Monday, December 13, 2010

Children's Union?

Education Week's State Ed Watch blog reports that Deborah Gist, RI's state education commissioner, has joined with her peers from Florida, Virginia, Louisiana, and Indiana to form "Chiefs for Change" to focus on advocating for policies that support their mutual agendas, namely school choice (decoded: increased charters) and performance-based evaluations for principals and teachers. Here's a bit more from the Ed Watch blog:
Unveiling the new group, "Chiefs for Change," were its founding members: Tony Bennett, of Indiana; Deborah Gist, of Rhode Island; Paul Pastorek, of Louisiana; Gerard Robinson, of Virginia; and Eric Smith, of Florida. They were gathered here in Washington for the national summit of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the reform group headed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The new chiefs group came together in conversation with Gov. Bush, who has agreed to provide it with financial and staffing support.

The five chiefs said that even though they work on important policy issues through the Council of Chief State School Officers, they felt the need to push a subset of policies through a separate group. Pastorek said the five want to "set ourselves apart and pursue a much more aggressive path toward success." It's not a partisan agenda, he said, but a "cutting-edge, pushing-the-envelope way of putting children at the top of all of our decisions." Bennett said the five have "kind of started our own union, a children's union," in which the interests of students trump those of adults.
Leaving aside several temptingly discussable details, I want to focus on this "children's union" notion, a phrase that Indiana's Tony Bennett has used before, as a quick Google search reveals. I wonder if Indiana's commitment toward a children's union has involved any actual children and their families. I am thinking, nope, not so much--though any Indianan reading this, please let me know if, in fact, I am wrong! Such news would be delightful, and I want to know what such meaningful family partnerships and respectful attention to young people's voices looks like.

Now that Rhode Island is a part of this direction, I wish to ask Commissioner Gist to avoid repeating Bennet's "children's union" reference--unless, of course, she intends to work systematically within communities to have children's needs and demands drive the discussion and work toward changing our education policies and practices. That would be a powerful and remarkable effort--but it is clearly not what's happening. What seems to be happening with Chiefs for Change is one more step toward aggressive promotion of charter schools not for the betterment of all schools but for the privatization of our public school systems. Don't attempt to harness the political will of my kids to justify that unless they, and I, demand it.

In Friday's Huffington Post, Sam Chaltain made a similar argument in relation to Michelle Rhee's new Students First venture, which similarly claims to stand for children's interests in the service of particular policies and practices that have a clear political agenda that don't clearly correspond to what students and their families may want. Sam's point:
To this end, Rhee intends to build an army of one million supporters and raise a total of one billion dollars -- in a year. Clearly, this is not someone unwilling to think big and in that sense, all of us need to match her sense of urgency and passion.

The danger, however, is if that urgency, passion and power gets deployed in the service of a myopic set of well-intentioned, misaligned ends. And based on what I can see from the website and gauge from her interviews, Michelle Rhee still believes the current way we're evaluating the success of our students, teachers and schools is sufficient for the brave new world of education she hopes to help usher in.
Adults in education leadership positions need to align their decision-making toward what's best for young people, and because historically, some have not done so, all now need to justify their direction in terms of what's best for kids. That the Michelle Rhee or the Chiefs for Change group are doing so isn't remarkable. But moving from that stance to claiming to directly represent the will of the majority of kids without doing the real work of determining what they want is disturbingly disingenuous, insulting to the very idea of a union, and a manipulative way of promoting dubious policies and positions.

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