Conformity and Opportunists: Ira Glass Illuminates the Tenets of Today's School Reform

A few days ago I had breakfast with a friend and former colleague, Derek Smith, who allowed me to post part of his master's thesis here. We talked about a lot of things: school, life, the Gates Foundation, writing, etc, etc... As we discussed teaching, Derek brought up an interview (actually a long series of interviews over many years) broadcast on This American Life by Ira Glass back in 2004.

In "Two Steps Back," Glass illuminates the story of a school in Chicago that went from excelling as a result of committed teachers and administrators to a place where excellent teachers no longer wanted to work.

I HIGHLY recommend you take the hour to listen to the program carefully. (Perhaps, my favorite part about it is the song at the end: "Point of Disgust" by Low.)

The story Glass helps tell is one in which a school of professionals were trusted to do right by their students. Because they had talented and committed staff, they lived up to their charge. But as policies favoring school reform increased, and the school found its ability to innovate and cater to their students limited more and more, student performance began to suffer, and many of the most talented professionals chose to find work elsewhere.

If only I had been aware of this reality before I chose to enter teaching. The teacher to widget conversion process was only fully illuminated for me by the time I spent working in Washington, DC, a process I think is best illuminated by a quote by Sue Hemberger I've referenced often:

"Often, the attempt to idiot-proof a process involves imposing a formula designed to produce a consistent result. When this approach is successful, that result is reliably better than incompetence but generally falls far short of excellence. And the task has become sufficiently de-skilled that no one who aspires to excellence wants any part of it."

Of course, the attempt is often unsuccessful, leaving us with what I would argue is a system that is not necessarily better than incompetence.

It strikes me as ironic that so many of the same voices that advocate for educational innovation (and often charter schools as the avenue for that innovation) are so complicit in the teacher to widget process - e.g. Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee. Race to the Top is not awarding money to states who refused Duncan's "policy innovations." Principals in DCPS did not keep their jobs for stepping outside the box.

The other thing that came into my head while I was listening to the show is the role of opportunists in this mess. By opportunists, I'm referring to those who happened into education not because of a life-long dream or commitment to democracy or children, but because it seemed, at some point, to be their best opportunity for climbing the career ladder. I'm thinking of all the microwave administrators out there and the people I met at policy events in DC. S/he may have gone to the Curry School of Education, but it wasn't really to make a great educator, it was a means of achieving career notoriety and success. Many of these types are the people who make the bureaucratic bullshit sound like innovative excellence. Their job, as school administrator or DOE official, is to gift wrap mediocrity in gold and cram it down our unsuspecting throats in the hopes that those teachers who really are awful will have no option but to advance to mediocrity. The rest of us suffer the consequences.

Interested in reforming public education for the better? Invest in highly competent, highly motivated school-based personel. The low-cost teacher and high-cost district administrator model may increase some numbers here and there, but it will not improve education.

From "Point of Disgust":

Once, I was lost
to the point of disgust
I had in my sight
lack of vision
lack of light
I fell hard
I fell fast
mercy me
it'll never last


  1. I've always been convinced that the New Teacher Project chose to call their influential report "The Widget Effect" to short circuit using the term the way you (and I) do.

  2. I love love love Ira Glass and this American Life, when I was struggling to work 2 weekly teaching jobs in DC and Rockville and a weekend job with adults one of the few joys of my commute was listening to his shows, always illuminating and entertaining. I was moved to work in the public school system not because I had a burning desire to work in k-12 but because it is impossible to work in the field of adult education in this area and eat (low low pay and no benefits). No one is prepared to fund adult education or family literacy programs yet we have one of the highest illiteracy rates in the nation and a failing K-12 system. We also have some of the worst health outcomes for minorities and soaring unemployment, and if recent testimony to OSSE doesn't help there will be even more cut-backs to all adult and other social programs. It's not that hard to connect the dots and look at educaiton reform in a more holistic way; real reform starts with educating and empowering our families and people that live in the neighborhoods, not in sending TFA-type recruits en masse to work in our schools.

  3. What's a "microwave administrator"? Is this a term you invented - or one that you've heard before? I'm guessing it's like "administrator in a bag" or something. Press start and in three minutes it's done.... ? I'd like to hear more. Are they the ones who create the Stepford Teachers?

  4. Microwave administrators - yea - I think you got it. Administrators who don't take the proper time to learn schools from the inside. They're the ones so thirsty for leadership roles, they forgo finding a cup and just drink straight from the tap.

    I don't think there are nearly as many of these types outside of large, high-profile urban districts - the same breeding grounds you find TFAers in.

  5. Great post - you pulled together some excellent observations. I couldn't agree more regarding the stifling effect of imposing from the outside. It's not that we can't get teachers on the same page and sharing certain curriculum and practices, but rather that the odds of success are so much greater, and the work so much more vibrant, when the process of aligning is undertaken by the people involved, with a shared sense of purpose and with some significant allowance for creativity and variation.


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