Character Education

I’m always uncomfortable with personal accusations in our education debate, and they come from both “sides." For instance, I don’t like hearing accusations that market-based reformers are “profiteers." The implication is that these people seek to dismantle or otherwise alter the public education system for their own economic advantage.

It’s true that a significant proportion of market-based reformers support various forms of privatization, such as vouchers, and that this support is in part based on the power of competition and the profit motive to increase efficiency. It’s also true that there are some who stand to profit personally off certain policy changes. But the overwhelming majority of people on the “reform side” have no financial skin in the game, and even those who do might actually still care about education and children. You can and should disagree with them, if you’re so inclined, but accusing them of being motivated solely by personal financial gain, or even implying as much, could well be unfair, but, more importantly, it contributes nothing of substance to the debate.

On the flip side of that coin, however, is the endlessly-repeated “we care about children, not adults” narrative. This little nugget is a common message from the market-based reform crowd. Most recently, Ben Austin, head of a pro-charter school group, was on a panel at NBC’s Education Nation, and repeated the talking point several times. In fact, there’s now a small confederation of advocacy groups nominally based on the “children over adults” accusation – Students First, Stand for Children, etc.

When you ask people who use this talking point whether they actually believe that people who disagree with them on policy don’t care about children, they’ll say no. But they’ll typically point out that teachers’ salaries are not usually tied to student performance, or they’ll tell some story about how they used to go to school board meetings in which the word “students” never came up, or how teacher contracts never mention the welfare of students.

That’s all fine to discuss – maybe it should be discussed – but it doesn’t mean that the people on school boards, or the teachers who negotiate union contracts, subjugate the well-being of children to that of adults. What if I told you that I attended meetings of Joel Klein’s Wireless Generation, and also read all their contracts with school districts, but students weren’t mentioned in either. Could I rightfully conclude that Joel Klein and his staff are willing to hinder children’s development in order to make money for themselves? Of course not.

Similarly, many physicians oppose tying their pay directly to health outcomes – does that mean they don’t care about their patients? I don’t think so.

As for education advocates, presumably we all share the same goal – better education – but there’s a lot of disagreement on the details of how to achieve that goal.

Accordingly, the primary purpose of organizations such as Students First is to advocate for policies, not mindsets. This includes merit pay, charter schools, the incorporation of student test scores into teacher evaluations and firing low-performing teachers who fail to improve over a period of years. But these organizations do so under the “we put children above adults” banner.

It’s a time-tested, albeit crude little strategy: If you agree with them, you care more about children than adults. If you disagree, well then...

Folks, these are policies, and completely unproven policies at that. I don’t have a problem with people arguing that these policies are in the best interests of children – that’s an outcome-based opinion - but that’s a far cry from equating dissent with a mindset in which the interests of children can or should take a backseat to those of teachers or other adult stakeholders.

Consider a few findings from a recent Education Next survey about education attitudes, which allows the separation of responses for parents and teachers:

  • Asked “if a teacher is performing poorly for several years, what action should be taken by those in charge," 66 percent of teachers and 49 percent of parents would “provide the teacher with additional training and counseling," while only 31 percent of teachers and 44 percent of parents thought the teacher should be fired;
  • Asked whether they supported or opposed “basing a teacher’s salary, in part, on his or students academic progress on tests," 63 percent of teachers were either “somewhat” or “completely” opposed, while 12 percent were neither supportive nor opposed. Roughly a quarter of parents were opposed, while another quarter had neither opinion;
  • When asked about their support for tenure, 48 percent of teachers supported it and 18 percent were neither supportive nor opposed, while 23 percent of parents expressed support and 30 percent were neither;
  • Finally, 36 percent of teachers opposed the “formation of charter schools," while 25 percent  neither supported or opposed. Among parents, 15 percent were opposed, while 34 percent were neither.
So, here are four core policies advocated by organizations like Students First, as well as by most market-based reformers in general. Granted, this is just one survey, but there are plenty more showing that there are huge pockets of public opposition and indecision among parents and especially teachers.

Do parents and teachers not care about children?

Or do they have legitimate concerns about these policies, which you need not agree with but should at least respect and argue on the merits?

Whether or not they are intended as such, the “students above adults” talking point and the “profiteering” accusations are personal attacks. They make preposterous blanket assumptions about people’s motives, while contributing not a shred of substance to the debate. There are way too many serious policy issues to debate for us to waste time on childish, baseless name-calling.

- Matt Di Carlo


"Reformers" who favor a market-based approach open the door to profiteering. Mixing the profit motive with an essential service like education is a potential disaster

Individual reformers may be well-intentioned. But to allow private companies access to billions of dollars in public funding and still expect the focus to be solely on children seems naive.

And why is it that the people who purportedly care about kids so much don't spend every day with them? Practice what you preach. If you care, get in the classroom. That's where real reform happens.


Do you have any specific examples of market-based reformers being carelessly called profiteers? This article seems overly generous in laying the blame on both "sides". I'm sure there are some instances but the so-called corporate reformers monopolize the discussion in the MSM.


Demian, you can start with me:

I am very, very flattered that Matt put me on his blogroll - I hadn't noticed until right now. I think this is one of the two must-read blogs on ed policy (Bruce Baker has the other), and I think Matt is an MVP on this topic.

But I completely disagree with Matt's contention in the post above that it is unfair to ascribe ulterior motives to the corporate "reformers":

In sum:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it". - Upton Sinclair


Demian -- Leonie Haimson and Diane Ravitch (who tweeted this post, oddly enough) use the term "privateer" all the time.


Stuart - "privateer" is in fact what many market reformers explicitly want so this is a descriptive term. The shanker blog points out that it's not fair to assume privateers are _profiteers_. In general, this is an important distinction. There are undoubtedly instances where this is done. My point is that these seem few and far between compared to cases accusing non-market reformers being accused of looking out for adults over kids. The latter are littered in the MSM. The former are occasionally found in tweets or small-time blogs. Where is a case in the MSM?


Jersey Jazzman - Thanks for the link. I think you add at least a "shred of substance" to the debate :). Still, does it matter that what privateers motivation is? Are there actions not enough to argue against? Certainly, when the motivations are laid bare, as with Jonah Edelman, criticism is warranted. Additionally, it seems warranted to argue that certain persons may have conflicts of interest - such as textbook reps developing curriculum. But, merely calling someone a profiteer could be name-calling. Though, again, in practice I see the name-calling much more from market reformers - especially in the MSM.


Demian, no doubt the opprobrium is hardly equal. The lambasting the teacher unions are taking throughout the media is not close to the occasional snark I and others throw the way of the corporate "reformers."

And thanks for the kind words.


If you are in doubt as to the motivations of the corporate "reformers" just read the blog Eduwonk or the book Class Warfare. It should become clear to you that the purpose of educational "reform" is making money through "edujobs," which are never teaching jobs. Many of us make these accusations because we truly believe the purpose of educational "reform" is to break into the new treasure trove of K-12 tax money.

Please help teachers break the real status quo in education which of course is education by zip code. It's time for subsidized housing in all American communities so poor children of color will no longer be segregated in low-performing schools. Another way to break the shameful tradition of education by color and zip code is to provide public school vouchers to impoverished children. Herding poor kids into the same schools is damaging to all of us.


Thanks for a great post. I think you pointed out a serious issue. Unfair name-calling (which, as you pointed out, is recognized by even the name-callers as false) doesn't contribute or help the discussion. Usually the best solutions are found somewhere in the middle. So the more we polarize and demonize the two sides, the harder it will be to access and find the best solution in the middle-ground.


Great points in this discussion. But I'd like to add that one shouldn't assume that a "best" solution will be found in "middle" ground.