The Seasoning of Ed Reform: Making Superficial Solutions Seem Meaningful

There are a lot of different people in the ed reform game these days, and it’s often difficult to decipher their motives.  Some people seem to be in it for their own egos; they want to see themselves as big shots who can change the world.  Some are in it for the politics; they like the power and game-playing and envision themselves accruing more of it by espousing particular policies.  Others seem to be motivated by profit; they see testing, charter schools, vouchers, and the like as a means of making lots of money.  Some seem to be sincerely interested in seeing our schools become better places.  And, lastly, many seem driven by a hard and encrusted ideological bias; they probably formulated an understanding of the world and the way it works back in college or thereabouts, and they’ll be darned if they’re going to let ordinary everyday realities get in the way of that understanding.  

Of course, it’s not all so clear-cut.  Often these motives overlap, or people begin motivated by one thing and end up finding other motivations for promoting the views they’ve acquired (or new ones) as they advance in their career. 

I often find myself carefully critiquing the possible motivations of our ed reform leaders.  Are they in it to make a buck?  Do they just like to hear themselves talk?  Do they carefully consider reality and attempt to objectively hear all sides of the debate?  What do they stand to gain from the policies they promote?  Although I can certainly never be sure about what their motivations really are, developing some insight is often helpful in attempting to parse out what might actually be a good idea and what’s total bs. 

One thing I’ve become acutely aware of in the past year (since moving to DC) is that the things that yield positive results politically are often not the same things that yield positive results in the classroom, a reality that largely accounts for the varying quality of our ed reform leaders and their motives.  I’m speaking primarily about test scores here, but there are others.  Advocating merit pay is currently a very popular thing to do in our contemporary reform climate.  The same is often true for choice, vouchers, and programs like Teach For America.  These certainly seem to score points among the District’s well-educated upper class voters.  And I suspect this is largely a cultural thing.  We’re educated in this country to believe in the free-market system.  We believe in results, accountability, and competition.  These things make everything better in business, and it only makes sense that they’d work in other types of endeavors as well.

I should state quickly, before moving on, that I believe in the free-market as much as anyone (well, okay, not really, but as least as much as most Americans), and I do think that some private-market mechanisms can successfully be employed in public education.  However, I do not agree that all of them can.  I’d argue public goods and services, and especially those that are relatively complicated to provide effectively (e.g. quality education and healthcare), are often harmed by applying free-market mechanisms.  This is largely because there is no authentic means of measuring success.  Metrics have to be invented for policymakers to act on – standardized test scores in public education.  Because they are used to hold schools accountable, they’re subject to Campbell’s Law, and immediately made worthless, but nevertheless often serve to damage educational quality.

Back what I was trying to get at earlier about politics and ed reform leaders: 

As with pretty much every big issue that is up for debate on a perennial basis, if you want to know where ed reform is headed, one sure bet is to follow the money (as so many in the ed reform game are motivated by it).  There is lots of money to be made in testing, charter schools, professional development, curriculum materials, and TFA-type programs.  On the other hand, it is still relatively difficult to see where the money can be made in helping to alleviate poverty, redefining our cultural values in such a manner that education is prized not only as key to securing a well-paying job but also as a means by which to achieve a more fulfilling life overall, or creating a well-trained and well-educated group of professionals who are trusted to make decisions about the progress of their students and paid well and granted the same prestige as doctors or lawyers.

Aside from not making anybody rich, the solutions I would obviously favor also have the disadvantage of not playing well politically.  Many ed pundits have been crying foul for years over the amount of money teachers make.  Making an effort to combat poverty may make for a solid sound bite every now and then, but no serious politician really considers it a worthwhile endeavor.  Paying for the training of well-educated, well-trained educators would seriously piss off a lot of people who’ve been complaining about the poor quality of teacher prep programs. (And I’d have to agree with them. If we were really to improve the quality of teaching in this country, our ed programs have got to be one of the first places we need to make serious improvements.)  And trusting teachers and schools to assess their students (with an outside regulator coming in to assure quality) would seriously be hindered by a small army of ETS and Kaplan lobbyists. 

Unfortunately, in the place of thoughtful solutions that understand education in the broader context of a vast array of issues that affect our greater democracy, we see a lot of quick-fix reform efforts that understand education to exist in a hermetic environment and those variables that schools have no say in as insignificant.  Like ed reform leaders, these solutions come from a variety of motives.  Choice, accountability, and competition have their roots in free-market ideology but also have the potential to make a lot of people rich and a lot of other people famous, powerful, and popular.  And some of these solutions (cough cough….TFA) suggest solutions that are so illogical that a barrage of propaganda is required to convince the general public of their merit.

TFA’s propaganda machine is analogous to Big Tobacco’s claims that no credible studies showed a link between tobacco use and lung cancer or the fast food industry’s claim that fast food is, in fact, part of a healthy diet. (I actually heard a guy on BBC radio back in March of this year say that if fast food isn’t part of your diet, you’d be well-advised to include it.)  And TFA’s propaganda has been wildly effective.  The organization has been growing steadily, year after year.  It accounts for a significant percentage of the New Orleans teaching force.  It brings Wendy Kopp a hefty salary.  It’s been so successful, in fact, that TFA is no longer the leading publisher of the belief that talented young people with no classroom experience are the key to saving disadvantaged students.  It feels like you read about how great TFA is everywhere, from the Atlantic to Newsweek to the Washington Post. TFA is certainly in no need of further support.  And inherent to this propaganda reel is the magical teacher delusion: the belief that if a teacher cares enough, s/he can save all of his or her students.  “All students will achieve if you just hold them to high enough expectations,” the talking point goes.

But the magical teacher delusion isn’t just beneficial for TFA.  The narrative encourages a tremendous number of young idealists (myself included) to believe working themselves to death for the sake of disadvantaged youth is a worthy and noble endeavor, which works out just great for many charter schools that like to expect teachers to be at school more hours (including Saturday) for less pay.  It also creates a nice supply of young, cheap teachers for market-oriented reformers who want to see public education more ‘effectively allocate its resources’ – read: pay less money for higher test scores (which, of course, causes two problems: a proliferation of inexperienced teachers and teaching to the test).  Sadly, after working 80-hour weeks for a pitiful salary and no support to improve, many young idealists quickly become disillusioned and leave the profession.  Happily (for the reformers), that means a new batch of cheap idealists will be able to come in and take their place.

The promotion of these solutions is worth big political points to a politician like Adrian Fenty, who also benefits greatly from rising test scores (seemingly the only thing about education politicians really understand, which is only to say that they understand 80 is bigger (and therefore better) than 70).  And thus it is the reality that we’re led away from fundamental and meaningful reform and, instead, toward superficial reform that often comes with inconsistent results.

I should note that I don’t mean to suggest that TFA, school choice, and accountability are all bad.  In most cases I think they’re either misapplied or wrongly sold as silver-bullet solutions.  TFA is a band-aid solution, but it becomes more and more dangerous as it expands.  It buys positions in needy districts with its political clout and prevents teachers that actually want to begin a career from finding a job.  It also wrongly promotes its solution as having more merit than it does.  School choice has the potential of destroying communities and creating wildly inequitable schools, but I am very sympathetic to families stuck in districts with abysmal public schools.  Those families should have choice.  We can’t allow choice to be so driven by ideology, however, that we assume school choice is always best in every context, as The Heritage Foundation would have us believe (my least favorite DC think tank because it's lots of ideologues and few pragmatists).  And accountability is almost always a good thing, but the only people who can truly accurately hold teachers and students accountable for their work are teachers and students, which is why it’s so important to have a teaching force that is well-trained, well-educated, highly reflective, and highly respected.  Additionally, our prime method of accountability under NCLB does FAR more harm than good.  It’s misapplied.

Quality reform will come through thoughtful dialogue, careful consideration of the unique challenges faced by education, a common understanding of school’s purpose, increased participation in politics on behalf of the prime stakeholders in education (EVERYBODY), and an agreement to both honestly listen to the other side and promote your ideas with the best interest of students in mind, not the best interest of your ego or your wallet.  The question is: What can we do to make that happen?


  1. RE: I agree that politicians seem to promote education reform that SOUNDS good rather than reforms that actually are proven to work. I remember an example of this from when I taught in California: The state Board of Education decided it would be nice for all teachers to have basic technology skills. I was about to receive my teaching credential at the time, and the effect of this policy change was that it prevented us from receiving our credentials on time. We had to go back to school for the summer to take an extra technology class that, as of a few months ago, didn't exist. I'm sure it made the State Board feel good to say that "teachers now must be proficient in basic 21st century computer skills" but it meant that our credentials were delayed by several months and our summer plans were disrupted at the last minute. Was this necessary? Did it help anyone? I doubt it.

  2. Absolutely. And teacher certification is not only about politics. It's also a huge money maker. NCLB and the notion of highly-qualified teachers having to take Praxis tests and state tests has been a huge money maker for companies like ETS.

    When I taught social studies in Tennessee, I was required to take a Praxis II test in every subject area I wanted to teach: geography, history, economics, and government. When I moved to Washington state, I was told that none of those tests mattered in Washington. I was, instead, required to take the social studies test, which was comprised of sections from the geography, history, econ, and government tests that I'd taken in Tennessee. I called the office of the state superintendent and asked if there was any way to get around this ridiculous requirement. But no, I had to take the social studies Praxis because apparently passing all of those other tests didn't say anything about my content knowledge. Big surprise: I easily passed the social studies Praxis.

    I've personally spent over $1000 attempting to achieve certification through submitting transcripts, taking tests, attending professional development sessions, and paying application fees. Not exactly the enormous barriers to entry you'd expect for a profession that we say we want to see the best people get into.

  3. I love, love, love your blog - always something new to think about. Did you read the article in the Washington Post, about the built in cultural bias in SAT tests and how ETS tried to bury the information, very interesting? Actually the headline read, "New evidence that SAT hurts blacks", how I hate the Washington Post, like what do you mean by "black"? , but that's a different story. Anyway, I'm assuming he meant African-American students. Surprisingly, it was written by Jay Matthew's, here's the link, And sadly, I've become more and more disillusioned and am now convinced that besides the teachers almost everyone else is in it for the wrong reasons, of course some teacher too but its not like we are making mega-bucks. Regarding education being the new "real estate", it's true and there have been a couple of articles in the New York Times that refer to companies specifically choosing to invest in education since the burst of the housing bubble.

  4. Anon at 737: Thanks for the comment. I'd not seen the Matthews article, but only because I tend not to read much that he writes. I find that I rarely get anything valuable out of his commentary. He doesn't seem to really make much of an effort to really understand what's going on in public education, but he sure likes to talk about it.

  5. 737 comment--dream on. No one sees education as an investment opportunity on the order of real estate (formerly), technology, healthcare. And no one has made any money, or much money, running schools.

    Bashing any company or nonprofit coming into the field, on a four-legs-good-two-legs-bad basis is silly. It is good ole private enterprise in a field where government has failed miserably.

    R.E.--your blog post was great. But do you really mean status/prestige equivalent to doctors and attorneys? Certainly, the latter get fast-growing disrespect, though the bucks are good; also, there is an over-supply.

    As for doctors, my lips are sealed, but I think the medical profession is on a steep decline in compensation and prestige. But frankly, I don't think teachers/attorneys/doctors have ever been on the same level of prestige historically.

    Looking forward, they might be, but only as drs. and lawyers are on the way down. Sorry.

  6. Anon at 1033: I thank you for your comment, but I don't think it's at all accurate to say no one has made any money running schools. I'd encourage you to check out the following stories:

    Additionally, saying government has failed miserably is surely an over-generalization. Authority over education has traditionally been left up to local governments in this country, and as a result there is a wide variety of educational quality across the country. I really don't think it matters AS MUCH whether a government entity or a private entity is running any particular school as the quality and character of the people at the top and their experience in education. I'd certainly prefer the government because of many of the issues I've raised on this blog. I've never run across a public school whose leadership's only qualifications were that they ran a Verizon call center or whose students were handed diplomas stating they'd completed a lab science despite the fact that their school had no labs. But I have run across charter schools like that.

    As far as doctors and lawyers go, I see you're point. I guess what I'm trying to get at is that we typically associate success in this country with well-paid professions. I, for one, don't really give a damn whether I make 45k or 80k. Sure, 80k would be nice, but I certainly don't need it. What I'd like is for people, when I tell them I'm a teacher, to respond by saying, "Wow. Good for you!" rather than, "Oh - that's nice I guess." And I don't say that because I need more support. I say it because the oh-thats-nice-i-guess sentiment is indicative of a culture that doesn't value the profession and therefore will not encourage bright young people to enter it.

  7. Also, please read, School Privatization & Choice A Sociopolitical Analysis by Glenn Elert at

    Specifically sections: Market Myths, The Educational Industrial Complex: Follow the Money, Educational Alternatives Inc and Steve Jobs: The Voice of Under-represented Millionaires.

    Actually, read it all – it’s good reading and not that long. Teachers we have to educate ourselves on where a lot of these new/old/recycled ideas are coming from with regards to teaching. It is not all based on what's good for the students and educational pedagogy. Just like with most other things in a capitalist country, it often leads back to the money.

  8. RE - Now to think of an effective way to get to those self-perceived sophisticated, educated voters who blindly support Fenty and Rhee because of what they read in the Post editorial section.

    I think at some point some successful, educated people forget to think and study for themselves and instead rely on what other educated people tell them, without using the analysis and research tools that made them smart in the first place.

    Bernie Maddoff investors come to mind - smart people who listened to other smart people rather than thinking and studying for themselves. Boy did they get fooled!

    Still, even after a Bernie Maddoff type fiasco, I suspect smart people don't necessarily apply that lesson to other situations. Perhaps it's because experience has taught them that what their friends have said is so often right, that they just get lazy and assume when they hear something from someone they trust, that they have learned it, instead of simply having accepted it as fact.

    So when people say “Rhee is for the kids” or “CHEC is a great school” they don’t realize that they don’t know a thing about these subjects except what they’ve read, and blindly accepted, in the paper or from hearing their smart friends parroting the same sound bytes without any depth of knowledge and without knowing how ignorant they are.

  9. 12:32 comment: Ouch! But you could be describing me in a weak moment, or even a bad day/week/month/year.

    But let me quibble on "analysis and research tools that made them smart in the first place." I think those things can make people knowledgeable, which is more than half the battle. And people sometimes say they are going to "get smart" on a topic or issue.

    Knowledge often compensates for lack of "smarts," though....

    When "smart" refers to intelligence, i.e., IQ, that can't be taught or achieved with tools. But it can be enhanced--or degraded from lack of use.

  10. to commenter at 8:16. OK, let me change that from ""analysis and research tools that made them smart in the first place" to "information, research and analysis that enhanced their original intelligence."

    There may be a better way of putting it, but I think we're talking about the same thing - People who should know better, think they know things that they really don't.

    Even worse, they're acting on that faulty knowledge.

  11. For your reading pleasure, along with the link that RE has posted to the right by Education Policy Blog. Good reading and takes you to this link:

    Teach For America: A False Promise
    June 9, 2010

    Alternative teacher training program yields costly turnover while doing little to improve student achievement....Teach For America has generated glowing press reports, but the evidence regarding whether this alternative teacher-training program works is very unclear, according to a policy brief released today by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

    RE keep up the good work.

  12. All of us act on "faulty" knowledge for things big and small. Most of the time.

    A purist who insists on 100 percent research, 100 percent certainty, 100 percent confidence, etc., before making a decision or acting, will never do anything. Or will take far too long to do it. And most studies turn out to hardly settle things.

    For example, why is so much education research disowned, discredited or discounted? Why, increasingly, are medical school and pharma research found to be defective, compromised by conflicts, or just woefully wrong? In the finance and economics areas, we needn't spend another word.

    I am not counseling no analysis or research or not getting the best thinking and thinkers engaged in education. But much of the time, this is all for naught.

    The education research field is where far more self-interested people (academics, nonprofit trough-drinkers--not for-profit investors) are feeding themselves with two orders of magnitude more money--public funds, largely, but also foundation money--than anyone is making from privatization or teacher recruiting and training.

    (How many years would we want to take to craft a very solid teacher performance evaluation system? As others have pointed out here and elsewhere, we cannot spend years on it. And the involved parties will never agree, based on the present environment.)

    This is, in part, Obama's problem. He is too taken with academics and credentials. He has (had) good intuition but is increasingly scared to use it. But his studies, e.g., Salazar fixing of Interior MMS, or for the "new" Afghanistan strategy about which the generals cornered the president, are baloney.

    In government, including public schools, we used to have managers/administrators who made decisions and took responsibility. Now they either channel things into one endless, ineffective fake-democratic polling of colleagues, stakeholders, etc., in a phony exercise to spread the responsibility and accountability for a decision or action until it disappears into the ether. Or they just await orders from above.

    Both of these behaviors make DCPS administrators pretty crappy managers. And it rubs off on teachers, who imitate the behavior as a defense that is understandable. And all this does is harden up the environment so collaboration is all but impossible.

    Fenty and Rhee will have a hard time overcoming this. And Gray, from his record of major mismanagement at Human Services and his passive, more traditionally DC political bent and courtly manner, will do no better.

    He will get run over and/or taken in on education issues. The dithering index would almost certainly rise. You know who will suffer.

  13. TFA is an example of how smart people (as discussed above) assume they know things they haven’t thought about enough. In this case they are conflating “elite grads” with “high quality teachers.” They would never think this about other professions, so how could they be so stupid or naïve to think this about teaching? Let’s speculate:

     They assume that anyone can teach so an elite grad would certainly be better than a non-elite grad with teacher training or an experienced teacher.

     They see teaching as a low-level professional job, so it follows that someone who could find employment in a higher-level professional field will automatically be superior to current teachers

     They have such low regard for teaching that they assume that it is the only field in which professionals do not improve with experience.

     Recent grads and their parents don’t even bother to think about the above because they are blinded by the personal benefit of TFA to them – a job right out of college for two years in an elite program, which will look good on the resume.

     Policy makers and journalists pass on these assumptions without applying the same level of research and analysis they would on other subjects.

    Thus a premise lacking in common sense and totally unfounded by research nonetheless becomes conventional wisdom accepted by the elites who run the county.

  14. You forgot about the people, like Jay Matthews, who spew a lot of rhetoric and false data (i.e. Brian Betts as the Great White Hope of DCPS)to make sure people read their books which come out with great frequency. In his book he talked about how Betts had changed education at Shaw Garnet-Patterson. When the schools were combined only 46 students enrolled from the old Shaw. Over 300 came from Garnet-Patterson. Betts used the 2008 Shaw data as the school's starting point, even though the data would be clearly skewed. He and Rhee's thoughts-because Garnet-Patterson had made AYP in Reading and Safe Harbor in Math (in 2008) he'd be able to make it look like he had made great gains. Fired all of the teachers from Garnet-Patterson except 2 and brought in TFA stars. What happened? In 2009 and 2010 Shaw Garnet-Patterson had the worst DC-BAS and DC-CAS scores in the entire city! After his tragic death Rhee created another buzz word to cover up his inadequacies-HE CHANGED THE CULTURE. We're going to be hearing this from now on as data will show that all schools have suffered consistently. Jay Matthews must have a column and a yearly book of diatribes and BS so we'll be hearing the CULTURE crap until Rhee is gone. Oh, by the way, he did change the culture, from one of success to one of failure.

  15. I think changing the culture - for the better - anywhere, is a good thing. But it's not the only thing, and it's not a substitute for raising the scores.

    And we have to know exactly what "culture" means and how it's measured - is it improved attendance and discipline? Good -- but the scores still aren't up? why not?

    If the scores do go up with improved attendance and discipline (which seems logical) then let's acknowledge that it's not the magical teacher standing in front of the kids who made all the difference.

    I can't wait to hear the additional spin -- if she lasts that long.

  16. I get the feeling that the last two comments are from the same educator. Oh, well.
    I also get the feeling that the educator would like to diminish the specified role of "teachers" in educational activity to a wisp of nothingness, e.g., "it's not the magical teacher." Oh, well.


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