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?