Sun Tzu and the Art of Education Reform

May 12, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jay recently wrote two excellent posts about policy overreach and the pace of reform. Little Ramona even took time off from whipping her AFT intern pool with a cat o’nine tails to get them to write fake Diane Ravitch tweets faster to write an admiring post regarding Jay’s advice:

Greene ends his second post with a sage observation that ought to be pinned to the wall in every government office, every executive suite of every foundation, and every advocacy group:

Whether your preferred policy solution is based on standards and accountability, parental choice, instructional reform, or something else, the better approach to reform is gradual and decentralized so that everyone can learn and adapt. Your reform strategy has to be consistent with the diverse, decentralized, and democratic country in which we live. You won’t fix everything for everyone right away, but you should avoid Great Leaps Forward. Seek partial victories because with the paradoxical logic of ed reform politics total victory ultimately leads to total defeat.’

Jay’s post got me to thinking about my favorite warrior-sage, Sun-Tzu. What might he think about this?

On the one hand, Sun Tzu explicitly warns against long wars:

When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength. Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare…In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.

In other words win and win fast.  Sun Tzu advises against one of those hours long Rocky vs. Apollo type slug-fests where even the victor goes to the hospital.  He advises something more along the lines of:

Alas the education reform movement finds itself caught in an Ali rope a dope fight rather than an Iron Mike early conquest.  Neither George Washington, Winston Churchill, George Kennan, Ho Chi Mihn nor Martin Luther King Jr. had the opportunity for a quick and easy knockout either so you are in good company.  Jay’s point about seeking total victory leading to total defeat finds echoes in Sun Tzu as well:

In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.

As an example of the above, I think it is safe to say that Sun Tzu would have little admiration for the quality of the effort put forward by American abolitionists.  From John Brown to Sherman’s March to Reconstruction these well-meaning people with a just cause seemed overly fond of the full frontal assault.  None of this excuses the actions of southerners at all. Note  however that it would have been rather extraordinary if the justices on the United States Supreme Court had failed to notice that the federal efforts in the south had almost completely backfired by the time of the contemptible Plessy case. Abolish slavery, hello sharecropping!  Amend the Constitution, say hello to Jim Crow. Deeply resentful southern racists eventually took  over the United States House and people in the north grew weary of their occupation of the south much faster, which is what one should expect given that everything they were doing more or less backfired.

Plessy was deeply horrible on many levels, but it essentially ratified the facts on the ground-facts that with sickening irony that abolitionists had helped to create.  Abolitionists did not achieve supreme excellence- they not only did not break the enemy’s resistance without fighting, they failed to break it with hundreds of thousands dead.  Their lack of supreme excellence, along with a great deal of idiocy on the part of southerners, helped usher in an additional century of Southern dark age.  We of course will never know how much of this tragedy could have been avoided, but we do know what actually happened and it was awful.  Britain and France went to war with Nazi Germany to protect Poland’s freedom only to see Poland put under the Soviet boot, but at least this only lasted half a century.  In the aftermath of America’s bloodiest war America’s slaves were transformed into sharecroppers without the right to vote and with little decent schooling.  We are still grappling with this sordid legacy today.

As Jay said, seeking total immediate victory often leads to abject failure.

All this is all the more tragic given that American abolitionists could have learned a great deal from the earlier triumph of Wilbur Wilberforce in England in abolishing the slave trade and eventually slavery itself.  Notice the crucial elements of success: undaunted effort, indirect means, an eventual embrace of patient incremental policies after the failure of multiple frontal assaults, no bloody war ultimately accomplishing little to nothing.

It’s no mystery why a reactionary like Diane Ravitch would find solace in Jay’s Rx- she is quite happy with the status-quo, and has a lot of K-12 workers hanging on her every word as she tells them what they desperately want to believe. This does not however mean that reformers should ignore Jay’s advice-he’s on to something important regardless of whether Ravitch or other reactionaries hope to make use of it. In fact, reactionaries themselves should fear reformers taking this advice to heart. If they do, defenders of today’s failed status quo will face far more effective opponents.  Jay is yelling reformers a warning from their blind spot.

Last year I spent a lot of time in Texas working on education reform. During the session I got an email from someone whose opinion I highly respect and who told me some things I really, really, really did not want to believe.  The email said in part:

Matt, Some of the efforts to improve ‘choice’ were heavy handed and arrogant. Vouchers always have had common enemies from both the left  and right, from rural and suburban, from minorities who would be the  beneficiaries.

Expectations were too high and ignored several factors—the  finance lawsuit being a major factor, delaying any real reform efforts  until it’s settled.

Some leading ‘reformers’ collected a variety of practices  purported to be effective in other states and proposed those for  Texas without doing the necessary base building for real support.  Even the A through F idea was  never  really sold well.  The battle fought last session over the over-engineered  accountability system was won by proponents but  they ultimately lost the war, exacerbating the growing  anti-testing sentiment.

The business community was split on ‘accountability’ for good  reason. There has been an over emphasis on ‘college ready’ and not  enough focus on ‘job ready’ with the latter having been subsumed by the former.  The resulting curricular pathways will show that for some segment  of employers simply raising standards is no longer enough and some new  designs are needed.

A big part of me wanted to fire off an angry email explaining that illiterate Texas kids didn’t have another day to wait, etc. Instead I let it sit for a day.  The next day I had to confess to myself:

Damn it all to hell he’s right on every single point.

Sadder and wiser I wrote back:

You are totally correct that there are going to be plenty of servings of humble pie to eat at the end of this session. I also fear that we reformers have gotten into the habit of viewing reforms as military conquests over bad guys to the detriment of efforts to inform and persuade. Persuasion is slow and its benefits can be ambiguous but where to you ultimately get without it?

Well it is mid 2014 now and the answer from the Texas example is pretty clear- nowhere.  Private choice failed, the commissioner did not implement A-F school grading after having the legislature forbid him to do so, the legislature has left the state’s accountability system as a complete train-wreck.  Sign me up for a double serving of humble pie.  Even the raising of the charter school cap represented only a symbolic victory as there were already ways around the cap and charter holders can open multiple campuses under preexisting Texas law.

Don’t get me wrong: I still believe that Texas school kids don’t have another damn day to wait for better schools. I must accept however the fact that failed attempts at reform don’t do them any good.  If there is going to be major changes in Texas K-12 education reformers are going to have to convince far more than 76 members of the Texas House, 16 members of the Texas Senate and one governor that they are good ideas. In fact, Texas reformers might be better off thinking of those 93 people as the last on the list to persuade rather than the first. Mere legislative majorities resemble words written into the sand of a beach without broader consensus and support.

If reformers want faster change, we must embrace the need to persuade a broader universe of people on the justice of our cause and the effectiveness of the means by which we hope to achieve them. If mere legislative majorities tempt you into thinking you can proceed without such consensus, think again.  Parental choice supporters should therefore embrace the burden of building a broad consensus while recognizing the danger overreach.  Persuasion is slow and its benefits can be ambiguous but where do you ultimately get without it?

Stomp on the gas reformers, but do take a look at the traffic conditions.  Your car won’t do you much good if it gets you and more importantly your passengers killed.

 


Now There’s Something You Don’t See Every Day

April 23, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Diane Ravitch fully endorses a line of thinking by our own Jay P. Greene.  Money quote:

Greene ends his second post with a sage observation that ought to be pinned to the wall in every government office, every executive suite of every foundation, and every advocacy group:

‘Whether your preferred policy solution is based on standards and accountability, parental choice, instructional reform, or something else, the better approach to reform is gradual and decentralized so that everyone can learn and adapt. Your reform strategy has to be consistent with the diverse, decentralized, and democratic country in which we live. You won’t fix everything for everyone right away, but you should avoid Great Leaps Forward. Seek partial victories because with the paradoxical logic of ed reform politics total victory ultimately leads to total defeat.’


Weingarten/Ravitch v. Tooley/Dixon in Mexico

April 23, 2013

WSJ striking teachers in Mexico

Now THAT”S what I call an army of angry teachers!

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today’s Wall Street Journal covers events in Guerrero, a state in southern Mexico, where the local version of the Weingarten/Ravitch army of angry teachers is now in head-to-head competition with James Tooley and Pauline Dixon’s army of black market schoolers.

In one corner:

Thousands of teachers protesting a revamp of the country’s education system have closed schools and taken to the streets, in the first significant challenge to overhauls undertaken by President Enrique Peña Nieto. Teachers in Guerrero, one of Mexico’s poorest states, are defying Mr. Peña Nieto’s administration by opposing the education measure signed into law in February, which for the first time requires teachers to be evaluated by an autonomous body. Those that fail the evaluation can be dismissed.

Last week, tens of thousands of teachers, some armed with metal bars and Molotov cocktails, marched in Guerrero’s capital, Chilpancingo. They again blocked for hours the highway that connects Mexico City with the Pacific port of Acapulco, hurting a key economic and tourist hub. The demonstrations have been held sporadically since the overhaul bill was signed.

In the other corner:

The action has left around 42,000 children without classes, and parents, exasperated after almost two months of protests, plan to start giving their own lessons in parks, public squares and even restaurants in the coming days….The lessons would be conducted like summer-school workshops, with hundreds of children expected to attend the first classes, Mr. Castro said. The idea is to teach grade-school students mathematics, Spanish and other basics, and the parents association is trying to get local education authorities to give credit for completed work.

The teachers’ unions of Guerrero have shown the same peaceful spirit we’ve seen so often from many labor unions here in the U.S.:

Initial plans to start the lessons Monday were put off for fear of reprisals from striking teachers, and the parents association is working with state authorities to guarantee safety for the classes, he added.

However, from the overall coverage I wouldn’t count the army of black market schoolers out yet. Conditions are bad enough that the parents are angrier than the teachers.

Also worth noting: it’s not clear how many of the teachers support what their unions are doing.

Photo by Zuma Press via WSJ


Wolf and Witte Slam Ravitch on Milwaukee School Choice

January 18, 2013

Dwight Howard winning the 2008 Slam Dunk Contest.

As I’ve said before, I’m trying to avoid writing about Diane Ravitch because I think it’s now clear to all sensible people that she has gone completely nuts, lacks credibility, and was probablnever much of a scholar.  But I just can’t resist posting a link to the editorial my colleagues Pat Wolf and John Witte wrote today in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  Wolf and Witte are responding to an earlier op-ed by Ravitch in which she declares:

Milwaukee needs one public school system that receives public dollars, public support, community engagement and parental involvement.

Vouchers and charters had their chance. They failed.

Wolf and Witte actually review the evidence on Milwaukee’s choice programs, including their own research.  They conclude:

Our research signals what likely would happen if Ravitch got her wish and the 25,000 students in the Milwaukee voucher program and nearly 8,000 children in independent charter schools were thrown out of their chosen schools. Student achievement would drop, as every student would be forced into MPS – the only game in town. Significantly fewer Milwaukee students would graduate high school and benefit from college. Parents would be denied educational choices for their children.

That’s not a future we would wish for the good people of Milwaukee.

There’s no point in trying to persuade Ravitch or her Army of Angry Teachers, since they abandoned rationality a long time ago.  But Wolf and Witte have done an excellent job of equipping sensible people with evidence that could help inform their views about school choice in Milwaukee.  Angry blather and bold (but false) declarations cannot compete with actual facts.

[Edited to correct typo in title.]


Diane Ravitch, Historian Who Changes History

September 18, 2012

Diane Ravitch continues to provide considerable comic relief.  I noted last week that she has adopted the role of super-villain by declaring that she, personally, can control the outcome of the presidential election and that President Obama should “heed my advice.”

Well, now the world’s most over-rated historian has decided to change history by erasing her blog post as if she never said those things.  This is not only very un-scholarly, but it is also a major internet no-no.  You can’t just erase a blog post if you are now embarrassed by what you wrote.  You can’t un-say something that you’ve said.  You can apologize, you can amend, you can elaborate, but you can’t just make it as if it never happened.

But the most over-rated historian appears to have simply tried to change history and erase her blog post.  If you click on  my old link, you just get a message that the page cannot be found.   And if you try to find the post by going through the chronology of September posts for September 9 (the date on which it was originally posted), you just won’t see her megalomaniac declaration: “I can determine the winner of the presidency.”  It’s gone.  Erased.

Except that the Internet Archive Wayback Machine happens to keep track of old web sites and you can still see her post here in the web cache.  If only, Ravitch could employ her own Winston from 1984, whose job was to alter and erase history so that the Party was never wrong.  As Orwell writes:

This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs — to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct, nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.

Unlike Ravitch whose own historical record is thankfully preserved by the WayBack Machine despite efforts to the contrary, Winston only had to take the offending writings and then he “dropped them into the memory hole to be devoured by the flames.”  As the 1984 Party slogan goes: “”Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”

All of this would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetically sad.

[Edited for a typo and to update link to old web page]


Diane Ravitch, Super-Villain…. And Related News

September 10, 2012

I’ve avoided writing about Diane Ravitch recently because I think it’s now clear to all sensible people that she has gone completely nuts, lacks credibility, and was probably never much of a scholar.  But I just couldn’t resist noting that in addition to all of her previous vices, Ravitch is now seeking to play the part of a super-villain.  She always had the megalomaniac dimension of a super-villain, but has now added the dimension of making threats if her demands are not met.  In a recent post [UPDATED], she declared:

The election, I hear, will be decided in Ohio and Michigan.  As it happens, I have a very large following of teachers and principals in both states.  My decision could swing several thousand votes in both of these key states.  I hold the election in my hands.  Bwahahahaha! And if my demands are not met within 24 hours I will reverse the Earth’s gravitational pull and everything will go flying into space. Bwahahaha!

Actually she didn’t say the last bit, but she did say that President Obama should “read this and heed my advice… while you still can, puny Earthling.”  Again, she didn’t actually say the last bit, but I think you get the picture.

And in related news… The Chicago Teachers Union has decided to go on strike.  In their own effort to play the part of a super-villain, they are demanding that virtually bankrupt Chicago and its Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel transform all matter in the universe into currency to pay for increased teacher salaries,  gold-plated pension and health benefits, and a hot tub for each teacher filled with KFC gravy.

And in related news… the Chicago Tribune has reacted to the demands of these super-villains by calling for vouchers for Chicago students.


Scenes from the Transformation: Reactionaries Crying in their Beer

May 10, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Carpe Diem is moving into Indianapolis with their blended learning model that produced the biggest learning gains in Arizona. Result: teacher unions babble about the school not having enough teachers and a Tucson reactionary attempts to peddle already discredited criticisms.

Over at NEPC, Kevin Welner rather assuredly asserts that retention is bad for students based upon methodologically unsophisticated studies caried out on bad policies. The claim that retention increases dropout rates is approximately as well established as the belief that cancer drugs kill people with cancer and that rooster crowing causes the sun to rise. Or that Harry Potter books caused NAEP gains in Florida for that matter. Par for the course, Welner ignores the statistically sophisticated studies nearing a random assignment study from Florida and NYC that show significant benefits from those policies.

Over at Ed Week, Little Ramona is drinking the Vegetarian Conspiracy Theory kool-aid on ALEC.

Bless their little reactionary hearts, but at least all of this makes for good comic relief.


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