A Conservative Takedown of Testing and Charters

Progressive education folks foam at the mouth when they talk about the new power of testing and charter schools.  Will conservatives join them?

We see recently a furious conservative condemnation of the current education “reform” mania. [The essay originally appeared last July in Crisis.]

Veteran history teacher Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg offered a conservative rationale for opposition to the Michelle Rhee/Waiting for Superman school reform crowd.

Those folks want to make public schooling more responsive.  They argue that schools should have more wiggle room to fire weak teachers; charter schools should be able to slash red tape to provide effective education for any child left behind.  Such reformers often also promise to hold teachers and schools “accountable” by mandating rigorous testing of students.  Such tests, the argument goes, will force teachers and schools to pay attention to the academic performance of all their students.

Progressive critics have teed off on this reform ideology for a while now.  Some have warned that charter schools are nothing but a capitalist scheme to siphon money away from public education.  And the mania for testing, progressives warn, represents a perversion of the promise of American public education.

Rummelsburg gives a different rationale for this same suspicion.  Placing hope in the panacea of charter schools, Rummelsburg argues, is a mistake.  Waiting for any kind of public-funded superman, Rummelsburg insists, misses the point.  The real responsibility for education must remain with the family, not with the government.  And standardized testing reduces the true goal of education to a series of bubbles filled in.

Rummelsburg doesn’t pull any rhetorical punches.  As he puts it,

Waiting for “Superman” illustrates how severely broken public education is and brings up the real issues of school reform and the voucher system. However, the “magic bullet” of charter schools is not the answer. A transfer of money and power from the dreadful public classrooms to charter schools is a bit like transferring the administrative duties of running Nazi death camps from the Germans to the Belgians, yet still the need for reform is beyond dire. However, reform is futile if the goal remains a high standardized test scores.

Ouch.  Will more conservatives join Rummelsburg’s condemnation of the current reform agenda?



Leave a comment


  1. Steven Jonathan

     /  September 22, 2013

    Adam, I would love to learn more about what you think is wrong with public education and what you think the solutions might look like. Let me know. Steven

    • Steven, thanks for the comment. As a historian, I recognize that I’m among the last people who should be offering advice on policy. But I take heart from the very many smart people I read who seem to have good ideas about public education. First of all, I think we need to examine the assumption that public education has failed. Of course it can be improved, but it has also made big improvements over the past fifty years, not to mention the past hundred. For lots of Americans, their local public schools are excellent.
      Having said that, they can always be improved.
      In my opinion, there are two big ideas we should keep in mind. First, we need to encourage our best and brightest to get into teaching and stay in teaching. I love programs such as Teach For America in that they have generated this kind of enthusiasm. According to a recent article in The Economist, 18% of Harvard’s graduating class applied this year. Public schools will be better if we encourage great teachers. We need to attract talented people and encourage them to take real responsibility for their classrooms. Not by assuming they are incompetent and rating their performance by sketchy standardized testing, but by incorporating them in a network of peer and supervisory review and improvement.
      Second, we need to maintain the “public” nature of public education. Before the Civil War, as you know, “free” or “charity” schooling was commonplace. But it was not seen as adequate for members of the growing affluent middle classes. I fear we are lapsing back into such a situation with some urban and rural school districts. As I said above, I think TFA is great for attracting talented ambitious young people, but I would not want a teacher with only five weeks of training in charge of my daughter’s education. I don’t think families with lower income should have such poorly trained teachers either, no matter how talented and eager they may be.
      I don’t think charters are the best way to accomplish these ends. Taking away the influence of teachers’ unions [full disclosure: I’m a member] will, in the end, tend to discourage the sorts of responsible, professional, enthusiastic, talented teaching we need to encourage throughout our public education system.
      Short question, long answer. Apologies for the length.

  2. Steven Jonathan

     /  September 23, 2013

    Adam, thank you for the long response, it helped me to see where you are coming from. We are worlds apart in understanding and possible solutions, but I couldn’t tell that from your original commentary. I do appreciate the thought and time you put into your analysis, you have a capable mind and a decent pen. Would you be interested in putting your critical mind to an essay I wrote about literacy in the public schools? I would love to see your reaction. If so, tell me and I will post a link.

    I think the title of your blog is clever too, but I can’t say I understand your meaning.

    • Steven,
      Thanks for the kind comment. A big part of the original reason for this blog was the oft-noted difficulty of people of very different opinions to converse civilly. I appreciate your willingness to speak to me so politely, even after I’ve demonstrated my own very different intellectual perspective on these issues.
      I need to get an explanation of the title up, I know. When I originally started this blog, it had a different purpose. I hoped to offer people like me–liberal, secular, nerdy–an explanation of conservative religion that made sense to them/us. Not an attack on conservatives, but an authentically humble attempt to understand them. The title came from a question I had from one of my first graduate students. She was a very moral person, but she wasn’t very religious. An older, very religious relative approached her and said that line: I love you, but you’re going to hell. My student was flummoxed. How could someone say that to someone else and not expect the recipient to be horribly offended? My original goal was to try to make sense of those sorts of conservative religious people, for outsiders like myself. Over the years, I’ve whittled down the focus to a more narrow, more academic look at conservative thinking and activism about education. I don’t try to be misleading about my own personal views, but I also want to avoid attacking conservative views with which I generally don’t agree. I think that attitude can make it difficult or frustrating to discern my point of view in much of what I write.
      Nuf sed.
      I’d love to see your literacy essay. I work in a very literacy-focused education school; I am very interested in different perspectives from those of my current dominant intellectual environment.

  3. Steven Jonathan

     /  September 23, 2013

    Adam, I saw your profile and it turns out I should be referring to you as Dr. Laats, please forgive my overfamiliarity, but still, if we proceed you may call me Steven, I am in possession of no honorific and I am far from deserving one.
    I am grateful for your clarification on your position and on the title of your blog. I very much appreciate your mission here, it wouldn’t be dissimilar to my own. I grew up in a secular humanist family, very liberal, however, I never understood my own positions very well growing up.
    Would it be ok if I emailed you? I don’t mind having a public discussion if you would prefer that, but maybe we’ll make more headway on email first, if not I will happily continue here, perhaps a little slower for its public nature.


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