Linda Darling-Hammond is one of my education heroes.
Perhaps that’s why her recent article in the Washington Post hurts so much.
In it, she and her think tank buddies slam education advocates Diane Ravitch and Carrol Burris for worrying about who governs schools – as if governance had nothing to do with quality education for children.
I’d expect something like that from Bill Gates.
Or Campbell Brown.
Or Peter Cunningham.
But not Hammond!
She’s not a know-nothing privatization flunky. She’s not a billionaire who thinks hording a bunch of money makes him an authority on every kind of human endeavor.
She’s a bona fide expert on teacher preparation and equity.
She founded the Center for Opportunity Policy in Education at Stanford University, where she is professor emeritus.
And she was the head of Barrack Obama’s education policy working group in 2008 when he was running for President.
In fact, she was the reasons many educators thought Obama was going to be a breath of fresh air for our schools and students. Everyone thought she was a lock for Education Secretary should Hope and Change win the day. But when he won, he threw her aside for people like Arne Duncan and John King who favored school privatization and high stakes standardized testing.
These days she spends most of her time as founder and president of the California-based Learning Policy Institute.
It’s a “nonprofit” think tank whose self-described mission is “to conduct independent, high-quality research to improve education policy and practice.”
The Learning Policy Institute published a report called “The Tapestry of American Public Education: How Can We Create a System of Schools Worth Choosing for All?”
The report basically conflates all types of choice within the public school system.
On the one hand, it’s refreshing to have policy analysts admit that there ARE alternatives within the public school system above and beyond charter and voucher schools.
On the other, it’s frustrating that they can’t see any fundamental differences between those that are publicly managed and those outsourced to private equity boards and appointed corporate officers.
Hammond and her colleagues Peter Cookson, Bob Rothman and Patrick Shields talk about magnet and theme schools.
They talk about open enrollment schools – where districts in 25 states allow students who live outside their borders to apply.
They talk about math and science academies, schools focusing on careers in health sciences and the arts, schools centered on community service and social justice, international schools focused on global issues and world languages, and schools designed for new English language learners.
They talk about schools organized around pedagogical models like Montessori, Waldorf and International Baccalaureate programs.
And these are all options within the public school system, itself.
In fact, the report notes that the overwhelming majority of parents – three quarters – select their neighborhood public school as their first choice.
However, Hammond and co. refuse to draw any distinction between these fully public schools and charter schools.
Unlike the other educational institutions mentioned above, charter schools are publicly funded but privately run.
They take our tax dollars and give them to private equity managers and corporate appointees to make all the decisions.
Though Hammond admits this model often runs into problems, she refuses to dismiss it based on the few instances where it seems to be working.
Despite concerns from education advocates, fiscal watchdogs and civil rights warrior across the country, Hammond and co. just can’t get up the nerve to take a stand.
The NAACP and Black Lives Matter have called for a moratorium on all new charter schools in the country. Journey for Justice has requested a focus on community schools over privatization. But Hammond – a once great advocate for equity – can’t get up the moral courage to stand with these real agents of school reform.
She stands with the corporate school reformers – the agents of privatization and profit.
“School choice is a means that can lead to different ends depending on how it is designed and managed…” write Hammond and her colleagues.
In other words, if charters result in greater quality and access for all students, they are preferable to traditional public schools.
However, she admits that charters usually fail, that many provide worse academic outcomes than traditional public schools serving similar students.
She notes that 33% of all charters opened in 2000 were closed 10 years later. Moreover, by year 13, that number jumped to 40%. When it comes to stability, charter schools are often much worse than traditional public schools.
And virtual charter schools – most of which are for-profit – are even worse. They “…have strong negative effects on achievement almost everywhere and graduate fewer than half as many of their students as public schools generally.”
However, after noting these negatives, Hammond and co. go on to provide wiggle room for privatization. They discuss how state governments can do better making sure charter schools don’t go off the rails. They can provide more transparency and accountability. They can outlaw for-profit charters and put caps on the number of charters allowed in given districts and states, set rules on staffing and curriculum – all the kinds of measures already required at traditional public schools.
But the crux of their objection is here:
“In a recent commentary in this column, authors Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris erroneously asserted that our report aims to promote unbridled alternatives to publicly funded and publicly operated school districts. Quite the opposite is true.”
In other words, they continue to lump privatized schools like charters in with fully public schools.
They refuse to make the essential distinction between how a school is governed and what it does. So long as it is funded with public tax dollars, it is a public school.
That’s like refusing to admit there is any difference in the manner in which states are governed. Both democracies and tyrannies are funded by the people living in those societies. It does not then follow that both types of government are essentially the same.
But they go on:
“The report aims to help states and districts consider how to manage the broad tapestry of choices available in public schools in ways that create quality schools with equitable access and integrative outcomes.”
Most tellingly, the authors admonish us to, “Focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures for adults” (Emphasis mine).
The way a school is governed is not FOR ADULTS. It is FOR CHILDREN. That is how we do all the other things Hammond and co. suggest.
“Work to ensure equity and access for all.”
That doesn’t just happen. You have to MAKE it happen through laws and regulations. That’s called governance.
“Create transparency at every stage about outcomes, opportunities and resources.”
That’s governance. That’s bureaucracy. It’s hierarchy. It’s one system overlooking another system with a series of checks and balances.
“Build a system of schools that meets all students’ needs.”
Again, that doesn’t just happen. We have to write rules and systems to make it happen.
Allowing private individuals to make decisions on behalf of private organizations for their own benefit is not going to achieve any of these goals.
And even in the few cases where charter schools don’t give all the decisions to unelected boards or voluntarily agree to transparency, the charter laws still allow them to do this. They could change at any time.
It’s like building a school on a cliff. It may be fine today, but one day it will inevitably fall.
I wrote about this in detail in my article “The Best Charter School Cannot Hold a Candle to the Worst Public School.”
It’s sad that Hammond refuses to understand this.
I say “refuse” because there’s no way she doesn’t get it. This is a conscious – perhaps political – decision on her part.
Consider how it stacks up against some of the most salient points she written previously.
“A democratic education means that we educate people in a way that ensures they can think independently, that they can use information, knowledge, and technology, among other things, to draw their own conclusions.”
Now that’s a Linda Darling-Hammond who knows the manner in which something (a state) is governed matters. It’s not just funding. It’s democratic principles – principles that are absent at privatized schools.
“Bureaucratic solutions to problems of practice will always fail because effective teaching is not routine, students are not passive, and questions of practice are not simple, predictable, or standardized. Consequently, instructional decisions cannot be formulated on high then packaged and handed down to teachers.”
This Linda Darling-Hammond is a fighter for teacher autonomy – a practice you’ll find increasingly constrained at privatized schools. In fact, charter schools are infamous for scripted education, endless test prep and everything Hammond used to rail against.
“In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills.”
I wonder what this Linda Darling-Hammond would say to the present variety. Privatized schools are most often test prep factories. They do none of what Hammond used to advocate for. But today she’s emphatically arguing for exactly the kind of school she used to criticize.
“If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet.”
Isn’t this how they routinely teach at charter schools? Memorize this. Practice it only in relation to how it will appear on the standardized test. And somehow real life, authentic learning will follow.
“Students learn as much for a teacher as from a teacher.”
Too true, Linda Darling-Hammond. How much learning do you think there is at privatized schools with much higher turnover rates, schools that transform teachers into glorified Walmart greeters? How many interpersonal relationships at privatized institutions replacing teachers with iPads?
“Life doesn’t come with four choices.”
Yes, but the schools today’s Linda Darling-Hammond are advocating for will boil learning down to just that – A,B,C or D.
“We can’t fire our way to Finland.”
Yet today’s Linda Darling-Hammond is fighting for schools that work teachers to the bone for less pay and benefits and then fire them at the slightest pretense.
In short, I’m sick of this new Linda Darling-Hammond. And I miss the old Linda Darling-Hammond.
Perhaps she’s learned a political lesson from the Obama administration.
If she wants a place at the neoliberal table, it’s not enough to actually know stuff and have the respect of the people in her profession.
She needs to support the corporate policies of the day. She needs to give the moneymen what they want – and that’s school privatization.
This new approach allows her to have her cake and eat it, too.
She can criticize all the evils of actual charter schools while pretending that there is some middle ground that allows both the monied interests and the students to BOTH get what they want.
It’s shrewd political gamesmanship perhaps.
But it’s bad for children, parents and teachers.
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