There has been a shift in recent years in the sorts of arguments that many reformers use to advance their agenda. Though some are proudly fanatical, people like Joel Klein, Steve Perry, and Eva Moskowitz and organizations like StudentsFirst and 50CAN and also websites like The 74 and EduPost, most reformers at least pretend that they are more moderate, itself a strategy.
Most reform zealots are very pro-TFA, though TFA itself has often tried to straddle the fence claiming that they value diversity of opinion and that they are their own worst critics and things like that. Sometimes, though, they let down their guard and show that they can be as simple minded as the most extreme reformers. An example is a speech that the CEO of TFA Elisa Villanueva-Beard made a few years back where she continually chants the title of the anti-union bomb ‘Won’t Back Down.’
Villanueva-Beard recently wrote a piece on medium.com entitled “Accelerating Progress in Education: Calling for a Coalition That Rejects False Choices”
The history of successful change efforts shows us that a broad, diverse coalition is essential if we’re going to blaze a path to educational equity and excellence in America. No quick fixes, but the courageous commitment to exchange ideas and to respectfully disagree in dogged pursuit of solutions.
But this is not what’s happening.
Instead, we’re allowing the education conversation to be defined without enough nuance, appreciation for, or proximity to the realities students face every day. We’re relying on false dichotomies to frame our work, and this set of either-or choices fails our children.
This is an introduction that I agree with, but I’ve heard reformers say things like this before so I don’t get too excited, knowing that the other shoe will eventually drop. In this case it happens in the next paragraph.
False dichotomies can be found in the tired idea that we have to choose whether to end poverty or improve education first. That we have to choose between a classroom that is academically rigorous and excellent and a classroom that affirms a child’s culture and community. That we have to choose between public charter schools and traditional district schools. That preparing the country’s future workforce to succeed in our global economy requires a choice between academic results and broader student outcomes.
While our children are watching and waiting, these false choices tear at the fabric of our society and drive a wedge among the many of us who have dedicated our lives to expanding educational opportunity.
I don’t know of anybody on the reform-skeptic side who thinks that we have to wait to fix poverty before trying to improve schools, so this is a false dichotomy in the sense that it doesn’t even exist. And the other false dichotomies she proposes we stop arguing about are very real dilemmas. But most importantly, I think, is the dichotomies that she doesn’t list, the one that that pits the ‘status quo’ against the ‘reformers’ and the one that puts ‘students first’ against ‘adult interests.’ These are the false dichotomies that the TFA allies like to use all the time. Apparently, those are still OK. Even Villanueva-Beard can’t resist a few ‘status quo’s in her piece.
Since Teach For America’s first corps entered classrooms in 1990, people have tried to apply these false choices to our organization and define us on ideological grounds. Our model challenges the status quo, and therefore has always been controversial.
False dichotomies are good at one thing: preserving a status quo. They’re a terrible framework for solving complex problems. They make ideology the stubborn foundation for dialogue. They keep a coalition from becoming more than the sum of its parts. They repel new ideas.
To see how TFA and Elisa Villanueva-Beard really feel about false dichotomies, all you have to do is look at their Twitter feed.
Here is an example of the classic false dichotomy of ‘students first’ vs ‘adult interests’ from a few hours after this latest plea from Villanueva-Beard.
Because the false dichotomies that she wants people to stop using are just ones that reform critics often use, this piece is getting a lot of retweets from various reformers.
Since I find it pretty hypocritical that some of the biggest abusers of the false dichotomy are celebrating an article that, at least on the surface, seems to be saying that false dichotomies are bad, I tried to reach out to a few of them to see what they thought of my observation. As expected, they either didn’t respond at all or they responded very rudely.
Chris ‘Citizen’ Stewart is a blogger, podcaster, and contributor to Edu Post and The 74. He is also a friend of Elisa Villanueva-Beard who sometimes retweets his articles, like this one against the NAACP’s charter school stance.
Recently Stewart wrote a blog post bashing me and several other bloggers with the working title ‘Hello I’m White Which Means I Know What’s Best For You’ (still seen in the url of the post) though he changed it to the even worse ‘Angry White Teachers On The Internet (And Their Colored Friends)’. (You can read it for yourself, I’m not going to summarize here except to say that he omitted in his bio of me that I was a TFA corps member, a TFA staffer, and a TNTP staffer over the years.) It is difficult for me to understand how that can be consistent with the Edu Post motto to have a ‘better conversation.’