Gloom and Gloomier

February 1, 2011

The editors at Education Next have two essays on the state of education reform that remind me of Woody Allen’s never-delivered university commencement speech:

More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

In one essay, Paul Peterson, Marci Kanstoroom, and Chester Finn reject my rosy assessment of progress in the war of ideas about education reform, saying “It’s way, way too early to declare victory. Atop the cliffs and bastions that reformers are attacking, the opposition has plenty of weapons with which to hold its territory…. It’s dangerous to think a battle is over when it has just begun.”

In the other essay, Frederick Hess, Martin West, and Michael Petrilli go even further in their gloom, arguing not only that the war has hardly begun, but that the reform warriors are really the enemy:

First, reform “support” resides with a mostly uninformed, unengaged public—one that isn’t especially sold on their ideas and that, in any event, is often outmatched by well-organized, well-funded, and motivated special interests. And second, and more unfortunately, many reformers are eagerly overreaching the evidence and touting simplistic, slipshod proposals that are likely to end in spectacular failures. In short, some forces of reform are busy marching into the sea and turning notable victories into Pyrrhic ones. To quote that wizened observer of politics and policy, Pogo: We’ve met the enemy, and he is us.

That’s funny.  I thought the enemy was a monopolistic, bureaucratized 19th century school system propped up by teacher unions and their allies who place the interests of adults over the needs of children.  I guess I was wrong in not understanding that it is really the opponents of that system who are the problem.

In truth, I don’t really disagree with much of what either essay has to say.  It is all just a matter of emphasis and framing. In my declaration of victory I was careful to acknowledge that the war over policy has barely begun and reformers have a long and difficult road ahead:

We won!  At least we’ve won the war of ideas.  Our ideas for school reform are now the ones that elites and politicians are considering and they have soundly rejected the old ideas of more money, more money, and more money.

Now that I’ve said that, I have to acknowledge that winning the war of ideas is nowhere close to winning the policy war.  As I’ve written before, the teacher unions are becoming like the tobacco industry.  No one accepts their primary claims anymore, but that doesn’t mean they don’t continue to be powerful and that people don’t continue to smoke.  The battle is turning into a struggle over the correct design and implementation of the reform ideas that are now commonly accepted.  And the unions have shown that they are extremely good at blocking, diluting, or co-opting the correct design and implementation of reforms.

Rick Hess correctly demonstrated how important design and implementation are almost two decades ago in his books, Spinning Wheels and Revolution at the Margins.   And it is always useful for him and others to remind reformers of the dangers that lurk in those union-infested waters.  But for a moment can’t we just bask in the glow of our intellectual victory — even if our allies are a new crop of naive reformers?

Yes, there is a danger in thinking that the policy war is over when it has barely begun.  And yes, there is a danger in over-promising and over-simplifying reform ideas.  But there is also a danger in reform burn-out.  The struggle over school reform has been going on for decades and will almost certainly take several decades more.  Donors have grown frustrated and advocates have jumped to ill-conceived quick fixes that would set the cause of reform back significantly, like adopting national standards and assessments.  If we don’t periodically note our policy progress and intellectual victories, we will have great difficulty sustaining the reform movement.

My view does not really differ substantially from the two essays in Education Next except that they see a greater danger in over-confidence and I see a greater danger in burnout.  And I don’t mind being used as the straw man for their arguments.  The Straw Man had a brain.


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