Empathy for the illiterate

Yet more proof that to some anti-reformers, adults inside the education system are more important than everyone else ? a guest blogger at Valerie Strauss's place says reformers lack empathy:

?When you are basing the effectiveness of teachers on lots of softer things, whether the kids feel good, whether the classroom is happy, whether we're creative (don't get me wrong, those things are important), but if the kids can't read?that's not acceptable,? former Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee asserted indignantly in a recent interview with Charlie Rose, defending the standardized test-based reform movement that she has touted to an applauding media. [...]

From the perspective of corporate reformers and complicit Democrats, who employ the language and ideology of corporate America, public schools are factories designed to manufacture potential employees, human products who can compete effectively on the global market, and help the United States ?Win the Future.? This is a striking departure from the original mission of public schools, which conceived of our schools as not just skills centers, but civil institutions which cultivate democratic values ? empathy, compassion, citizenship, creativity, and other ?softer things.?

Given yesterday's news that half of Detroit adults are functionally illiterate (PDF), this is a strange charge to make against reformers. Empathy is precisely what drives people to label a system unacceptable when it leads to outcomes like this. Having grown up in a working-class family, I know what that lack of basic skills means for people: inability to get a job requiring skilled labor, difficulty managing one's money and other affairs, frequent unemployment, even shame at having to ask for help with reading and writing.

Empathy for parents and students does not always look soft. If one takes the crisis in American education seriously, one has to be outraged on behalf of people whom the system has failed. Having half of the adults in a major American city be functionally illiterate is an unconscionable failure of the status quo in education. We know another generation of children locked in failing schools will see the same outcomes. Accusing reformers of being greedy and unsympathetic is a pointless non sequitur.

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