October 25, 2011

Putting Students First in Campus Dialogue

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Far too often, Cornellians become so engrossed in our work and campus obligations that we forget about pressing national issues. For example, my efforts to share interesting articles from The New York Times with friends are frequently rebuked, especially come prelim time. In spite of this general apathy, one topic has recently and promisingly gained traction on campus: education reform.For better or for worse, discussions about education reform at Cornell have been motivated by the particular efforts of Michelle Rhee ’92, who spoke on campus last week. Rhee, the former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools and founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, champions evaluation of teachers based on standardized test scores, family input into school choice and prioritization of student interests in school governance. Rhee certainly offers one perspective, but is not without her critics. If Cornellians are serious about education reform, we cannot simply promote Rhee’s agenda. Last week’s “conversation” with Rhee alarmingly and shamelessly served as a recruiting effort for her organization rather than a constructive discussion on the merits of her ideas.When I first heard of Rhee’s appearance, I was very excited. I looked forward to an opportunity to hear a leader in education (and Cornell alum) speak frankly and address criticism. The event was initially promoted as “Education Reform in the U.S.: A Conversation with Michelle Rhee” and was jointly promoted by both Cornell Democrats and Cornell Republicans. Frankly, it sounded almost too good to be true. And it was.Conspicuously and quietly, the event was renamed, “Up to Us: Students Rewriting the Agenda for Education Reform.” While the presidents of the Cornell Democrats and Cornell Republicans jointly moderated the forum, their presence was largely symbolic because all questions were dictated and pre-screened. The first “question” was actually an announcement that Rhee was launching a collegiate campaign in support of her advocacy group, StudentsFirst.What followed was a series of open-ended questions that allowed Rhee to offer inspirational and moving answers to a captive audience. Her unchallenged platform was largely unsupported by objective, quantitative evidence and there was no debate whatsoever. Rhee’s comments on unions and involving parents in education, in particular, contrasted with the approach she took as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools and were not elaborated on in a policy context. Compounding this lack of constructive dialogue on education reform, last Tuesday’s panel also included Nathan Daschle and Raymond Glendenning, founders of a post-partisan social network. Despite the absence of substance, there was constant promotion of StudentsFirst. Throughout the event, sign-up sheets for Rhee’s organization were passed around and its logo was flashed on a screen. By the conclusion of the evening, I had no doubt that her appearance was akin to a corporate information session. I left, though, surrounded by starry-eyed students motivated to join Rhee in her efforts.The fact that Cornellians seem to have found a new passion for education reform is admirable. The shaping of this passion by Rhee’s narrow vision of our educational system, however, is disturbing. I must digress that two of the main promoters of Rhee’s agenda on campus are my friends, and I don’t criticize them for advocating and spreading an agenda they are passionate about. In fact, I applaud them for taking unique initiative. But the Cornell community was certainly misled over the nature of the event. What they are promoting isn’t objective or neutral in any sense — it’s a defined platform on education reform.But out of an unfortunate misrepresentation, we have a unique opportunity to shape policy and public opinion. Debating the merits of different philosophies on education is the logical next step in our campus dialogue. Some students have already taken such initiative. For example, the Cornell Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians hosted a debate about education reform the evening following Rhee’s speech. From an administrative angle, a central effort to promote events and classes related to education reform could encourage Cornellians to continue discussing this important national issue. Despite the University’s elimination of the Department of Education last year, other departments have already expanded offerings to address student interest. The Department of Policy Analysis and Management, in particular, added two new courses for next semester that both directly address the issue of education reform: “Waiting for Superman? Perspectives on the Crisis in American K-12 Education” and “Education and the Labor Market.”I largely disagree with Michelle Rhee’s policies but wholeheartedly agree with her stance that college students can shape education reform. As she pointed out, we all recently went through the education system ourselves and succeeded in gaining admission to Cornell. We all had very different educations, and can compare and contrast policies, teachers, school systems and other fundamental elements of our schooling that differed. In that sense, we can meaningfully discuss what works and doesn’t work in education and vocalize our refined perspective to the nation at large.We cannot develop independent, informed opinions on issues like education reform if we only entertain the platforms of national organizations instead of constructively evaluating their perspectives. What should have been a “conversation” about education reform last week turned into a promotional event. Rhee’s talk and subsequent organizing campaign set a dangerous precedent. If successful, it will send the message that Cornellians are willing to accept the policy agendas of national organizations rather than develop their own. Some students may largely agree with Rhee, and that’s okay. But it’s important to emphasize that many of us don’t, and our objections don’t preclude us from participating in education reform. Student groups can and should make every effort to raise awareness of national issues, and clearly such efforts can be effective. If they mislead the Cornell community and prioritize national groups over independent thought, however, then they do little to enrich our worldviews. As a start, education reformers on campus should value the opinions of Cornell students first, not those of StudentsFirst.Jon Weinberg is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at jweinberg@cornellsun.com. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Jon Weinberg