A Response to Jay Greene’s Review of “You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones”

We welcome Jay Greene’s critique of our bookYou Can’t Fire the Bad Ones! And 18 Other Myths About Teachers, Teachers Unions, and Public Education, because it is through reviews that we can move the project to dialogue, that we can reflect on whether we have achieved our goals. Have we been sloppy? Have we missed major points? We really want to know

What we found, however, was Professor Greene asking the book to do something it never set out to do. He is concerned that Bad Ones presents little “conventional scholarly evidence,” and “only nine are peer-reviewed journal articles.” The truth is, however, that the arguments we are engaging, the narrative presented by foundations, government agencies, and the media are all found in (not peer reviewed) newspaper articles, press releases, public speeches, and talk shows. We are talking back to that narrative in the same journalistic fashion – or perhaps in a hybrid fashion, depending on the force of our perspective and a certain amount of citations of the work of others.

The corporate reform narrative is based on three assertions, 1) that the collective voice of teachers is unwelcome in the discussion of the direction of education, 2) that a single metric – high stakes standardized test scores – can discern effective schooling, and 3) that the marketplace and profit motive are the best way to improve schools. Corporate reformers have always had the money and the big megaphone but still they have not convinced communities, schools, and teachers that their vision of effective education should prevail.

I think we can agree on this: if there were one incontrovertible study, one peer-reviewed, thorough proof of what worked in education, the debate would be over. And half of the members of the American Educational Research Association would be out of a job, since the  racial achievement gap and the problems of schools take up most of our focus.

While Prof. Greene positions himself as dedicated to scholarly rigor, he falls into his own logical trap when challenging our claims about states without teacher unions having the lowest achievement rate according to the measures favored by the standardized test proponents. First, he points out that we should not conflate correlation with cause. Very true. But we were countering the claims by conservatives that the end of teacher unions would improve educational outcomes. Moreover, he argues, you have to take into account other factors that likely impact educational outcomes in the non-union states, like poverty. Thank you. This is the very point we have argued against all the corporate reformers who say that poverty is not a factor, that only incompetent and inappropriately protected teachers result in bad educational outcomes. So in attacking our argument on Myth 1, he supports our argument on Myth 7.

We agree with Prof. Greene when he says that the book is “an argument for a certain worldview and the education policies that would flow from it.” Exactly. The issue here is a difference in what we think education is for and what a good education is.  We are not debating the facts, we are debating how to frame the debate.

We believe that the market based reformers are practicing a kind of crude social Darwinism – treating education as a commodity to be bought and sold, creating a hierarchy of winners (the elite who get a rich curriculum of questioning) and losers (the oppressed classes, the Black and Brown and immigrant and low-income children who need to be taught passivity and compliance). The book represents an argument for better education, an approach that, as John Dewey suggests, the schooling offered to the most privileged should be what we aspire to for all children.

Unfortunately, for all of the noise Prof. Greene makes about proper academic standards, he simply stoops to waving the red flag of anti-communism when he concludes by suggesting that our assertion, “the only reason the superrich have these massive billions, and hence a major voice in policy, is because of unfair tax laws that allow them to keep the vast wealth their employees have created,” reveals us as, uh oh, Marxists! We may be isolated from the latest in neo-liberal thinking but the idea that wealth is created by human labor is not that far out – after all, David Ricardo and Adam Smith certainly understood it. But more disappointing is that Prof. Greene would end on such a low note, and would stoop to ad hominem attacks, while claiming to argue for the high road.

— Rick Ayers

Rick Ayers is an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at the University of San Francisco.

A response by Jay P. Greene is available here.

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