Editorial: Frenemy of the people

Some of the Obama administration’s policies seem to contradict its stated goals.

Default Lines column, April 2011 edition of eSchool News—“The enemy of my enemy is my friend”: I was reminded of this phrase in attending the Education Department’s first-ever conference on strengthening school labor-management relations in February.

More than at any other education conference I’ve attended—and I’ve been covering these shows as a reporter for more than a decade—there was a real energy about this event that was palpable, and the superintendents, school board presidents, and labor union presidents who attended seemed genuinely excited about putting the concepts they’d learned into practice when they got back to their districts.

Teachers’ unions and district administrators both are feeling the heat from parents who want to see better results from their schools. They’re also under siege from a new army of education reformers—people such as filmmaker Davis Guggenheim and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates—who have never worked in a school system before but are convinced they know what’s wrong with U.S. public education.

It’s as if union and district leaders are fed up with outsiders telling them how to run their schools, and they’re now putting aside their differences and joining together in the face of this outside threat to prove they can do the job themselves.

Conference participants seemed grateful to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his staff for organizing the event, which brought together teams from 150 school systems to learn how a dozen exemplary districts have moved beyond what Montgomery County, Md., Superintendent Jerry Weast called the “ABCs—accuse, blame, criticize” to foster better labor-management collaboration in their schools.

At the same time, however, there was an undercurrent of distrust in Obama administration officials who have been guilty of practicing the “ABCs” themselves—such as in their “turnaround” model for improving the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

As education researcher Diane Ravitch noted in her keynote address at the American Association of School Administrators’ conference, held in Denver immediately after the labor-management event: “It’s not leadership when, instead of problem solving as a group, you point fingers, lay blame, and dismiss your staff. … These get-tough tactics destroy trust and wipe away morale.”

To many in attendance, the Obama administration’s get-tough tactics seemed to contradict its newfound focus on collaboration. But this isn’t the only example of how the administration’s policies appear in conflict.

Dennis Pierce

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