An Unsettling New Argument

The past week saw new heights in anti-public ed reformers attempting to contort reality to fit their agendas. But the most incredible (and dangerous) example of reality bending comes from Vicki Phillips, writing on the Gates Foundation’s “ImpatientOptimists” blog. Ms. Philips begins her recent post describing Miss Marjorie, “the hardcore head teacher of McQuady Elementary,” who taught Phillips “hard work, how to treat my peers, how to respect my elders and how to hold myself accountable.”  Phillips also claims “The bond I had with Miss Marjorie was the strongest I ever had with a teacher. I would have done anything for her, and she would have done anything for me.”

But alas, Phillips has come to bury Miss Marjorie, not to praise her. The point of Vicki Phillip’s hatchet job is that, despite her good intentions, Miss Marjorie was a failure. “I realized later that what Miss Marjorie had been teaching me wasn’t going to get me ready. She taught me how to diagram a sentence, but I didn’t know how to write that sentence in an essay. I learned how to follow directions, but I couldn’t find my way when I got lost.”

Peter Greene, blogging at Curmudgucation, calls BS on this, pointing out that the notion that Phillips “wasn’t ready” is not exactly supported by the evidence: “Vicki Phillips has two college degrees, spent time in a classroom, was a superintendent, and rose through various edu-supervisory positions to now act as the edu-mouthpiece for one of the richest men in the world. Damn that Miss Marjorie and the life of abject failure she condemned Vicki Phillips to.

Of course, Phillips doesn’t blame Miss Marjorie herself for being a failure – the issue is that teachers just don’t have the support they need to get the job done. But as Greene notes,

By using our context clues and doing some close reading, we can quickly conclude that as used by Phillips, “supported” means “fixed.”

This is one of the premises of the Gates Approach To Education– teachers do not know what they’re doing, and they’ll never figure it out until someone ‘splains it to them. And let’s combine this with another Gates premise– the definition of a Good Teacher is “one whose students get better scores on the Big Standardized Test.

Greene is spot on with this, but there is something potentially more troubling: Phillips is taking a new tack here. Teachers have long made the point that one of the biggest problems with standardized tests is that they don’t measure the many other things we teach our students, such as persistence, creativity, critical thinking, self-discipline, empathy, leadership, etc. Up to this point, the response from the reform crowd has been to ignore this argument. But now, Phillips is claiming that these elements have no value. One can infer that time spent on this non-academic goals is not only unnecessary, but potentially harmful, as they take time that could be better spent raising expectations or achieving higher standards (or insert other buzzwords) which, in reality, translate to nothing more than “get higher scores on standardized tests.”

Let’s hope this argument doesn’t take off. What we do matters. We teach children, not test takers. And if Vicki Phillips wants to spit in Miss Marjorie’s face for trying to make her a better human being, that’s a shame. We appreciate you, Miss Marjorie. At least you made the effort.