DFER and the Miniature Machiavellis

Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) has done much to advance progress in education, but I am disappointed to report that in a recent series of events DFER has acted as if they have no shame.  I literally mean NO SHAME in the sense that they are not ashamed of doing something that is wrong, that they know to be wrong, and that they persist in doing anyhow.

I am referring to the series of blog posts and mass emails in which DFER Indiana is attempting to support Common Core by demonstrating that some of the opponents of Common Core hold positions on non-educational issues, like abortion, that DFER’s target audience might find objectionable.  These posts make no effort to defend Common Core substantively.  In fact, they contain virtually nothing about education policy.  The essence of their argument is that you should support Common Core because you really wouldn’t like some of the people who oppose Common Core.

When I wrote a post last week mocking DFER Indiana director, Larry Grau, for making this type of argument I assumed that he had acted without the knowledge and support of the national DFER organization.  So I contacted a long-time friend at DFER national to alert him to Grau’s actions and to see if he could convey to Grau the foolishness of this type of non-substantive, ad hominem attack.

I was shocked to discover that DFER National was not only aware of Grau’s campaign, but was fully supportive of it.  Sure it is wrong, I was told, but this is the sort of thing that works.  Stating the case and arguing the merits doesn’t carry the day, I was told, you need to engage in this type of manipulative trick.  Relying on logical arguments, evidence, and research is just naive.  The only regret DFER National expressed is that Grau’s attack didn’t gain enough attention.  My DFER contact wanted more critiques of Grau to get more people talking about it.

I’ve never seen so much cynicism so candidly expressed.

I wish I could say that this cynical embrace of shallow, non-substantive, and ad hominem attacks is unique to DFER, but it is actually wide-spread in the education policy world.  Advancing one’s political agenda with a callous indifference for the truth is the operating principle of most organized interest groups, including the teacher unions.  But you can also see it when the Gates Foundation makes non-falsifiable claims and spins their own research.  You can see it when Diane Ravitch repeatedly and falsely claims no academic benefits of choice in Milwaukee or DC.  You can see it in the obsession among attention-starved education policy advocates with Twitter.  You can see it when folks abuse language with weasel words, passive voice, and mindless jargon for supposed marketing advantages.

In fact, I have heard several Foundations candidly express disinterest in funding education research because they would rather invest those dollars in more advocacy.  Systematic analysis of 990 tax forms shows that Foundations actually are shifting more and more money toward advocacy.  I’ve been forced to endure sessions with marketing consultants at ed reform conferences where these charlatan Svengalis tell us that it is all about “messaging.”

It isn’t all about “messaging.”  Ultimately, it’s about understanding the truth as best as we can perceive it.  We need honest and high-quality research to improve our understanding of the truth about effective policy.  Yes, we need to communicate our understanding of the truth clearly and concisely, but it does no one any good to make stuff up, distort the truth, or cynically distract people from substantive arguments with ad hominem and “guilt by association.”

These Miniature Machiavellis may think they can twist the truth tactically to achieve a  greater policy objective, but they have no appreciation for how long-term policy change actually happens.  Real and enduring change happens because people come to a new consensus about facts and evidence.  This is achieved with substantive arguments and quality research, not by manipulative tactics.

The advance of Civil Rights occurred because of eloquent and substantive arguments by people like Martin Luther King, Jr about human dignity and equality.  It was helped by social science research about how separate could not be equal, which informed the Court’s reversal in Brown v. Board of Education.

Even the progress that’s been made in expanding choice in education has been achieved to a large degree because of a growing consensus among researchers that choice is generally effective and desirable, which has then influenced elite opinion to the point where both party’s platforms embrace the notion of parental choice.  This research took place over the last two decades before the rise of “The Twidiocracy.”  It took patience.  It took discipline on the part of funders and the earlier generation of advocates to stay focused on the search for solid evidence.

It is not too late for education reform to return its focus to substantive arguments and quality research.  The first step is for funders to scale back significantly on their giving to advocacy groups.  Most of these groups are completely ineffective anyway, consuming virtually all of their resources to engage in manipulative tactics noticed only by other advocacy groups inside some tiny and inconsequential bubble.  Second, Foundations need to increase funding for quality research.  Yes, research has sometimes over-promised, under-delivered, and cost too much.  But we can work on controlling inefficiencies there while advancing the search for truth.  Of course, the effective marketing of research findings and substantive arguments is important, but at the core there has to be a grounding in truth.  Messaging without truth is the same as having no real message.

In sum, Foundations need to step back from the focus on prevailing in the next session’s legislative battle and start taking a longer term view of what it really takes to win.  That requires the courage and patience not to expect quarterly or annual metrics of progress, which only encourage the shallow and near-sighted tactics of the Miniature Machiavellis.   If Foundations only wished to reproduce the scheming and superficiality of 18th century French courtiers, then they have succeeded.  If they wish to produce real educational progress, then they need to change course.

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7 Responses to DFER and the Miniature Machiavellis

  1. One of the problems with the foundations is that many of them are advocating for education policies that benefit the anticipated revenue stream of the parent companies that set up the foundations originally. In addition if you read the National Academy of Sciences reports that come out weekly like I do, they have made it quite clear that the Common Core initiatives tie into an US Industrial Policy planned around Sustainability and Regional Equity.

    And so many people are chasing after what is being called the Green Gold Rush with those federal dollars. As I explained here several weeks ago http://www.invisibleserfscollar.com/well-no-wonder-no-one-listens-to-common-core-complaints-if-it-is-tied-to-federal-revenue-sharing/, dollars going to states and cities beyond education money are tied to the implementation of this total economic and social vision. Even being called the Regional Race to the Top.

    By the time there is a full appreciation for everything truly involved in the Common Core, those federal dollars will have gone in multiple pockets. Leaving a great deal of taxpayer debt and a Crony economic vision that relies on a constant supply of Other People’s Money.

    I have noticed that the very same foundations spending to support levelling education reforms to ensure “equitable communicative capacity” do not ever think that wealth and income equity have anything to do with distributing the foundation’s non-taxed corpus. No, it’s the wealth and income of individuals that is unacceptable.

    Indiana has been in the spotlight of ire because it moved fast to impose the Common Core on private schools as well. And it is those outraged parents who have been leading the fight.

    Tuition and social and emotional programs and Vygotskyian curricula like Tools of the Mind–all in the name of the Common Core.

  2. Jim Infamous Kush says:

    how was this an ad hominum attack?

  3. George Mitchell says:

    This is a valuable message to deliver, Jay. This is not the only evidence of DFER’s diminished standards. A while back it saluted a Wisconsin legislator with an established adversarial track record on school choice. As in the instance you cite here, it was a case of pure tactical pragmatism. Disappointing but no longer surprising.

  4. George Mitchell says:

    DFER ally Howard Fuller takes a shot in today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at those who are attempting to highlight erroneous media reporting of school choice research. Reports the paper:

    “Ultimately, the debate on these issues and more comes down to whether students improve their performance, noted Howard Fuller, the former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent who is a leading private-school choice advocate and helps run a charter school.

    “‘The most important thing to look at is the growth of students,’ Fuller told us. ‘We get kids from MPS or from private schools who are behind. MPS gets kids from our schools who are behind.’

    “He added: “At some point we have to quit pointing fingers at each other and realize we are all dealing with the same students.’”

    So, those defending high quality research from misrepresentation are “pointing fingers” rather than attempting to advance accurate information.

  5. Mark Dynarski says:

    If foundations and philanthropies have come to believe that investing in advocacy is better than investing in evidence, I think researchers need to do a better job marketing the value of evidence. Advocacy is just the marketing of ideas and causes to policymakers, but researchers can have a voice here too.

    • George Mitchell says:

      Mark, I can only speak to the area of school choice, but it can be treacherous when honest researchers are confronted with unscrupulous academics and others. The honest folks attempt to discuss matters, well, honestly, and the other side has no such restraint. Inept journalism creeps in, as we have seen continually in Milwaukee. You are correct in identifying a problem but it is less clear how to address the problem. One option is for the institutions and foundation who support research to step up and take a role in circulating honest findings and in confronting the dishonest efforts to disparage such research.

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