“Please Stop!”: The 5 Dumbest Tropes in the EdReform Debate

I’m a big fan of Allie Brosh’s comic blog, Hyperbole and a Half. As I engage with different people working in the school reform arena, I often encounter people who disagree with me. That’s OK. But I’m also, and often, blindsided by crazy statements that make me want to scream,

and have all of the nonsense just reverse course or melt away. Trying to improve schools and society is hard enough, without the additional burden of stupid rhetoric that clouds the real issues, confuses the public, and makes it difficult to advance comprehensive solutions.

In the interest of retiring some nonsense statements once and for all (and relieving the tension in my head so I can be useful to society instead of descending into a sneaky hate spiral), here are five such phrases that make even highly-educated, powerful people look and sound incredibly stupid. Don’t let this happen to you!

1. “You’re defending a failed system/the status quo.”
For the love of Jesus… First of all, no one in the world is defending unequal outcomes for students based on their race, family income, language status, etc. Seriously. Not one single person (unless you count Neo-Nazis and Klan members, which I don’t). If you’re saying this, you might as well be wearing a t-shirt that says, “I haven’t bothered to actually listen to what you’re saying, nor have I carefully read or considered your positions about school reform. But it seems like you disagree with me. Since I can’t accept that you might legitimately disagree with me, I’ll just say this thing, and hope whomever is listening or reading is as intellectually lazy as I am. I win!” (Yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Natalie Ravitz! Don’t worry. Unfortunately, you’re not alone.)

2. “You care more about adults than children.”
Wow. ‘Cause you couldn’t possibly care about both groups equally and simultaneously. This one comes up any time you say you’re not necessarily on board with some new “reform” or other, or think a given issue is more complicated than is currently being portrayed. But it’s especially common when discussing teachers’ unions, who advocate for good working conditions for their members. When people get all huffy about teachers’ unions “putting the interests of adults ahead of the interests of children” for doing so, I’m always left wondering, “Have these people never been to a school? Are they unaware that teachers and students work in the same place? Do they not realize that teachers’ working conditions are children’s learning conditions?” The working conditions provisions generally account for things like maximum class size and working hours. Is there anyone out there who really believes children would love being in a class with 40 or 50 other kids? And teachers already, even with defined hours, work well beyond that trying to keep up with their work (planning lessons, helping students, meeting with parents), and all the other things (loads of paperwork, {useless} meetings) school and district leaders demand. Should administrators be allowed to force them to stay for even more? 60-hour work weeks aren’t good enough for you? (Tired teachers are sooo nice, caring, and effective, after all…)

3. “We should eliminate rules that protect bad teachers.”
I’ve already discussed the difference between tenure (a university practice) and due process, what non-probationary teachers get. And I’m not saying local stakeholders shouldn’t continuously examine their particular process to make sure that it works as it should. I know in some places it takes a crazy long time, and in others, the provisions are so weak it’s barely better than no protection at all.

But what makes this a dumb statement is the underlying idea that you can easily sort bad teachers from good ones before deciding which rights to assign them. (If you can do that, we need to put you in charge of staffing, so we can put this argument to bed once and for all!) Saying we should eliminate due process rights for teachers (or any employee) to make it easier to get rid of bad ones is like saying we should eliminate our system of trial by jury (and the concept of “innocent until proven guilty”) to make it easier to lock up criminals. Sounds all well and good, until it’s you or your loved one on the chopping block for some bullsh*t reason.

4. “Money doesn’t matter/You just want to throw money at the problem.”
Unless you want to create an entire school system based on magic, you’re going to have to pay for things somehow. (Hell, even Hogwarts charges tuition!) Of course, if you’re literally throwing greenbacks at a school building, it won’t make a difference. Targeting funds to support things like reduced class sizes, improvements in technology, special programs for special ed students or English language learners, and/or to repair crumbling buildings will.We know that many schools are not getting all that they need to be successful, just like we know that sometimes, educational funds aren’t spent well (hello, invasive hordes of “consultants” and useless scripted curricula!).

If you don’t want to spend more money, or think we can’t, then that’s another thing. Talk about trade-offs and prioritizing instead. But don’t say money doesn’t matter. You sound foolish.

5. “Failing schools make failing neighborhoods.”
Yeah…’cause an unequal distribution of wealth, centuries of inequality, discrimination, and social and physical violence on the basis of race, sex, and class has nothing to do with that (or school failure itself, for that matter). Indeed, poverty and strife never even existed until schools came along. Then some of them staffed theirs entirely with crappy teachers, and all of a sudden there were problems in society. Once you’re done with that true story, tell me the one about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, so I can cheer up a little. Good job, Davis Guggenheim.

6 Responses to “Please Stop!”: The 5 Dumbest Tropes in the EdReform Debate

  1. Pingback: The George Burns School of Public Policy « Failing Schools

  2. Lisa M says:

    Why is our profession run by people who are not educators, never have been, or have been out of the education game for so long, they don’t even have a clue how it works anymore? WHY?

  3. Phil Cantor says:

    Right on! The problem is that the rhetoric is what drives the policy. Politics is about winning elections by appearing to be doing something for the constituents… and the rhetoric is the script for the political performance. We need to shift the rhetoric and I think your analysis is a great start.

    You can check out a blog post along the same lines in terms of poverty vs. charter schools at

  4. Pingback: Dog-Whistling Diane Ravitch? :: Sabrina Stevens Shupe

  5. Louise Marr says:

    Great points. Do I have permission to suggest your site on my blog?

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