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Dave Powell is a former high school teacher, now a professor at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. He blogs at Education Week, where he pondered whether Eva Moskowitz is the Richard Nixon of education. The reason he asked this question is because John Merrow raised that very same question and speculated that Eva Moskowitz would be the first reformer to recognize the damage done by standardized testing. This would be the “Nixon-to-China” moment where a prominent figure persuades the public to abandon their long-held but erroneous views.
Merrow’s analogy depends on the idea that someone who really, truly believes in the power of standardized testing will suddenly see the error of his or her ways and understand that the arts and humanities matter too, and that everything can’t be tested. This person will then lead us to a new promised land where tests are used appropriately to measure real student learning. Merrow even says he once thought he knew who this person would be: it was Eva Moskowitz, the founder and “CEO” of Success Academies, a network of 34 charter schools serving some 11,000 students in New York City. But then he, himself, saw the light.
Very much to his credit (this is an example of the kind of thing that makes Merrow so estimable), Merrow realized that Moskowitz would not be the “Nixon of Public Education” after he conducted his own investigation of the way Moskowitz’s schools are run. He found, as many of us now know, that Success Academy Charter Schools have been the site of a couple of wince-inducing “scandals” recently. In one, a principal was found to have created a “Got to Go” list of students he wanted to get off his school’s rolls and exile to the island of misfit toys. The other one came to light recently when the New York Times shared a video showing a teacher reacting with disappointment when a student failed to give the answer she wanted to hear. Go ahead; watch the video yourself if you haven’t already….
Merrow could not have been more wrong about Moskowitz when he was pining for her to be the “Nixon of Public Education.” He should have understood that her “no excuses” philosophy depends entirely on standardized tests for validation. The tests provide the only frame of reference for “no excuses” reformers who would rather oversimplify the act of teaching in pursuit of a single-minded goal than actually address the enormously complex political, social, and cultural challenges of teaching. If they acknowledged this complexity they’d have to admit that the system they oppose isn’t as corrupt as they want to believe it is—they’d have to concede that just maybe there are good people working in our schools who want what’s best for kids too but realize that it’s not as easy to accomplish that as they’d like it to be. And so they struggle. That’s not an excuse, it’s an explanation.
Expect more of this, America. As long as we keep trying to make heroes out of people who repackage intimidation and arrogance as innovation we’ll continue to read stories like these. Reformers like Eva Moskowitz fancy themselves as truth-telling crusaders for kids, in much the same way Michelle Rhee used to. They see themselves standing up to entrenched bureaucracies and ineffectual parents and teachers who want to coddle kids instead of helping them (forcing them?) to meet their potential. They may have a point, but having a point doesn’t justify creating a culture that, as one former Success Academy teacher put it, sends the message that “If you’ve made them cry you’ve succeeded in getting your point across.”
Actually, now that I think of it, maybe Merrow was right. Threats, intimidation, arrogance—maybe Moskowitz is the new Nixon after all.