TPM Cafe: Opinion

Today, policy makers think of education solely in terms of its secondary purposes. They speak of children as future global competitors. They sometimes refer to children in rather ugly terms as “human assets,” forgetting that they are unique people and they are not fungible. They want all students to be “college and career ready.” They tend to speak only of preparation for the workforce, not education for citizenship. But this is misguided. The central purpose of education is to prepare everyone to assume the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy.

What does this mean for schooling?

It means first of all that all citizens need the essential tools of learning, which are reading and mathematics. Knowing how to read and knowing how numbers are used (and misused) to characterize almost everything are basic necessities for citizens.

Basic skills are necessary, but they are not enough to prepare the citizen.

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American public education has never been subject to as much upheaval and chaos as it is today. Schools need stability, not constant disruption. Yet for the past dozen years, ill-advised federal policies have rained down on students, teachers, principals, and schools.

George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top are a double whammy. Together, they have severely undermined state and local control of education, even though the federal government puts up only 10% of the cost of public education. The tail is not only wagging the dog, it is controlling its every movement.

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Every time the Republican Party goes through adversity—whether it’s losing an election or suffering a plunge in popularity or falling into what is sometimes called a “civil war”—there are constant internal and (especially) external calls for some exercise in “soul-searching” or “rebranding” or “adjustment to political reality.” In recent years, these wilderness periods have been extremely brief, and have universally concluded with defiant pledges among an array of GOP leaders to remain true to their “conservative principles” regardless of the cost. We’ve seen a reprise of this predictable drama in Virginia this week, with state party chairman Pat Mullins leading a chorus of objections to any ideological recalibration at a GOP retreat.

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The question may seem fatuous on its face. In his lifetime, Mandela had to insist he was not a saint, but a sinner. Abbas has no doubters. Mandela was the leader; Abbas, the follower; yet Mandela poured your tea, while Abbas presses a buzzer to have an aide light (and ration) his cigarettes. In his death, Mandela filled a stadium with global leaders and common people. For Abbas, a legacy of this kind seems improbable: a negotiator is not a liberator.

Moreover, the question suggests parallels between Apartheid and the Occupation that are, at best, forced. Israel, even Greater Israel, is not a privileged minority enriching itself on the labor of a racially despised majority. On the contrary, the Zionists worked from the start toward separation, to revive the Hebrew language; settlement hurt Palestinian workers as a by-product of the drive towardeconomic self-sufficiency. To this day, if most Israelis could just saw their land and global technology businesses off from Palestine, and float out toward Cyprus, they would. Their racism, if that’s the word for it, derives from generations of violence.

But all of this is beside the point, now. The real question is whether Abbas, with Mandela-like courage and grace, was prepared to both confront the Occupation and yet renounce terror, face down his own nationalist radicals, and advocate for diplomatic pathways and (mainly) non-violent resistance.

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More than anyone else, Michelle Rhee is the face of the corporate reform movement.

When she was appointed to run the D.C. public school system, Michelle Rhee had never run a school system or even a school. In the early 1990s, as a member of Teach for America, she taught for three years in a Baltimore elementary school that was part of a for-profit experiment in privatization, which was terminated by the district after four years. After her teaching stint, she ran a program to recruit teachers for urban schools called the New Teacher Project. When Adrian Fenty selected her to lead the D.C. public schools, she was thirty-seven years old. Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City public schools, recommended her to Fenty; Klein, too, had come to his position without education credentials.

Rhee became renowned for her candor and toughness. She minced no words in castigating the culture of complacency, inefficiency, and incompetence that she encountered. The D.C. school system, whose students were overwhelmingly black and poor, had a long history of abysmal test scores. Rhee blamed their low academic performance on lazy and indifferent teachers; she often complained about the “crappy education” that students in the D.C. schools were getting.

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Michelle Rhee has been one of the most polarizing figures in American education in recent years. Some consider her the face of the current “reform” movement. After serving for nearly four years as chancellor of the D.C. public schools, she then created a group called StudentsFirst, whose goal was to change education policy across the nation by raising $1 billion. Although she has not raised $1 billion, she has raised large sums of money to elect candidates to state legislatures who favor charters and vouchers and who want to eliminate collective bargaining, end due process rights for teachers, judge teachers by the test scores of their students, and ensure that teachers have no job security.

I don’t know Rhee personally, and I had hoped to debate her at Lehigh University in February, but she canceled her original agreement to debate.

I admit that I oppose her policies because I believe they promote privatization of public education and the destruction of the teaching profession. No other nation—at least, no high-performing nation—judges teachers by the test scores of their students. None of the nations that score at the top of international tests takes such a harsh and punitive approach towards teachers. Instead, they have high standards for selection into teaching (they would not permit young college graduates with only five weeks of training to join their teacher corps); they support and develop their teachers; and they help them improve their craft.

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What people cannot see can be very harmful. In 2012, a report on the Global Burden of Disease found that pollution from dangerous tiny particles and droplets in the air – what scientists call “fine particulate matter” – is among the leading causes of death and severe disability. According to estimates in this report, over 3.2 million deaths per year may be attributable to people breathing dangerous particles in their general environment.

The good news is that over many decades, America has figured out how to reduce emissions of fine particulate matter from smoke stacks and tail pipes, phasing in increasingly effective pollution-reducing technologies.

The bad news is that there is another kind of air pollution from even tinier particles – “ultrafine particles” – that are concentrated next to freeways and other places with a lot of motor vehicle traffic. Pockets of this kind of invisible, odorless and often overlooked pollution may be especially dangerous for people who live and work next to busy highways. Researchers are only just beginning to quantify the dangers and find ways to protect people’s health.

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In its story on Friday reporting that Mayor Bill de Blasio had selected William Bratton to head the NYPD, the New York Times noted that Bratton's "biggest challenge" would be "keeping crime at historic lows--just more than 300 murders so far this year."

The Times' statement reflects the widespread feeling that New York City has become a safe place. Indeed, the New York Post recently boasted in a headline: "NYC on Track to be the Nation's Safest City." Outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his police chief, Raymond Kelly, like to take credit for the drop in murders, claiming that it was the result of better policing, especially its efforts to prevent crimes rather than simply respond to them.

But before we celebrate too much, let's put the decline of murder in New York City - and across the entire United States - in some perspective.

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In the early years of the twenty-first century, a bipartisan consensus arose about educational policy in the United States. Right and left, Democrats and Republicans, the leading members of our political class and our media elite seemed to agree: Public education is broken. Our students are not learning enough. Public schools are bad and getting worse. We are being beaten by other nations with higher test scores. Our abysmal public schools threaten not only the performance of our economy but our national security, our very survival as a nation. This crisis is so profound that half measures and tweaks will not suffice. Schools must be closed and large numbers of teachers fired. Anyone who doubts this is unaware of the dimensions of the crisis or has a vested interest in defending the status quo.

Furthermore, according to this logic, now widely shared among policy makers and opinion shapers, blame must fall on the shoulders of teachers and principals. Where test scores are low, it is their fault. They should be held accountable for this educational catastrophe. They are responsible because they have become comfortable with the status quo of low expectations and low achievement, more interested in their pensions than in the children they teach.

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Our opportunity to work for Nelson Mandela is the most important thing many of us have ever done. He was a transforming leader but also a unique person of such judgment, strong will, and unwavering commitment to justice—not just in South Africa but instinctively. I spent a good two decades writing and working to defeat an apartheid South Africa – the greatest injustice of our time. So, when I was asked to work for Mandela and the ANC, I threw myself into it body and soul – despite the fact that I was serving as President Bill Clinton’s pollster at the time. They became such comrades in arms too.

I wrote about President Mandela in Dispatches from the War Room – and everyone touched by Madiba has their own special insights.

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