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Checker Finn Outraged by David Denby’s Admiration for Teachers

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This is a sad story. From 1981 to 2009, nearly 30 years, Checker Finn was one of my closest friends. He was like a brother. Our families were close, and we almost telecommunicated about issues. We wrote article and reports together. we wrote a book together. We cofounded the Educational Excellence Network, and I was a founding member of Checker’s Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, as well as a colleague on the Koret Task Force of the Hoover Foundation.


But when I turned against testing and choice, our friendship deteriorated. I asked him if he would write a blurb for my book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermines Education,” but he said it was impossible. That book announced my break with the corporate reform movement. Or as I now know it, the privatization movement. He never forgave me for breaking ranks.


Readers of this blog have never read criticism of Checker here. I could not bring myself to speak personally against those who were once close friends, even though our disagreements are philosophically and politically profound.



Checker, however, has finally expressed his anger towards me in print. He slammed David Denby, who has written for the New Yorker for many years, for having written a tribute to teachers. He thinks Denby has turned into a defender of the status quo, which is apparently the worst insult a “reformer” can imagine.



But the privatizers ARE the status quo. How else to describe a “movement” that includes the President of the US, the Department of Education, the Council of Chief State School Officers, ALEC (which Fordham joined), all the red-state governors plus Governor Cuomo of New York, and Governor Malloy of Connecticut, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Bloomberg Foundation, about a score of other foundations, and dozens of hedge fund managers who can raise a million dollars in a few hours. If this is not the status quo, I don’t know what is. They are actually quite few in number, but their wealth and political power are immense.



Checker trashed David Denby’s paean to teachers because Checker holds teachers in low regard, especially if they belong to a union and work on a public school.



I suspect this is the paragraph that Denby wrote that most angered Checker:



““A necessary commonplace: Almost everyone we know has been turned around, or at least seriously shaken, by a teacher—in college, maybe, but often in high school, often by a man or a woman who drove home a point or two about physics, literature, or ethics, and looked at us sternly and said, in effect, You could be more than what you are. At their best, teachers are everyday gods, standing at the entryway to the world. If they are fair and good, they are possibly the most morally impressive adults that their students will ever know. For a while, they are the law, they are knowledge, they are justice….”



But there was something else that unsettled Checker. He suspected that Denby had turned against “reform,” and it was my fault!



He writes:



“If he had stuck with his abiding affection for great literature and his analysis of the difficulties of teaching it to contemporary young people, I’d have nothing but positive feelings. But along the way, besides deploring kids’ addiction to video games, cell phones, television, and ear-bud music, he’s turned into an anti-reformer. This turned up first (to my knowledge) in his loving word portrait of (the new) Diane Ravitch, published in the New Yorker in 2012. Now he’s back in the same publication with a denunciation of what he sees as the teacher-bashing ways, false allegations, and misguided ideas of education reformers. Here’s a sample:



[Denby writes]:



“Our view of American public education in general has been warped by our knowledge of these failing kids in inner-city and rural schools. In particular, the system as a whole has been described by “reformers” as approaching breakdown. But this is nonsense. There are actually many good schools in the United States—in cities, in suburbs, in rural areas. Pathologizing the system as a whole, reformers insist on drastic reorganization, on drastic methods of teacher accountability. In the past dozen or so years, we’ve seen the efforts, often led by billionaires and hedge fund managers and supported by elected officials, to infuse K–12 education with models and methods derived from the business world—for instance, the drive to privatize education as much as possible with charter schools, which receive public money but are independently run and often financed by entrepreneurs. This drive is accompanied by a stream of venom aimed at unions, as if they were the problem in American education.”



Finn resumes:



“On reading this, a colleague speculated that perhaps Ravitch had written it for him as a kind of reward for his earlier tribute to her. The more important point is that he has now lent his talented pen to the anti-reform movement, which (of course) it took Ravitch just minutes to note: “David Denby,” she blogged on Valentine’s Day, “has joined our movement to restore common sense to education.”



“And a movement of sorts it has become, including not just teacher unions, polemicists, and high-powered (if, in my view, sorely misguided) intellectuals, but also opting-out parents, unrelenting education progressivists, and a bunch of folks whose latest cause célèbre is that kids are under too much stress.”



A quick rebuttal:



No, I did not ghostwrite David Denby’s tribute to teachers. He did it all by himself. He is quite a prolific writer, and he doesn’t need my help to think or write.



Yes, Denby does admire teachers. Many people-including those at the Fordham Institute, ALEC, and other outposts of corporate reform—don’t. They think they are lazy and self-serving. They can’t understand why anyone would want to be a teacher when they don’t make much money, ever.



Yes, as Denby writes, there are many good schools in America. There are many excellent public schools in America. The privatizers and public school bashers seem to have mostly gone to Exeter (like Checker) or Lakeside Academy or Andover or some other elite private school. They feel sorry for those of us who had to go to public schools.



Although I am now diametrically opposed to everything Checker believes about education, teachers, and children, I have an abiding fondness for him and his family.



I will continue fighting the terrible policies that he espouses because I know they have proven to be failures. He was and is a promoter of every imaginable alternative to public schools. So far, none of those alternatives has been successful. There comes a time to recognize that the theories you have been promoting since the early 1980s have been tried and have failed. I had that realization about 2005 or 2006 as I saw the damage done by NCLB.



I don’t think Checker will ever admit that he was wrong. But some day, maybe after we are gone, wiser heads will review this era and judge us all. I am glad I shook myself free of the delusion that schools could operate in a free market, that teachers could be treated as interchangeable widgets, and that students learn best in a culture of fear of failure. I will continue to hope that someday Checker and Mike Petrilli will see the light.

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