Guest Post: John Thompson Responds to My Chalkbeat Article

John Thompson is a retired teacher, historian, author, and regular contributor at The Huffington Post. He writes about public schooling and has been an outspoken critic of "education reform," as it is practiced in this country today. Thompson and I have had regular, spirited, and cordial disagreements about education policy over the years. One time, we even got on the phone to talk about de-escalating the rhetoric between "education reformers" and "education traditionalists." (How delightfully old-fashioned of us!) When Thompson sent me this guest post, as a direct response to something I wrote in January, I couldn't resist posting it in its entirety.

Justin Cohen is “a technocratic public school graduate” who has been contemplating the ways that Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump could “kill the bipartisan education reform coalition.”  If that happens, Cohen will be disappointed, though not surprised, to see the movement dissolve.

Cohen fears that left-leaning reformers will then be “subsumed by the traditionalist agenda” which “still hews to the positions of management interests and labor leaders, and not closely enough to the needs of vulnerable families.”

Of course, I reject the implication that we in the traditional public schools - who accept challenges far more daunting than those faced by charter schools – are not closely attuned to the needs of the most vulnerable families. So, I’ll half-seriously counter Cohen’s technocratic game plan with a football coach’s aphorism. Darryl Royal famously said, “Three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad.”

The contemporary school reform movement’s incomplete pass sowed discord between allies in the fight for students' welfare, making it more difficult for us to come together in support of critical issues, such as healthcare, poverty, civil rights, and jobs.

The dramatic interception prompted by the reform coalition is that it has made so many teachers “miserable.” To his credit, Cohen acknowledged that teachers’ pushback includes “a genuine response to feeling like the teaching profession has become unmoored from joy and creativity,” and “that’s bad for children.”

Cohen counts charters as his conservative/neoliberal/liberal coalition’s completion. Of course, some charters do well. I’d say that Cohen overplays his hand when writing about “amazing charter schools that get stunning results.”  We could debate whether charters have done more good than harm, especially for the poorest children of color left behind in even more segregated schools. But what would be the point of continuing that debate?

I could also chide Cohen for his faith in technocracy.  But what good would that do?

I believe that reformers were terribly misguided when they tried to leverage “teacher quality” to drive increases in student performance. It was a mistake to believe instruction could advance in front of the other interconnected features of schooling. Certainly they misjudged how much could be changed inside classrooms before addressing healthcare, poverty, civil rights, and jobs.

I could say, “We told you so!,” but what good would that do?

On the other hand, I hope Cohen will ask why he and others were so willing to attack teachers and unions even though we had long been allies in the campaign for civil rights and economic opportunity? Why was Cohen so sure that he and his coalition was right, and teachers were so wrong, that they assaulted us so vociferously?

Cohen has campaigned for transformative change. I’ve committed to incrementalism. I believe that the best way to improve schools is to slow down, “plan your work and work your plan.” The biggest gains come from thinking ahead and avoiding “unforced errors.”

So, Cohen and his remaining teammates should take inventory of our differences, and ask how they could see them as equivalent to what separates us from Trump. We who seek improvements in the traditional public school system aren’t perfect, but neither are we evil.  If reformers joined in a Big Tent liberal reform movement, they would not need to be “subsumed by the traditionalist agenda.”

If we can’t unite against Trumpism, however, the consequences could be dire – even world historical. Cohen and other liberal and neoliberal reformers collaborated with quite a team of conservative reformers - who are now comfortable with DeVos and Trump. I don’t claim that that it would be easy for him (or us) to forget the bitter battles of the last 1-1/2 decades, but he should support a truce. I’d think it would be easier for him to bury the hatchet and work with teachers and unions than it was for him to deal with many of his former allies.