The Silence of the School Reformers

A tidal wave of wokeness threatens to destroy the movement to improve our nation’s stagnating schools. True education reformers must stand up and be counted.

The damage inflicted on our educational institutions by the onrushing tsunami of wokeness is starting to worry even a few prominent progressives. Former president Obama himself recently fretted about young activists who are “as judgmental as possible about other people,” cautioning that they’re “not bringing about change.”

As a hyper-judgmental, hyper-sensitive mindset washes from colleges into our nation’s schools, however, change is indeed being brought about: The wokeness wave is destroying unblemished reputations, driving admirable people from the field, and undermining sorely needed efforts at school improvement.

Today, we’re a nation still at risk, due to the faltering achievement of far too many children — a problem vividly on display in student performance that has been flat for a decade. Addressing that challenge requires a broad and durable coalition. This is only possible if reformers work with those who have different views and values and then have the courage to stand by their allies.

School reformers have long seen themselves as plucky champions of change. Today, however, as funders and advocacy groups chant from a common hymnal of wokeness, the rules have changed and courage is hard to find. In its place we see cravenness and appeasement from reformers desperate to avoid the all-seeing eye of the progressive mob.

Acclaimed Columbia professor John McWhorter recently decried the “tribalist, inquisitional excommunication” that caused a biology professor at Evergreen State College to be “hounded out of his post for refusing to heed a demand that whites vacate the campus for a day.” McWhorter’s focus, however, was mostly on the charter-school sector, which has lately seen successful school leaders forced out because of complaints that they are racist, sexist, misogynist, or opinionated in ways that critics don’t like.

Exhibit A is educator Steven Wilson, who, a decade ago, launched the Ascend charter-school network in Brooklyn, N.Y. Now encompassing 15 high-achieving campuses attended by some 5,000 students, nearly all low-income and minority, Ascend is a terrific network that boasts strong achievement. It includes a solid (and wondrously diverse) team of committed educators and provides a vital lifeline for families otherwise stuck in a vast, Kafkaesque system that Mayor Bill di Blasio and his current schools chancellor are fast turning into a citadel of woke intolerance.

Several months ago, Wilson was placed on leave and then fired by Ascend’s board because of a blog post he wrote in which he criticized the excesses of modern progressive pedagogy. Wilson’s post was perceptive and thoughtful, and it should have been welcomed by Ascend’s board. But as part of his insistence that educational rigor must not be seen as a “white” thing, it took what McWhorter terms “a swipe at identity-obsessed activists.” An Internet petition sprung up alleging, bizarrely, that Wilson had somehow employed “white supremacist rhetoric.” The board caved, firing Wilson. And even as Wilson’s plight caused much private angst among school reformers, the charter-school community’s collective silence was striking.

Wilson is now out, while an industry of “diversity trainers” has emerged to enforce the new orthodoxy in schools across the land. Indeed, K–12 education is today awash in pricey “reform-minded” propaganda sessions undertaken in the euphemistic name of “professional development.” Speakers are telling teachers: “If you are under the impression that there are good white people and bad white people, you’re wrong, because racial biases are universal and incurable.”

UnboundEd’s influential Standards Institute trains educators to be “Equity Change-Agents” — but only after they confess to being “part of a systematically racist system of education.” When one of us wrote about all this last year, the public response was ferocious condemnation, as we were accused of embarrassing the “movement.” The private response? A flood of “this stuff is terrible” missives arrived from reformers who were loath to speak up publicly.

Promise54 is a fast-growing “talent-solution provider” with clients that include the long-admired KIPP charter network and Teach For America. Its CEO argues that the talent problem in education isn’t a question of better recruiting and retention, but of “white-dominant culture,” with its oppressive embrace of “data-based decision-making,” “speed and efficiency,” and “merit.” Reformers who blanch at this foolishness do so in hushed tones because they’re terrified of speaking out, lest they find themselves in the crosshairs.

The implications for schools and children are ominous, with self-styled reformers biting their tongues for fear of alienating funders, angering advocates, or becoming targets themselves.

As war engulfed Europe in early 1940, Winston Churchill was moved to remark on the cowardice and shortsightedness he saw in the as-yet-unconquered nations of the continent:

All of them hope that the storm will pass before their turn comes to be devoured. But I fear greatly that the storm will not pass. It will rage and it will roar ever more loudly, ever more widely.

It’s time for some Churchillian courage on the part of those committed to reviving American education. There is now a loud, punitive-minded cohort of “reformers” who honestly believe that data is a tool of white oppression and that leaders who champion academic rigor should be fired as bigots. The many of us who abhor their nihilistic doctrine — and believe that improving our children’s schools is far too serious a cause to be undone by their shenanigans — must stand up and be counted.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Chester E. Finn Jr. is the president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.


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