With school districts in nearly every major American city set to remain either hybridized or fully closed to in-person education well into the spring, tension between educators and public officials is growing.
“I know it’s going to be controversial with some of you,” President-elect Joe Biden said during a recent conference call with state governors around the country, “but I’m going to ask that we’re going to be able to open schools at the end of one hundred days.” The only controversial aspect of such a mandate is that it isn’t sooner. Nevertheless, Biden does seem committed to this course. As ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis observed, his nominee to lead the Department of Education hails from a rare blue state that compelled individual school districts to err on the side of reopening, much to the consternation of local teachers’ unions.
Slowly but conclusively, the forces arrayed in defense of indefinite school closures are losing the messaging war. And as losses mount, their circles become increasingly insular. As a result, the demands they make on policymakers before they are once again compelled to do their jobs have grown ever more radical—to the point that they are all but indistinguishable from the fantastical pledges you’d expect to hear from a candidate for class president.
“What if we blew it all up?” asked Shane Safir, author of The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for Equitable School Transformation. Blow what up? Everything. “Grades, homework, report cards, tests, subject areas,” and “sorting and ranking.” Only when the educational landscape has been sterilized can we hope to create an equitable experience for “our most marginalized learners.” That, and maybe extra Pop-Tarts in the vending machines.
Safir may be among the more extreme advocates for a revolutionary reimagining of pedagogy, but she’s not out on a limb.
This week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would eliminate the use of grades, among other criteria, when determining placements in New York’s most selective middle and high schools—thus, one must assume, rendering them not especially selective. Indeed, priority will now be given to students who live nearest those formerly discriminating schools, while others will be selected via lottery. Though they welcome this experiment in social leveling, it is not enough for the New York Times editorial board. Matriculated students will still be compelled to take admissions tests, which the Times insists “will work like accelerant in a giant conflagration of inequality.” Their solution is simple: “eliminate the specialized high-school exam.”
Though it expands the terms of engagement, the Times’ demand is probably calibrated based on their assumptions about what the public is willing to accept. If star New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones is any indication, the prevailing ethos at the Grey Lady is more radical still.
“For too long, the wealthy in this city have gotten private schools on the public dime,” she wrote. “Hopefully, the pandemic has changed that.” Hopefully. Hannah-Jones added that standardized testing is largely a product of the counterreaction to racial integration in public schooling. In fact, it was a progressive reform implemented in the 19th-century amid German-influenced efforts to apply methodological rigor to the pursuit of meritocratic fairness. But this is only window dressing around Hannah-Jones’s preferred objective: “Gifted programs should be eliminated,” she insisted. And what student without the requisite aptitude to attend these rarified institutions wouldn’t agree?
The “achievement gap” between white and Asian-American students and black and Hispanic students has long vexed policymakers. But whereas progressive reformers of the past sought to narrow that gap, this new generation is determined to eliminate achievement.
A discerning reader can be forgiven for noticing that a lot of this seems to cater more to faculty than students. But that has been a recurring theme all year.
In Los Angeles, unions demanded the perpetual shuttering of educational institutions until and unless Sacramento enacted state-level versions of “Medicare-for-all,” a “wealth tax,” rent abatements, and eliminated public funding for charter schools. In Washington D.C., educators have barred the schoolhouse doors until the union’s members can “opt-out of in-person teaching.” In Chicago, teachers would not return to school until the city had established a plan to reduce class sizes and reduce the time faculty must spend on-site. These educators insist that their demands advance the cause of racial justice. In practice, however, these are strong-arm negotiating tactics designed to frustrate urban politicians’ efforts to reopen schools.
You can’t blame them for trying. Like the pupils they teach, these educators have about as much hope of realizing their goals as the pandering student council candidate has of getting faculty to offer soda with lunch and pizza parties every Friday. In that sense, the teacher has truly become the student.