January 12, 2009

Deantidisestablishmentarianism in education policy rhetoric

Joel Klein and Al Sharpton wrote an open letter to Barack Obama and Arne Duncan that appeared this morning in the Wall Street Journal. And I have just a few questions about this:

  • How can the sitting chancellor and a long-time civil-rights activist claim to be railing against "the entrenched education establishment" when you could reasonably conclude that they are The Establishment?
  • Why do they think that placing a column in the WSJ establishes their anti-establishment street cred? That newspaper isn't exactly an underground pamphlet.
  • Isn't Klein the type of guy who already has Arne Duncan's cell number? They're fellow urban superintendents, they've talked at meetings, and you assume he could call Duncan up at any time, and probably get Obama's number as well. So why do they need this open letter--do they feel this deep psychological need to pose as Village Voice rebels with a cause?

Klein and Sharpton are setting up a straw-man opponent. In my masters class in the fall, one of my students argued that accountability is well-entrenched as part of the public-school policy script. Whether you want to use Tyack and Cuban's "grammar of schooling" or Mary Metz's "real school" language, I think there's a case to be made that anyone who claims that accountability is "new" is in denial and as punishment should have to watch three or four consecutive playings of an inane 1980s adolescent-rebellion film.

So someone who is less establishment than Joel Klein would be... anyone? Anyone?

Second thought: For a few years, I've had the suspicion that the public "letter to the next president" was a bit precious (in the pejorative sense). The collections of letters to the president published after the end of an administration are usually drawn from the sample of correspondence from ordinary Americans that the White House staff select for a president to read as a reality check. Even if Klein gets some credit in my book for having a salary far less than what either New York financiers or university presidents are commonly receiving these days, in no way could one call Joel Klein or Al Sharpton "ordinary Americans."

So if Joel Klein gets to write a "letter to the next president," though we all know he could call Obama up with ideas about either antitrust policy (his Clinton-era gig) or education policy (his current gig), then the gloves are off. I'm writing a letter, too! And you know from my loving hardass manifesto that I intend to bring some style to it. So here's the rule for 2009, for all of you: Staid pretentious public letters to the new president are out. Your job is to write the most outlandish letters that tell the truth. Come on: it's going to be the Obama era. You can say it.

One more update: Apparently Margaret Spellings doesn't have Arne Duncan's cell number, either! Or at least she's pretending not to. Isn't it so nice of major papers to devote part of their ever-shrinking news hole to long classified ads from major policy honchos who can't navigate their cell-phone menus? Though I think the following would have been free on Craigslist: "Arne: call me. Margaret." What? The Post may have been joking? Oh, yeah, and that's a good use of newsprint...

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Tags: Al Sharpton, Arne Duncan, DFER, Education Equality Project, Joel Klein
Posted in Education policy on January 12, 2009 8:30 AM |