The Education Playbook: How About Discussing What We Teach Rather Than How to Privatize Schools?

Mark Twain is supposed to have said "everyone talks about the weather but no one ever does anything about it." That used to be the case with education. Every candidate for public office gave the obligatory speech and campaign promise to support education and make things better for the children.

But they rarely did anything about it.

But it's trendy now. Education is the hot topic among business groups, philanthropists, and chamber types. Should we be nervous that wholesale restructuring of education is now cocktail-party chatter in wealthy enclaves like Germantown and Belle Meade? Reforms touted by people who have had success in life, but have no firsthand knowledge of education, no classroom experience, and little contact with the real-world problems teachers face in inner-city schools?

People who went to private schools or wealthy suburban schools with homogeneous upper-middle-class students?

The business and chamber guys like to talk about workforce development, and we certainly want our children to be competitive in a world economy. But our schools are not there to teach kids how to operate a production line—that's your job, Volkswagen.

We certainly needed a shakeup of our education system. Testing over the last 20 years in Tennessee has revealed teachers whose students consistently show no gain in scores. Using the data we have to evaluate teachers is a good thing. As long as we are doing it right.

Making it easier to get rid of bad teachers is a tricky thing—there is always the possibility of political retaliation, cronyism, and nepotism. But if objective standards are used to save children from bad teachers, it's a good thing. Bill Sanders, the father of Tennessee's testing program, used to say a child who gets three bad teachers in a row can never recover.

If you examine the roots of education reform in Tennessee you will see that most everything that has been done or proposed is an effort to solve the education crisis in Memphis, home to most of our failing schools.

The thing that bothers me about the current education reform is some of the people lurking about waiting for legislation that will put them in business. The business community is predisposed to look to "the private sector" for solutions.

If we start diverting public-school resources to private schools, will we see companies spring up to take advantage of the windfall? It may start as a limited voucher program in schools with failing grades, but will legislators start expanding the program? You can bet an effort will be made to get vouchers for Shelby County parents to send their kids to private schools. The prospect of merging the suburban schools with Memphis schools has parents there terrified.

Will we reach a point where a voucher is a nice supplement for suburban families to send their kids to private school? We do have the example of the Tennessee Lottery, where poor people buy the lottery tickets and middle-class kids get the scholarships to college.

So far, our state reforms are right out of Michelle Rhee's playbook. The former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system got famous for being fired. But her goals are almost totally about giving school management total control of teachers and promoting vouchers and private schools. Her message certainly resonates with the business community that hates unions and views the private sector as the best solution to fix failed public institutions.

Her organization, StudentsFirst, contributed more to legislative races in Tennessee last time than any other special-interest group. She has an ally in state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, her ex-husband. She has the backing of the Gates Foundation, which is pouring money into the Memphis schools.

I'm glad someone is doing something about education. But I'd like to see more discussion about what our kids are being taught and less about how to fire teachers and make money for private schools.