My impromptu education debate with Bill Ayers

Forget accusations of terrorism, it seems wise to shy away from involvement with Bill Ayers if only because his ideas on public education reform are, well ??? pretty awful.

Last weekend I went to Midtown Scholar, a used bookstore in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in search of chai tea. I wound up sitting in on a lecture on American public education delivered by Ayers ??? aka a giant helping of the Jonathan Kozol-esque public education can only be fixed with more money argument, complete with a side of cynicism toward ???right wing??? reform ideas and hoards of misinformation.

I'm not certain of the point of the discussion (to promote his books?), but Ayers' talk floated around three main points: first, the notion that poor children shouldn't receive less funding than their wealthier peers; second, the importance of teaching kids to ask ???why???? in the classroom ??? e.g. intellectualizing questions of social justice and inequality; and third, a poorly constructed argument that education policy debates should be driven primarily by the question ???are we giving poor children what we'd want our own children to have???? He cited Kozol a lot, peppered in romantic ideas about educating the whole child, and even recited a poem. (All of which is fine.) For a random audience of leftist types (not necessarily education experts) in the middle of Pennsylvania, who's to argue with that?

But Ayers quickly moved from sentimental to misleading. Without providing any nuance, context or evidence to complement his glaringly partisan arguments, he attacked Michelle Rhee (citing a paragraph from the infamous Time Magazine cover story referencing how many jobs she cut) as well as our glamorizing someone who ???fires teachers instead of directing resources to communities.??? He also name-dropped Rod Paige and Diane Ravitch for their bad (e.g. ???conservative???) ideas (he's clearly not up to date on his reading), and lambasted Chester Finn for touting class size research while sending his kids to a??private school with small classe sizes (right, because that negates the research). To top it off, he answered a young woman's question about New York Teaching Fellows and Teach For America with a diatribe about how such programs can't fix public education and consist of a bunch of ivy leaguers and white missionaries more interested in a resume boost than in helping students. Whoa.

I decided that being the annoying audience member with a series of remarks thinly disguised as questions was a sin worth committing, if only to clear up misconceptions about TFA to the interested young people in the room. It went something like this:

That's an incredibly cynical and misleading portrayal of Teach For America (insert stats on their impact). Ayers: But Wendy Kopp herself says most teachers leave the classroom. But there's still one or two in five that stay, and that's 17,000 teachers in low-income communities that need them???.

Long diatribe about why funding inequity is an insufficient explanation for the achievement gap??? Rhee recognizes this and approaches her work with a human capital strategy and realizes the importance of teacher quality and not just spending more... Ayers: Something about Rhee disrespecting teachers, building her strategies on a measly two years of teaching experience, etc.

But DC's test scores have risen under Michelle's reign and whether we like standardized testing or not, that means something. Can't you give her at least some credit for that? Ayers: No they haven't. (Clarification that I meant NAEP scores; can't you give her some credit?) Ayers: Nope.

It quickly became clear that Ayers was less interested in answering actual questions than in using incendiary phrases to receive nods of approval from the audience. He also went along with an audience member's misperception that charter schools are ???privatizing public education??? and lambasted the KIPP school in Gary, Indiana, for being a miserable place (militaristic in its behavioral management methods ??? a place he'd never send his own children). I could go on. As someone who read Savage Inequalities years ago and attribute my decision to become a teacher partially to the social justice message, I almost felt embarrassed. But that was before I learned a bit of context, nuance, data, and evidence surrounding education policy debates. It's as if Bill Ayers hasn't been on the planet for the last two decades. Or he's playing off the two-year old limelight since Obama's election and doesn't even consider that his progaganda could mislead people.

(Bill Ayers photograph from Wikimedia Commons)

- Jamie Davies O'Leary

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