Whitney Tilson – STOP THE PRESSES AGAIN!!!

My new BFF, Diane Ravitch, and I have continued our conversation and it’s gotten even more interesting, as we’ve moved past the high-level principles we mostly agreed on in our first exchange of emails (sent a week ago and posted on her blog here and my bloghere) and started engaging on the many issues on which we disagree.

Whitney Tilson
Whitney Tilson

 

Our ongoing discussion covers many topics:

1)   Whether reformers are now the status quo

2)   Charter schools

3)   Tests and how they should (and shouldn’t) be used

4)   Who is the underdog in this battle

5)   The tone of the debate and our shared desire to focus more on the issues and less on personal attacks

6)   The details of the Vergara case – namely, a) the amount of time it takes teachers to earn tenure; b) how difficult it is for administrators to fire a tenured teacher; and c) whether layoffs should be done strictly by seniority

 

Because of its length, we’ve agreed to break it into two parts: Round 2 is below and will cover the first three topics. Tomorrow we’ll release Round 3, covering the remaining three.

 

My original email is in italics, Diane’s comments are in blue (beginning with “DR:”), and my responses are in black (beginning with “WT:”).

 

Enjoy!

 

Whitney

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Hi Diane,

 

I really enjoyed our first exchange of ideas. Thank you for engaging.

 

Since you had the last word, the onus is on me to respond – which, frankly, makes me feel overwhelmed because we’ve already touched on so many enormously complex and difficult issues that we could spend weeks discussing just one of them.

 

So, I’m going to approach this following the old maxim, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” I’m not going to try to respond to everything, but rather just a few things and hopefully we can build from there.

 

So let’s talk about two things, one high-level and one nitty-gritty: 1) tone, language and motivations; and 2) the Vergara case.

 

Tone, Language and Motivations

Here’s another thing we can surely agree on: we (and our allies) have far too often let our rhetoric get away from us, leading us to make ad hominem attacks rather than sticking to the issues. Randi throws kids under the bus on behalf of her members, you’re motivated by a personal vendetta against Joel Klein, I’m part of the hedge fund cabal that wants to privatize public education for our own profit, reformers are anti-teacher, etc.

 

Can we just stop? Please?

 

Let’s agree to disagree without being disagreeable. It diminishes all of us. It blinds us to the many things we agree on. And it makes it much harder to reach compromises, which are usually necessary.

 

No doubt there are some folks on “your side” who, for example, are more focused on more jobs, higher pay, better benefits and job security, etc. for union members than on the best interests of kids, just as there are people on “my side” who wrongly bash teachers and are more focused on earning higher profits (like the online charter school operators) or busting unions than on the best interests of kids.

 

But it’s been my experience and observation over 27 years (I know, I know, that makes me a rookie!) that the vast majority of people engaged in this debate are motivated not by self-interest, but by a deep passion for ensuring that all children in this country get a good education that gives them a fair shot in life.

 

So let’s stop the rhetoric about “defenders of the status quo” and “throwing kids under the bus” (from my side) and “the billionaire boys club that demonizes teachers and wants to privatize public education for their own profit” (from your side).

 

DR: Whitney, I have to stop you here, to clear the record. I know that “your side” refers to anyone who believes in public education as a “defender of the status quo,” which is frankly absurd. The “status quo” is your side. You and your compatriots have controlled the U.S. Department of Education for the past eight years (at least). You got your favorite ideas imposed on the nation via Race to the Top. You were able, through Race to the Top, to get almost every state to agree to hand off public schools to charter operators, some of whom-frankly–are incompetent and fast-buck entrepreneurs–and to agree to evaluate teachers by the test scores of their students. You got whatever you wanted through Arne Duncan’s close association with your reform movement. So, yes, there is a status quo, and it consists of high-stakes testing (which American children and teachers have endured for 15 years) and privatization via charter. The charter movement has promoted free markets, competition, and consumer choice, which opens the door to vouchers, which are now found in some form in nearly half the states. Add this all up, and you have a disruptive status quo that is highly demoralizing to teachers, destroys unions, and rattles the foundations of education without improving it.

 

WT: I agree that we reformers were able to get some of our agenda implemented under Obama and Duncan, but completely disagree that we have become the status quo. (By the way, I know you object to the term “reformers”, but I don’t know what else to call us; if I use your preferred term, “status quo’ers”, all of our readers will be confused.) I looked it up and it’s defined as “the existing state of affairs, particularly with regards to social or political issues.”

 

How can the status quo be anything except the existing K-12 public educational system, which is the 2nd largest area of government spending (exceeding our military, trailing only healthcare) and by far the largest employer in the country at 7.2 million jobs (plus add 3.8 million more if you count higher ed) (per this data from the U.S. Department of Labor)?

 

I also disagree with your characterization of our agenda, for a variety of reasons.

 

DR: The existing public school system is saddled with high-stakes testing because of “your side.” It is saddled with policies like test-based evaluation of teachers because of Race to the Top (“your side”). Thousands of teachers and principals have been fired and thousands of community public schools have been closed and replaced by privately managed charters because of the policies of “your side.” Your side is in charge. Your side makes the rules and the laws. Your side demonizes teachers and public education.

 

WT: Charter Schools

I think high-quality charters are an important piece of the puzzle in improving our educational system. This is a topic on which I know we will forever disagree and it’s a big, complex one, so let’s agree to return to it in more depth in a future discussion – but in the meantime, if you (and our readers) would like to read my response to your critique of charters, I published an open letter to you on 12/3/10 that is posted here. Though I wrote it more than five years ago, I think it’s still quite timely.

 

Briefly, you always refer to them as part of an effort to privatize public education, which drives me crazy (I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear) because charter schools are public schools!

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