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Posted at 2:44 PM ET, 02/22/2011

Why my fellow blogger Jay Mathews is wrong

By Valerie Strauss

Jay, Jay, Jay. You know I don’t like arguing with you because you know more than I do about a great many things. But in this case, not so much.

To review: I wrote a blog post last week titled “D.C. vouchers and the arrogance of Congress” (you can see where I’m going with this) that blasted two senators -- Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins -- for threatening District officials with cutting funding for the city’s public schools if a federal voucher program is not revived in the city.

I made the point that the issue was not whether one supported vouchers but, rather, that policy-making by threat was no way to run a country. I further noted that this was another example of the rather slipshod way education policy is made in this country (by legislators who most often don’t bother to include educators in the discussion).

A shortened version of that post was published in The Post on Monday’s weekly Education Page (it was shortened because I don’t get as much space as you do, which makes sense, as you are the czar of education reporters).

That is the piece to which you refer in the post on your Class Struggle blog, which takes me to task for supposedly ignoring charter schools and their success in the District. It also says:

“Threatening to cut D.C. school funds in order to get the voucher program back up to speed does seem impolite and disrespectful of local prerogatives. I have favored ending funding for the voucher program. I think it is well-intentioned, and good for the families that participate, but it is also an educational dead-end because there are never going to be enough available private school places to help many kids. I think it is better to use that money to make sure more good charters are born.

“Thankfully, I don’t make the rules. People elected to office do. Strauss complains of "the thoughtless, piece-meal way that this country makes school funding decisions. School budgets go up and down annually based on politics with no thought to the damage done to educational programs." That’s democracy for you. If anyone has a better way of making educational decisions, let me know. Strauss was not that happy with the result of taking D.C. schools away from the school board and turning them over to the mayor, allowing him to ignore many of the democratic pressures she is complaining about.”

First, there was no reason for me to address charters in my post, which wasn’t about vouchers or charters. It was about congressional threats. Congress obviously has the power to hold back money it has promised if it doesn’t get what it wants from the District on a specific program. But such behavior is best left to children.

My bigger issue with Jay’s post is the suggestion that bad education policy-making is a necessary result of the democratic process. That’s nonsense.

As Jay notes, I have repeatedly made the case that more people -- educators, in fact -- need to be brought into the policy-making process rather than kept out. Not a single teacher was part of the team that wrote the No Child Left Behind law. Educators didn’t have a big hand in the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” competition either.

The problem isn’t the democratic process; it is that legislators and business folks who don’t know much about education make decisions without sufficient educator, parent and student input that affects everybody -- often not for the better. Politicians like solutions with quick results, which is anathema to real school reform.

Today we learned that Michigan education officials have ordered half of the city’s public schools closed to balance the district’s books, and as a result, high school classes will have something like 60 kids in each. Obviously, Michigan state officials don’t have the right to do this.

Not even you, Jay, can argue that this can be brushed aside as just another example of policy-making in a democratic society. This is lousy education and fiscal policy.

Just today, a nationwide alliance of major education, civil rights, religious, disability, parent, labor and civic groups issued a statement with specific areas that Congress and the Obama administration should address if/when the No Child Left Behind law is rewritten.

The statement from the Forum on Educational Accountability says that Congress should:
-- address funding disparities and equity in education;
-- support students with diverse learning needs, both in and out of school;
-- take additional steps to ensure all children have access to highly effective teachers, leaders and other school personnel;
-- provide increased access to opportunity through high quality preschool;
-- work with states to ensure adequate school facilities, programs and services; and
-- promote school policies, including discipline, that ensure a climate conducive to learning.

If policymakers really looked at this range of issues, and not just standardized test scores, I’m betting many of our schools wouldn’t be in the mess that they are in.

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By Valerie Strauss  | February 22, 2011; 2:44 PM ET
Categories:  Congress, School turnarounds/reform, Vouchers  | Tags:  charter schools, class struggle, d.c. vouchers, detroit schools, jay mathews, joe lieberman, no child left behind, race to the top, school reform, susan collins, voucher program, vouchers  
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Next: David vs. Goliath: The battle over public education


The "Opportunity to Learn" statement from the Forum on Educational Accountability is available free online at

Posted by: FairTest | February 22, 2011 2:56 PM | Report abuse

Valerie: 1+
Jay: 0

You go, girl!

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | February 22, 2011 3:39 PM | Report abuse

The real power of the statement from the Forum on Educational Accountability is that it DOESN'T say at the end of its list "and do all this to raise test scores."

Here is the scary question that no one wants to deal with: what if, given the world as it is, we're defining "student achievement" in a way that has little relevance any longer? Absolutely, our kids need to read and write and be able to do math and more. But at the end of the day, my child's ability to answer contrived problems on a standardized test doesn't say anything about her ability to learn. All it tells me is what she knows. But what should she be able to do with that knowledge? Aside from pass the test, no one seems to be able to answer that question.

What should a relevant definition of student achievement be? I just asked that on Twitter a bit ago, and the answers coming back are civic engagement, accomplishments that change the world, add to the knowledge base, show creativity and critical thinking, show self-direction and focus and passion and more. As a parent, all of that matters more to me than knowing the date of the 2nd Continental Congress, a test question my fifth grader got last year. Can we please stop basing "achievement" on questions that kids can answer with the phones in their pockets?

None of that creativity, critical thinking stuff is the current focus of "achievement." That would be too hard, take too much time, cost too much money, change too much. We're only talking about our kids here, a group that David Brooks in the Times today seems to believe should feel a fair share of pain for the mess we've gotten ourselves into as well. The kids in Detroit are stepping up at least.

And by the way, in case Jay has forgotten, democracy means we can change what we don't like, not simply accept it. But then again, education is always someone else's problem. The politicians will figure it out, I'm sure.

Posted by: WillRichardson | February 22, 2011 3:47 PM | Report abuse

"Today we learned that Michigan education officials have ordered half of the city’s public schools closed to balance the district’s books, and as a result, high school classes will have something like 60 kids in each."

Wow....this should be front and center, national news......just how much does everyone expect kids to learn under such conditions? (If anyone cites the Catholic schools of the 50s, please remember they had corporeal punishment, parents and the right to expel kids on their side- and maybe God). Oh, right, blaming it on the teachers, test data and RTTT will take care of things.

Maybe it's time to shut down a war or two,
and cancel any further weapons orders.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | February 22, 2011 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Classes with 60 kids - what of fire codes?

Posted by: shadwell1 | February 22, 2011 5:16 PM | Report abuse

Also, with 60 students in a classroom, what about proper ventilation, levels of CO2, etc.? Hmmm, headaches, nausea, sleepiness...

Posted by: shadwell1 | February 22, 2011 5:30 PM | Report abuse

Valeria, you rock! Jay is so old school and has a whole of catching up to do. It's really kind of sad that it takes him so long to challenge those he has resolved to extol.

Posted by: lacy41 | February 22, 2011 7:11 PM | Report abuse

I would say that congress telling DCPS what to do is similar to the whole RTTT legislation. My state won RTTT money. We have some very successful, innovative school districts that will have to abandon their successful practices to enact the "reforms" the state adopts as part of RTTT. One step forward, two steps back. It simply makes no sense. The money was rewarded to states who "innovate." Then those states were given a list of "innovations" to put in place.

All I can say is--I'm so glad my kids are out of school.

Posted by: musiclady | February 22, 2011 7:45 PM | Report abuse

Valerie, This is a load of BS! Democracy is a type of government--the primary purpose of which is to allow for the free hand of the market to make decisions and majority rule--it is not the way that effective organizations or schools should be run! In fact, this whole notion that parents, students, politicians and every member of the community should be making school decisions instead of principals and superintendents is the exact reason why DC and so many American schools are in the position they are in!!

Can you imagine a hospital being run by patients? How about Microsoft being run by consumers? or maybe a baseball organization being run by the fans in the stands? Would you buy stock in those organizations if they were run from democratic principles?

This argument isn't meant to diminish the importance of a voice for all in education. All constituents should have a voice and input, but a vote on every decision? Stupid, stupid, stupid!!

Valerie- You're the first to always dismiss TFA and newbies as inexperienced novices who are ill-prepared to take the role of a teacher or God forbid, Chancellor. Yet, when it comes to critical school decisions you believe that principals and superintendents should make every effort to ensure that a democratic process take place with parents and community making the calls. The logic of this is maddening and plain stupid!

Education is a business, not a traditional business. But, the role of an educator is to provide learning opportunities for students so that they have multiple options in their lives to purse careers or college. Yes, even in spite of home obstacles, educators are expected to create engaging learning environments for their students--even those without health insurance.

Since DCPS has fewer than 10% of its high school graduates receiving a college degree I think it's safe to say that the democratic approach to education ain't working here!

As it were, you can't have it both ways Valerie- you can't argue that educators, experienced educators, are needed in our schools and then diminish the profession by saying that key decisions should be made by people with no education background through a democratic process.

Posted by: teacher6402 | February 22, 2011 10:26 PM | Report abuse

I shouldn't waste so much of time writing about public education but it is my true love and I did it all levels and have the experience to understand what really needs to be done. I argued a few years ago with Matthews that we needed to protect education by getting it into the Constitution because it was being abused readily by federal,state and local politicians. Why? It is big money and much of it can't be accounted for by administrators. One of my best friends was a superintendent in CT and his first act as a super was to rein in the principals by telling them that every expenditure had to have his approval. We're talking just the tip of the iceberg; the real money is in buildings, buses, textbooks, personnel, contracts, and constant strain by changing everything with some new reform. Do your homework and you'll see that education reform has been ongoing since Sputnik in 1957. True teaching is relatively simple. Just imagine Socrates teaching on the streets of Greece, no tools, just he and his students. It is not buildings, buses,lunches, telecommunications, sports, band, etc. It is the setting where the learner suddenly grasps the idea from the teacher who had created the environment. That setting is what must be protected! We must allow the teacher to provide the setting and we must keep the administrator, parents, secretaries, politicians and anyone else at bay or the teacher can't provide that setting. The greatest moments of my teaching came when I taught reading and almost magically I saw students change from barely being able to pronounce words to being able comprehend, not just sentences; not just paragraphs; not just chapters; but the whole damn book almost overnight! Anybody who has ever experienced that knows why they teach. It's a moment of bliss and while you'd like to stop time for awhile you've got 29 other students who won't shut up.

Posted by: dmyers412 | February 23, 2011 4:33 AM | Report abuse

I agree somewhat with recommendations from the Forum on Educational Accountability. The first two are within the congressional window. The others are state issues and Congress should find other ways to help, but those in particular are state drivers.

As I posted in Jay's rebuttal, I want kids to learn. Now what that takes for children varies as much or more than responses to your post here.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 23, 2011 8:39 AM | Report abuse

Good comeback, Valerie. You have put your finger on the problem. Good teachers continue to have great hopes that what they know about how schools work will influence legislators, but they miss the main point of school policy in a democracy. Legislators have no incentive to listen to teachers. They have some incentive to listen to teacher unions if they get campaign funds and organizational help from them, but even those unions cannot sway elections (except maybe small school board elections) on their own. Legislators do have a big incentive to listen to voters, particularly parents and taxpayers who are a much more powerful block, if you want to call them that, than teachers. If good teachers think their ideas will influence elected officials through well-crafted statements like the one you cite, they are wrong. They have to make their case to parents and tax payers. They so far are not very good at that. Few interest groups are, except maybe the AARP and the NRA. Until they find a way to get parents and taxpayers excited about their views, they are going to be continually disappointed about what elected officials do. OR, you could also argue that some ideas advanced by good teachers don't make much sense to taxpayers and parents because they don't work, which is another problem altogether.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 23, 2011 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Great insight in your response, Jay Mathews.

I wish Ms. Strauss were not so blind to the fact that the unionista cadre among DCPS teachers will assume little or no responsibility or accountability for what goes on in the classroom. They want to shield themselves from being expected to deliver some education because of the darned parents and poverty. Good teachers take childrens' impediments and go from there. But too many of our educators lack the confidence and/or skill to get something done. And they want premium compensation, job security, and high respect nonetheless.

Posted by: axolotl | February 23, 2011 7:46 PM | Report abuse

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