of reform and the drum-beat of public school failure.
But this is not enough: further, it’s important to resist not just the reform stories, but the reform language itself, which is drawn largely from the lexicon of the business world, and not education. Once starting a conversation around “failing schools,” the debate is already lost; this term implies an entire worldview, one suggesting that public schools themselves are solely responsible for the struggles they face, much like a failing business. Logically, the “failing school” should be shuttered – much like failing business, with old management and employees fired, and new ones installed to secure “success”. In this way, there is a clear, unwavering line from a single phrase to an entire ideology, and specific policies, such as school closures. Thus, we must not just avoid exposing the stories of the colonists, but their misleading language – which reinforces these stories, and favors the underlying corporate ideology.
REFRAME: For the first few years of writing about education, I primarily focused on these first two steps – on pointing out the astonishing flaws of the reform propaganda. But this, too, is not enough: indeed, reformers rightly point out that while many of us decry their agenda, we don’t as readily point to our own vision. I know that I’ve been guilty on this count – even as I’m working in my own college to develop new methods of teaching, and new programs to serve students. Thus, instead of just pointing out the flaws in the corporate agenda, we must fill in the gap – to share our own stories, and our own language, through traditional media channels, and moreso, through social media.
“Public education is like producing a musical masterpiece,” Royal told me, in providing her own vision of an ideal public school system, one that would improve upon the privatized, two-tiered system that has taken over her hometown. “[You need to provide] each instrument with the right sheet music to get the best performance from that particular instrument. Each instrument is different and can not be standardized, but with the right music, each can reach its highest heights. When children are given the kind of educational support they need based on who they are, they can produce beautiful music,” she concludes, reframing schooling with a fresh metaphor, a new language, a new vocabulary of reform, one that highlights the inherent humanity and individuality of children, while still imagining a harmonious, yet diverse community.
Imagine: What kind of policies would our politicians produce if they imagined the classroom as a musical masterpiece rather than a business, or even worse, a pipeline? What kind of classroom experience would children have immersed in metaphors of music, rather than spreadsheets and oil?
RECLAIM: To reclaim the promise of public education, to develop policies that are more musical than monotonous, we must reclaim the conversation from the educational colonists. We must find ways to mitigate the Gates Paradox, to render this algorithm of inequity obsolete, to tell the stories of what we see, in the language that we use, and get the public to hear it.
This is easier blogged than done.
However, as I attend the Network for Public Education Conference March 1 and 2nd in Austin, TX, (along with Karran Harper Royal, Diane Ravitch, and many others) we will not just resist, but work proactively and collectively towards a more humane, democratic, truly public school system.
The music has just begun…
 See my essay at Truthout: “The Answer to the Great Question of Education Reform? The Number 42” for an extensive discussion on the technicalization of education – and its dissidents.
 For extensive evidence on reform propaganda see Adam Bessie.“GERM Warfare: How to reclaim the education debate from corporate occupation.” Project Censored 2013. Ed. Mickey Huff. Seven Stories: New York. 2013.
 For documentation, see my essay at The Daily Censored: “Ms. Reform: Education Reform as Starlet of NetFlix’s “House of Cards”
Were this website a newspaper vending machine, it would be cobwebbed, and dusty enough for a finger-tagged “Wash Me,” with the issues left inside yellowing – but not for lack of work behind the screen. Besides the usual preparations for teaching this semester, I’ve got a very exciting project deep in the “pipeline,” one I’ve been at work on for a few months, which should be completed and hot off the digital presses sooner than later. I’m also gearing up for the Network for Public Education’s 2014 Conference in Austin, TX, March 1st-2nd, at which I’m honored to be an invited speaker.
The Network for Public Education – founded by acclaimed education scholar Diane Ravitch, and veteran public school educator Anthony Cody – provides a much needed grassroots antidote to the corporate education reform steamroller, one that has paved over the needs of children, teachers, parents, and communities. NPE seeks to crack through the concrete, and cultivate a more authentic, organic, and robust public school system, a mission I’m proud to support.
I had the honor of having lunch with Diane on her book tour for REIGN OF ERROR near her hotel in downtown SF. While lunching, we randomly met up with author David Sirota (http://www.davidsirota.com/) to talk education politics, along with the ever articulate and insightful Anthony Cody (http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/).
As if to (leather) cap off a fully San Francisco-esque day, a steady stream of fully-chapped, mustachioed gentlemen flowed by, bound to the annual Folsom Street Fair, an annual celebration of BDSM culture.
It was a fully uncensored experience.
Leather aside, this is the second time I’ve had the good fortune to meet with Diane, and both times, I’ve been struck by her absolute devotion to providing all children the education only our most privileged children receive. Unlike the corporate reformers, who clad themselves in the pleather trappings of social justice and equity, Diane is truly committed to the institution of public education, for the enrichment not of corporations, but of democracy, and humanity.
She is a hero for those of us who still believe in the promise of public education.
You can buy or download her book at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Reign-Error-Privatization-Movement-Americas/dp/0385350880