If you are a parent with a child in the public education system, RUN, do not walk, to the bookstore or log on to Amazon.com right NOW and order Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education. To paraphrase Seal, our education system is never going to survive if parents don’t get a little crazy.
It is not often that you will find many education beat writers working today who will call a spade a spade. Joe Williams, a former education beat writer in Milwaukee and New York City, takes a premise, that the current public education system is more interested in the employment of adults and crafts a type of "how-to" guide for parents and in doing so calls a lot of spades, spades. Cheating Our Kids is a revealing look at all the interest groups in the education system and how their interests, which Williams admits are valid interests, are placed before the interests of the children in the system. Unless parents get, as Williams put it, crazy, the education system run by adults will continue to server adults first and kids last.
Every group you can imagine, from vendors such as textbook companies, philanthropic organizations, school management, politicians, and yes, the teachers unions is called forth and their motives examined. Williams dissects the cozy relationship between school management and textbook and educational software vendors, drawing a picture where the wining and dining of school officials often leads to the purchase of materials that will not help students learn. However, Williams does something a little refreshing—he doesn’t just blame the vendors. Afterall, according to Williams, "Vendors have a responsibility to their investors to sell as many products as possible. Period. The education of students is not a vendor's responsibility, and when administrators and elected officials make decisions about doing business with vendors for anything other than improving educational opportunities for children, public education fails kids once again."
Teachers unions and the Democratic Party get singled out for their all too close relationship. Williams admits that unions have a role in protecting the workplace rights of teacher and other school workers. However, Williams warns us that when push comes to shove, all the altruistic rhetoric from the unions about helping kids will get second, third or even lower priority for unions. Williams does not fault the unions for this mindset, after all, unions have their dues paying constituents, but we should not be deluded into thinking that just because unions say they are helping kids, doesn’t mean they are. Again, Williams faults school management for the failure to keep the educational needs of the kids in the front of their minds.
The Democratic Party scores very low in Williams’ book. Noting that the unions are massive voter turnout machines, and the Democrats need both the political foot soldiers and the money the unions are willing to spend on elections, the Democratic party will do or say nothing that will endanger that relationship, even if it means something better for kids. Williams spends several pages talking about the John Kerry campaign in 2004. Early in his bid, Kerry talked openly about teacher accountability and saying that you have to tie pay raises to increased accountability. The result of this statement, Kerry did not make the requisite stop at the NEA convention, a political right of passage for Democratic nominees. As a result, Kerry spent a great deal of time trying to placate the unions for his (for the unions) unpopular stance.
Williams doesn’t spare the rod for anyone. The Republican Party is praised for the No Child Left Behind Act and then chastised for very poor implementation and failure to take advantage of opportunities to enforce change. School management, even when done with the benevolent intentions, gets the short shrift often from Williams. Essentially, if you are an adult in the education system, Williams has called you out and laid a great deal of blame, in varying amounts, at your feet.
Cheating Our Kids is a fantastic guide for parents for dealing with the education establishment, but Williams fails to be more explicit about the helpfulness of the book in the parental crusade to take back their schools. The later chapters of the book describe in wonderful detail the effect of a group of committed people to effect a change in their local schools. But what is missing is the set-up early in the book that such a plan is coming. After having read the book, that little piece of information at the start of the book would have had me thinking along different lines while reading the meat of the piece.
Williams does do a great job with two case studies, one in the Milwaukee School Choice program victories and the second with the MOMs effort in the South Bronx. While these are fabulous case studies, a few more conclusions about why they were successful would have been helpful. Williams includes "12 Rules to Help Parents Take Back Their Schools" (republished below), which is supremely helpful and should be posted on the refrigerator, the bathroom mirror, the desk and the computer of each and every parent worried about the quality of their kids' education and the incompetence of the adults in the system.
Despite these few shortcomings, Williams' effort is a marvelous instruction manual for taking control of the public education system. Whether you support more school choice, as I do, or whether you just want to see a system improved overall, Williams points out the interests of the interest groups and with the knowledge of their biases, we as parents can view each word these groups say with a clearer understanding of their motivations. Parents, after all, are the ultimate consumers of education, as taxpayers and as surrogates for our kids. The power to effect change belongs not to the school administration, not the unions and certainly not to the politicians. It is ours and for far too long we have been kept in the dark by a system more intent of ensuring its own survival and not the education of our children. We must utilize the power we have, and with Williams’ help, get a little "crazy" and get the face of our school system.
12 Rules to Help Parents Take Back Their Public Schools
- Never, ever be ashamed of the fact that you want a good education for your child.
- If you don't blow the whistle on school problems, no one will.
- If parents want to be treated like customers, they must start acting like customers.
- Do your homework.
- Don't trust PTAs to do anything other than raising cold, hard cash.
- There's strength in numbers.
- If the facts are on your side, share them with the world.
- Fight for transparency throughout the system.
- If an administrator tells you something can't be done, assume they are wrong and plow forward.
- Remember that school politics revolves around money.
- If you've tried steps 1 through 10, and you kids aren't a priority, it's time you demand your tax money back.
- Be a part of the political process.