About John Kuhn

John Kuhn is a public school administrator in Texas and a vocal advocate for public education. His ''Alamo Letter'' and YouTube videos of his 2011 speech at a Save Texas Schools rally went viral, as did his 2012 essay ''The Exhaustion of the American Teacher.'' He has written two education-related books, 2013's Test-and-Punish (Park Place Publications) and 2014's Fear and Learning in America (Teachers College Press).

This is a cross-post from EdGator.com.

In one of the articles linked today, Alexander Russo tells of a “former reformer” who is now, as a parent, on the receiving end of a harsh reform measure: the forced consolidation of his child’s school. I’m sympathetic. I’m also reminded that, despite the eager cruelty of some, all reformers aren’t “bad.” I think there are “white hat” and “black hat” school reformers.

“White hat” reformers are those idealistic souls who, for purely altruistic reasons, strive to reshape an education system that has struggled to overcome the challenges inherent in educating students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These are the people who join Teach for America because their hearts ache for inner city kids who are being deprived of the opportunities they had themselves.

“Black hat” reformers are different. If they join TFA, it’s mainly to pad their resumes. They don’t end up teaching long: just long enough to worm their way into a high-paying policy gig that doesn’t come with the headaches of handling kids or the heartache of failing to perform the miracles now required to earn esteem as a schoolteacher.

The black hats come to education reform with a variety of motivations; helping children isn’t high on the list. In fact, for this kind of school reformer, “helping children” is just a useful cover for some aggressive, unbecoming self-serving. It takes a black hat reformer to start up and aggressively expand an online school that, while terrible at successfully educating children is quite good at diverting money from public purposes into private pockets. It takes brash villainy to found an athletics-focused charter school pitched with rhetoric long on “lofty goals” but short on “the primary function of a public school,” a school wherein a lucrative “sales/marketing agreement” can be signed between the school and a company owned by the school’s board members and whose application contains a list of supporters who never supported it and whose operators choose a program name eerily similar to a successful charter organization’s name in an apparent line-blurring attempt to insinuate a relationship between the two. It takes a “black hat” reformer to cynically contend that “money doesn’t matter” when cutting funding for public schools that serve middle class and poor children, yet claim it does matter when handing out tax breaks to wealthy businessmen.

The thread of compassion running through modern school reform is commendable. Less commendable is the bloody thread of cruelty to hard-working teachers serving in tough communities; to kids who are subjected to endless testing, swelling class sizes, reduced extracurricular budgets, wretched online classes and other unproven experiments; and to entire communities like Premont, Texas, where the role of grossly inequitable funding in academic struggles is ignored by reformers who prefer to blame practitioners and the school–the heart of the town–is threatened with closure.

If supporters of public education are ever to buy the ideas promoted by school reformers, those reformers are going to have to take a harder look in the mirror than they’ve been thus far willing to do. It’s apparently easier to mindlessly shout “defenders of the status quo” and “excuse-makers” than it is for the reform community to look around at their raucous caravan and admit that we resist their prescriptions because they travel with charlatans and pickpockets.

As a supporter of public schools, reformers won’t get me to trust their purported high-minded, innocuous aims when corruption and self-serving self-aggrandizement are prominent characteristics oozing like pus from the pores of the movement, when they vigorously promote the “fierce urgency” of shutting down traditional schools but fall strangely silent, in a cynical “fierce complacency,” when it comes to the horrifying practices in their own reformy back yard.


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