Elitism and the education reform movement
Like many of your fine states, Massachusetts is now home to a veritable alphabet-soup of education reform groups, albeit a can in which the letters FER seem to be somewhat overrepresented. Just yesterday, for example, a reader sent me a notice from a new chapter of a student reform group at Tufts University, headed up by a young equestrienne whose own secondary education came courtesy of a $33,000 private school. She is helping to mobilize the next generation of education reform leaders by reaching out to fellow students who “[h]ad a bad public school experience” and are interested in help[ing] out in charter school events around in the Boston area.“
When the members of this next generation of reformers graduate and become the current generation of reformers, they will have plenty of reform-minded organizations to add to their LinkedIn profiles. There is DFER, for example, which, in Massachusetts, is headed by a pedigreed young gentleman who spends his days penning passionate op-eds about choice, excellence and innovation. I will not dwell on his biography here, as I have already dwelled upon it here and here. But let it suffice to say that he did not attend one of the results-driven, No Excuses urban charters of the sort he now advocates for so passionately.
Who will speak for the strivers?
I have been thinking a lot about the role that elitism plays in the education reform movement since the appearance of a remarkable blog post by Michael Petrilli, “one of the nation’s foremost education analysts.” Petrilli, who was responding to a recent Washington Post article and video about the staggering expulsion rate of charter schools in Washington DC, admits what charter critics have long argued: that charters do indeed ‘cream,’ ‘select,’ and ‘push out.’ But he goes further and says that charters should be celebrated for doing just that. Here: I’ll let Mr. P break it down for you.
To be sure, this raises tough questions for the system as a whole. As I said in the Washington Post video, there are reasons to be concerned that district schools will become the last resort for the toughest-to-serve kids. But in life there are trade-offs, and I would be willing to accept a somewhat less ideal outcome for the most-challenged students if it meant tremendously better life outcomes for their peers. Misguided notions of “equity” have turned many public school systems into leveling leviathans. We shouldn’t let the same happen to charters, the last salvation of the strivers.
Now before we address the “misguided notions of ‘equity’ (finger quotes please), I will allow you to pause in order to enjoy an extra hearty pull from your wine box while I regale you with an anecdote. I learned of the Post story and video on Twitter via a young education reformer (Deerfield Academy, Harvard) who was excited by the story of a student who appears in the video, a young woman named Elsie who makes it to college thanks to the help of counselors at the same charter school which had previously expelled her. Take a look and see what you think.
Let me tell you about education reformers. It turns out that they are very different from you and me. As it happens, I am a life-long believer in what Mr. Petrilli blithely dismisses as “misguided notions of equity,” or as I like to call them, “schmequity.” It turns out that there is more dividing us than the fact that a disproportionate number of reformers hail from elite institutions whereas, full disclosure, I have mediocrity coursing through my very veins. We don’t look at the world the same way. I view a choice that benefits a few students at the expense of a larger group of students as a loss of overall choice. Members of Generation R seek more special opportunities for a select group of students—just like they had.They view education through the prism of their own specialness.
Not long ago I questioned the youthful members of an organization that happens to have FER in its name about their unbridled (no pun intended) enthusiasm for urban No Excuses charters. How was it, I asked, in so much as one can ask anything in 140 characters or less, that they could advocate for hyper disciplinary test-prep centers for poor and minority students when their own parents would never have subjected them to such an environment? Their response:
Many SFER members’ parents opted into school choice programs to ensure they would have a rigorous, college-prep education.
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