Friday, April 26, 2013

Dick Gephardt And Education Reform In Minneapolis

MinnPost has a tragic/comedic article about (yet another) brouhaha surrounding the issue of education reform in Minneapolis.  Minneapolis Public Schools has been working with a project sponsored by the Minneapolis Foundation called the RESET campaign and at a recent event CNN commentator and principle Steve Perry said some things that the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers found objectionable.  The result was a series of public statements from both the president of the Federation and a woman named Lynnell Mickelsen who is the head of a school reform organization called Putting Kids First Minneapolis followed by a statement by Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson which seems to be the educational policy equivalent of "can't we all just get along?"

If you follow The School Reform Wars feel free to read the letters and use them as evidence of the morale superiority of your side and the hypocrisy and awfulness of the dreaded enemy.  But my response was more of a "pox on both your houses" thing after reading about what I considered to be poor politicking.  Steve Perry started the whole ruckus by saying things like "we need to call out the roaches" when referring to incompetent teachers and obstinate teacher's unions.  He may have a point that there are incompetent teachers that should be removed and in many districts teacher's unions can make this more difficult, but it's hard to see what he's trying to accomplish here.  Barring a big change in state law any change in the hiring and dismissal process in Minneapolis's school system is going to have to include changes in the contract between teachers and the district, that is, it is going to be something that the teacher's union agrees to.  Calling people "roaches" before you ask them to do something doesn't strike me as a particular wining strategy.

Minneapolis Federation of Teachers president Lynn Nordgren then responded to this provocation by making a series unreasonable demands. First she demanded:
We demand Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson immediately end the partnership with the anti-teacher RESET campaign. There is no place in the collaborative partnership that the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) has attempted to foster with the district over the past several years if they are going to be involved with a campaign like RESET.
So because a cable news talking head said something you don't like the school system should break it's ties with one of the biggest philanthropic organizations in the state?  That doesn't seem like a wise choice to me.  This was followed by another demand that the entire leadership team at Broadway Avenue drop whatever it is they are doing and prove their metal:
We call on Superintendent Johnson and all associate superintendents to spend a week teaching in a classroom. If they are ready to be a part of a campaign that blames every problem in the education system on teachers, they should be ready to be in classrooms showing us how to fix it.
I guess the "collaborative partnership" is over then.  Because some guy from CNN said something you didn't like?  This attitude is no more helpful than Perry's.

Michelsen's response has it's own problems. First of all it unfortunately contains what I like to call "liberal race trolling" which is the unfortunate tendency of certain liberal commentators and bloggers to try and prove their moral superiority over other liberals by stressing that they are "more" concerned about racial justice issues (and thus "more liberal") that other liberals. There's tons of this all over the liberal parts of the internet, and while Mickelsen's points are nowhere near some of the stuff I've seen it unfortunately does contain quotes like:
If the district publicly distances itself from the RESET campaign, that would be a clear signal to the community that the district, once again, is more concerned with the feelings of (mostly white, middle-class) adults than improving the academic outcomes for (mostly brown, low-income) children.
Does this mean that in districts with more minority teachers the problems are necessarily better? Well no, just ask Chicago. Just ask the District of Columbia.  These types of comments also just muddy the water, Washington D.C. shouldn't get a pass just because it's teaching staff is more diverse that Minneapolis, indeed the D.C. school system is much, much worse than ours.  More importantly though, this is a terrible political strategy! In a city of 385,000 people, let alone a country of over 300 million, the only way to do effective politics is through coalitions and partnerships. If right out of the gate you start bashing groups you have to work with or potential allies you probably aren't going to get very far.

A better strategy would be to look for allies rather than jump up to defend the honor of some out of town cable news talking head. At the very least setting up your battle as being between white middle class adults and minority children seems like a poor strategy to me as only one of these groups can vote. Indeed, you could turn the argument around and argue things like "If we don't reform our struggling school system now, in the future the state government could come in take away our local control!" This has the benefit to making the middle class white people be on the same side and the minority children, and does it by pointing out a issue (local control of schools) that middle class white people care a lot about!

A great example of this "let's fix things" politics, as opposed to the "I art more righteous than thou" model can be found in Richard Ben Cramer's great book about the 1988 presidential campaign What It Takes. Cramer is profiling Democratic Congressman Dick Gephardt, who ran for President in that cycle but ultimately lost, and makes a great point about why he was such an effective member of Congress:
Or sometimes, he [Gephardt] might explain that he agreed, but this other guy had a problem, and then he'd explain the other guy's problem. But usually he'd have a plan to get the other guy half of what he wanted, to solve his problem and that way, you'd get what you wanted, or some of what you wanted...if Dick could pull it off...anyway, he was for you.
And sometimes if it was a planned disagreement, like a caucus, or a conference on a bill where the Senate and House could not agree, or some other forum of organized bitterness [like a school board meeting! ed. note] Gephardt would go onto "receive" for a whole day...and when everybody was exhausted, and sour, and stinking from flop-sweat, and the whole ship was on fire from the cannonades on either side, there was Gephardt...who would suddenly take his chin off his fist, break his RCA-dog face into a smile of empathy for all, and he's say: "Lemme see if I can make a suggestion...Bob, Marty isn't this where we can agree, for a start?..." And then he'd lay down some narrow gangplank of common ground, where everyone, from any deck, could get off the burning ship before it sank. And it was beautiful the way he could do it, because everybody would leave with something to tell the voters. He would draw for them their bottom lines-what they really needed to get away with their skins...because he did understand, and the way he did that was, he listened...
Well, that was his goal. Gephardt thought his job was to make the system work on the problems. (Kind of radical, but there it was.)
If you've read the book or know about Gephardt's political career it's obvious he cares a lot about things like failing schools, trade deficits, vanishing jobs in the Midwest and the decline of Unions.  But at the same time he never lets his passion for these issues damage his ability to do the hard daily grind of real politics.  A new teacher contract could have a lot of things that Mickelsen wants, but it probably won't have everything she wants.  That wouldn't make it a failure, instead it would make it just another step forward on the difficult road to social change.  It would make it part of how our political system works on the problems.  Kind of radical, i know, but there it is.

Politics can be difficult and frustrating at times, but it is important not to take these frustrations out in unproductive ways. Improving our educational systems is a monumental task, but it won't be made any easier by ridiculous demands or dysfunctional politics.

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