Saturday, May 14, 2011

An Open Letter to the Anti-Corporate Reform Community

Dear Fighters of Educational Corporate Reform,

I think we can all agree that it's in all of our best interest, in fighting corporate reform, to point out the many inaccuracies in the CR argument. However, there is something to be said for doing it gracefully, with dignity. On the other hand, there is something destructively polarizing about doing it with vitriol. Demonizing those who disagree with us, to the point where anyone standing on middle ground would look at the debate and be disgusted or unimpressed with our side, is not a useful technique for demonstrating the merits of our argument. I sincerely doubt the utility of anger and hate as a method for advocating for the best interest of public education and children. To that end, I think it's incredibly important that those who are used to debating in this manner rethink the way they choose to address the ideas and people they disagree with. I also think it's in all of our best interest to stop promoting those people until they do. Their rhetoric only provides fodder for anyone out there looking to prove that teachers and parents resisting corporate reform are a bunch of crackpots uninterested in listening to the other side because we're only interested in self-preservation or some sort of arthritically misguided ideology. Furthermore, the treatment of anyone, regardless of whether they're rich, privileged, idealistic, or TFA corps members as if anything they say or think is worth less than a pile of shit is reprehensible regardless of what debate you're having or what side you're on.

As advocates for meaningful change in the world of public education, it is as equally incumbent upon us to cry foul when members of our own side go awry as it is when the corporate reformers get it wrong. While there are undoubtedly loads of people playing this reform game who have no real interest in helping children, and may even deserve some of the harsh things we want to throw at them, there are at least as many (and I think more) who think this is legitimately the best way to do right by kids, either because they lack experience or because they simply have a different perspective (I used to be that way). If those of us fighting in the name of public education fail to push back against fellow decriers of corporate reform who go too far, we risk important opportunities to engage with people who, while they may be of a different opinion right now, are open to discussing alternative ways of improving education in this country (e.g. me three years ago).

While I sympathize with the frustration the corporate reform movement causes, and I've not been entirely innocent of spewing inappropriate venom toward those I disagreed with in the past (Seyward Darby comes to mind), seeing the degree to which some have taken it has reminded me of its ultimate futility. I'm deeply concerned that everything my blog and much of the collective advocacy of many of the stellar people fighting corporate reform have worked for is indefinitely injured by this ongoing venom. While I support freedom of speech, I'm afraid it's a far cry from our best interest to promote it when it's invective.


James Boutin
Bronx, NY


  1. Unfortunately, ed-speak looks the same no matter which direction it comes from. The public has no way of distinguishing what is true in public discourse because few on either side argue cogently with well documented examples. When you see smoke and mirrors dressed up in formal attire (let's just say Bloombergian explanations of how effective charters are), it's still ignorance and you can't honestly build a bridge between a rock and a mirage. So respectful discourse can only be maintained between two *willing* discussants.

  2. I agree with you, Bob.

    I tend to think that when it's clear the person you're debating is only interested in promoting their said and unwilling to listen to yours, then you debate only as a means of letting other people observe, and giving them things to think about in their decision-making process. And I think you'll be more successful at that with a lot of people if you refrain from being entirely dismissive or rude.

  3. Without knowing the person or incident that motivated you to write, this entire post just looks very, very strange.

    That being said, I engage with most on our side respectfully, even when I disagree. (although there are those I refuse to engage with at all, and others who have so abused our trust that they must be called out)

    I generally don't hold myself to such standards when explaining the actions of the other side, although I tend to stick to drier language. I do not engage, in general, in any discussion with the other side - they are out to do us harm and they need to be stopped, not talked with.


  4. Well punditry in our country is typically negative and hostile so it makes sense that education debates are at times reflective of that.

  5. Unemployment, foreclosures, financial deception, tax cuts for the rich, service cuts for the neediest, oil spills, broken political promises, oligarchy, test-driven madness put upon our children, medicare under attack, pensions under attack, ceo bonus bailouts by taxpayers, three wars...

    I love your writing, I'm sorry you're leaving NYC, but the fight may actually have to get stronger and nastier than it is right now.

    This country is in a mess on several fronts. I'm afraid, polite discourse just ain't gonna' be enough.

  6. We have been to polite, some of the vitriol from the other side is just hate-mongering although said without raising their voice plus they have the power of he media to make believe believe in their lies. It's not exactly an equal playing field is it? Who do you think is reading your blog, not the other side and not the unknowing public they are reading the Washington Post, NY Times, or tabloid mags and Fox 5!!! We are too passive and polite, you don't want to turn people off but you have gotta be heard.

    Agreed this letter was weird. Did someone hijack your blog?

  7. Nobody hijacked the blog. I'm just making a case for not being an asshole to people you disagree with. I think that when people are, it's not good for anyone.

    Something specific did prompt me to write this, but I think it would be imprudent to make it public. So I thought I'd just make a general appeal since I think vitriol extends beyond the very specific situation I witnessed recently.

    I apologize for the weirdness.

  8. My experience suggests that "reformer" types simply ignore facts they find inconvenient. I've watched people like Tilson slime Diane Ravitch and others in a most vile fashion and then be called "erudite" by Jay Matthews. I've been to hearings where scores of people were outright ignored. No one sitting on the PEP, for example, can vote with Mayor Mike without absolutely ignoring the bulk of public comments. Power and money say what protects power and money, and that's a long tradition. Institutions like Fox News, which has an inexplicable hold on many Americans, have middle class people taking an anti-middle class POV.

    Tough time to be an American. Tough time not to be outraged. In fact, I'd say it's impossible to persuade "reformers" who peddle outright lies as a matter of course. Look at Joel Klein's Atlantic piece, if you need a recent example.

    Vitriol, I guess, is a point of view. I can think of a columnist who dismisses every opposing point of view as vitriol and considers that an answer. Meanwhile, there are a lot of people who merit ridicule, and goshdarn it, someone needs to be up for that task.

  9. You are one of my favorite bloggers and this post confirms that. Thank you for showing strength of character and respect for others.

  10. I'm really surprised by the amount of push-back this post has been getting. I think it's happening for two reasons:

    1) It's evidence of how disgusting public debate in this country is.

    2) It's a result of me not clearly communicating what I mean.

    I never said, and do not mean: a) that people on the other side are playing fair, b) that everyone is worth engaging equally, c) that everyone on the other side is arguing in favor of corporate reform because they're really out to help children, d) that ridicule is always inappropriate.

    If you want to show Whitney Tilson that he's wrong, then do it by showing him and everyone watching you engage with him how idiotic his suggestions are. Point out his contradictions. People will be far more persuaded by those tactics than by screaming, "You stupid asshole. You're so wrong. Stop blabbering away!" The people who do that a) make all of us look bad, especially to those watching the debate who don't know any better, b) don't help anyone understand the debate better, and c) give evidence to the other side that we don't really know what we're talking about; we end up just looking angry - and when you're anger is out of control and lacking facts, it doesn't help your side.

    Furthermore, for every Whitney Tilson out there, there are about 1,000 other people who've been convinced that corporate reform really is in the best interest of children. They're not evil people out to make money of children or promote a neoliberal ideology, they really want to help kids and they either have a different perspective or lack the experience to see why this kind of reform is harmful. If we lump all of the other side into one category and berate them all because a few of them deserve it, we will damage our cause. We can't let our anger get out of hand. We will continue to lose ground if we do. We'll get a lot further in this debate by directing our frustration into efforts that usefully show people why we think corporate reform is wrong.

    Lastly, despite all of the many reasons to be angry, it seems to me that it's always helpful to keep the possibility in the back of your mind that you might be wrong. That is, if you're in this debate for truth rather than a political agenda.

  11. I understand what you're saying. Actually Tilson speaks of me in the same glowing terms he uses for Diane. I suppose I should be honored. I tend not to discuss him much at all, finding him too ridiculous even to ridicule. I'm pretty sure, in general, I've taken your suggestions.

    It's tough for us, after being dragged through the mud on a fairly daily basis, with two-page spreads in the tabloids and pretty much the same from the Times, to keep our tempers. I suppose it's always better not to act like raving lunatics.

    But it's not always as easy as it may seem.

  12. NYC Educator, I agree. It can be very difficult. You've been in the fight for a lot longer than I have and have seen a lot more than me. I appreciate the fight you've put forth, and sympathize with how difficult I'm sure it's been at times.

    I kind of think their ability to turn honest people who want what's right into raving lunatics is one of their trump cards. The less we can play into their hand, the better.

  13. I think you should be specific about what prompted you to write this.

  14. California TeacherMay 15, 2011 at 2:31 PM

    As Noam Chomsky says: "as long as the people are quiet..." the demagogues will continue to exploit their advantage. The civil rights movement did not gain momentum, the Viet Nam war did not end and Egypt did not overthrow Mubarak because the people were polite and quiet. They stood up in great numbers and spoke loudly and firmly and in no uncertain terms.

    I'm with Pogue. I believe the education "reform" movement has become closely tied to a host of political/social issues brought about by the increasingly powerful plutocracy, and the maldistribution of wealth. Things will continue to get worse until people take to the streets. And when they do, they won't be polite.

  15. Choosing to take the high road is always a difficult choice, but I believe that in the long run, it ALWAYS pays off...both in the perception of you as a professional, and in the development of you as a person. Vitriolic attacks filled with curse words and non-specific attacks on someone's character are counter-productive and in the end will hurt the cause you support more than help it. I appreciate the thought put into this post and do not see the need to lend fuel to the fire by explaining the incident that prompted it. Knowing you in real life, I do NOT think that this post is uncharacteristic of your writing and thought process, and simply demonstrates another example of your committment to think things through from alternate points of view. Well done.

  16. I confess to being a little mystified over what your meta-analysis was about, but I'm pretty concrete, and not good at reading been multiple lines. That doesn't mean that bloggers shouldn't muse about things, poke at wounds, or try to make sense of the senseless. That's the whole point of blogs--getting your friends and readers to muse and poke with you.

    As a newish friend, however, I thought you might enjoy reading this:


  17. Your post comes at a significant time for me. Lately I have been feeling extremely angry about the corporate manipulations of public ed. I recognize that I am not at my most effective when anger is my dominant emotion & feel a need to detox from the negativity a bit and regain my sense of humor.
    As you say, there are plenty of ordinary people who believe in the benefits of corporate reform. Its proponents are using arguments that are hard for the untrained ear to dispute. Who’s going to argue against the notion of high quality education for all kids? The larger problem is the campaign of misinformation, packaged in this seductive language, tied up with fancy bows, suggesting easy, quick-fix solutions.
    Those of us who seek to present effective arguments against the rhetoric must be astute. I opt for reasonable dialogue to better inform people on the hidden agendas in certain reform proposals, even when I feel an urge to spew venom. While I agree that anger (and occasional mockery) has its place, I am also concerned that our counter-arguments be heard and more wholly considered by people who have not considered both sides of the debate and/or are not looking at the big picture regarding corporate reform measures.

  18. We can be angry, determined, loud, and forceful in our arguments. We can protest and take to the streets without being vitriolic and spewing venom. I'm becoming more and more angry, which I'm channeling into passion to do the right thing and stop sitting on the side-lines and become more politically active in educational policy, union activism and advocating for the rights of teachers and students.

    See the Washington Post today - What do teachers really want? by Valerie Strauss. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and right now by being quiet we are not getting any.

  19. Christy: Thanks for the kind words.

    Nancy: Disturbing post. I was REALLY angry when I read what was written about the potential of TFA. That shit is truly scary. I'd seen the bs circulated around congress last spring, but it didn't come near claiming that TFAers were "two to three times" better teachers than non-TFAers. That's incredible.

    Maria: Damn straight. Fancy bow ties and silver bullet idea are often harmful in application but beneficial in rhetoric land. Quite the dilemma.

    Anon at 802: Great points. I agree entirely.

  20. For so long, "moderates" argued endlessly about details, while never acknowledging the reform movement is corporate, or mentioning the "public-private partnership" that now rules our public schools.

    Susan Ohanian, Diane Ravitch, and others have finally brought this question to the attention of the people as a whole.

    It's funny how those supposed moderates are now, in unison, arguing that taking a position is just inherently bad form. Are you orchestrated, or is this just contagious cold-feet?

    Sorry, but you have to choose sides.

    Our enemy is the "public-private partnership" itself, not any of the arguers who have been enmeshed in its vast, oily payoff system. And, yes, I say enemy. They are cheats, liars, frauds, manipulators and thieves, and the richest men the planet has ever seen.

    "The public private partnership is a done deal. It's like a bus, you're either going to be on it or under it," I was told in my own public school library.

    Whatever your theories or education preferences, ask to whom or what we are being "held accountable". Ask it out loud, and insist on an answer.

    Stand up to them, young people, and I can guarantee it will shut doors for you in your careers. Stand up anyway. Take a position, mid-career "leaders" who know where future advancement and security lies, and you know that it will impact and possibly destroy your future livelihood. So, stand up.

    Oppose the Public-Private Partnership, and any other argument you want to make is fine with me. Bring it over here, and welcome, brothers and sisters.