Newt Gingrich and Me: A Charged Moment at an Education Blogger Summit

Ed in '08, the Gates/Broad funded advocacy campaign, hosted the first-ever education "blogger summit" this week at the Hotel Palomar in D.C. You may wonder, what happens at an education blogger summit? Were there intellectual cage matches for snarkiest wit? Gold stars for citing the most stats in the latest Education Sector report on inequity in school funding?

Not exactly, but there were some lively discussions about the future of public education, agreement on the need to turn up the volume on education issues, and some really good brownies.

However, I'm pretty scared about some of the ideas being advanced on revolutionizing schools. There is a growing chorus of powerful, mostly right-of-center voices declaring public education a failed experiment. These voices (including keynote speaker Newt Gingrich) want a brave new world of schools in America. After all, test scores show the U.S. falling farther and farther behind her international competitors. Our teachers have failed us! We're a nation at risk!

I asked the first question to Newt, equating the bypassing of educators in crafting education reform to America's disastrous de-Baathification policy after invading Iraq. Some eyebrows were raised.

Here's where I was coming from:

It's safe to say we all agree that American public schools need drastic improvement. However, Gingrich and his ideological compatriots' wholesale slapping of the labels "OBSOLETE! FAILED! CO-CONSPIRATOR! on all public schools and everyone in them is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. This kind of dismissive rhetoric paves the way for ideologues to impose their will unchecked.

Newt called today's public schools a "monopoly of failure," tossing the blame for the decline of public education at "departments of education, schools of education, and unionized bureaucracy." In other words, everyone who works in or near public schools. Newt argued that people from any of his three culpable camps are inherently corrupted by their stake in the failed system, and will blindly defend that system to protect themselves.

This automatic dismissal of everyone currently within the struggling system feels parallel to the disastrous de-Baathification process following the US invasion of Iraq. Everyone affiliated in any way (even against their wills) with Sadaam's party was outcast from decision-making, or even a job. This exclusion of such vast intellectual and human resources was a calamity. Isn't labeling everyone within public education as corrupted "defenders of the monopoly of failure" a similar fiasco in the making?

Gingrich didn't acknowledge the parallel. He maintained the monopoly of failure must be replaced, and that any defectors from the monopoly to his camp would be welcomed with open arms.

Framing the debate on public education this way is dangerous. This puts public school advocates in the uncomfortable position of propounding change yet denying that all public schools are a wild west of zero substantive learning. It makes the "blow up the schools!" hawks look tough and the reformers who want to talk about nuance and incremental change appear wuss-like.

I'm not buying it. Public schools need help, but they don't need ideological, for-profit crusaders taking over. Teachers, parents, and principals have quite a lot to contribute to improving the system. You cannot effect meaningful, positive change on people via satellite. The stakeholders of public education (families, teachers, school officials) know the on-the-ground needs of students. By listening to and supporting those who are the lifeblood of schools, we can reap long-term benefits in our local communities and in the global marketplace.

Dan Brown is a teacher in the Bronx, and the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle.