Gloom and Gloomier

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.

13 Responses to Gloom and Gloomier

  1. matthewladner says:

    The struggle to provide de facto and de jure equality under the law for Blacks took centuries.

    It’s a good thing that not everyone gave up in 1789 with the 3/5 Compromise ratified slavery into the Constitution, or with Dred Scott, or in the 1880s when Reconstruction was obviously failing and backfiring, or in the 1930s, when the most powerful President in history failed to lift a finger to do anything about Jim Crow.

    A decade is an absurdly short time frame to judge a challenge as difficult as K-12 reform. If the United States has risen in the international rankings by the time I’m retired, I’ll be happy. If it happens faster, I’ll be ecstatic.

  2. Daniel Earley says:

    Well stated, Jay. Straw men aside, it’s clear to me that a variety of distinct battlefronts and hurdles exist. Certainly the policy war is a work in progress despite the war of ideas being won in various circles. Central to ultimate victory though, is a war over parent-stakeholders and voters that will ultimately tip the scales of the policy war. I believe Matt’s ESA has potential to break new ground on that front.

  3. Good point, Daniel. Thanks!

  4. Daniel Earley says:

    In my opinion, the most salient point in either essay was this one:

    “But those policies that most often succeed in the U.S. are those that recall the Tocquevillian adage that Americans embrace the precept of “self-interest properly understood.” Policies that work are those that work for all families. Efforts to squeeze inefficiencies out of schooling or enrich instruction and improve services for all kids can command widespread support.

    Like the architects of the Great Society nearly half a century ago, however, too many school reformers have an unfortunate habit of deriding apathy or opposition from middle-class families. They have blithely ignored lessons learned when the Great Society’s social engineers sought to sustain ambitious social programs on the backs of guilt-ridden white suburbanites, only to fail spectacularly. They dismiss concerns that their reforms do nothing for suburban schools or may adversely affect them. Until we enable suburban legislators to regard a vote for reform as a political winner, and not merely a vote they’re allowed as a display of political guilt, the underpinnings of reform will remain thin.”

    This is precisely what makes Matt’s ESA proposal so potent. Crafted broadly enough, it has potential to make stakeholders out of the middle class. I’ll leave it to him to remain modest, but some of us obsessively study the making of tipping points… and not many more elements would be needed.

  5. Robert says:

    Jay, I hope you don’t think it is rude if I suggest that you are demonstrating a kind of political bigotry when you excoriate unions for prioritizing the economic needs of it’s members, but seem to presume that the benefactors of free market education “reform” place the needs of children above their bottom line. It seems like either bigotry or naivete. In either case, it does not result in enlightened discourse.

    • Greg Forster says:

      What exactly does this mean? You think philanthropists donating to school choice organizations are making some kind of profit off school choice? How would that work?

      • robert says:

        Thanks, for your question.
        By “benefactors”, I am referring, specifically, to the private investors, including, but not limited to hedgefund managers who are not in it for the kids. They are in it for profit, using taxpayer funds (charter schools). I’m not claiming that the desire for profit, in itself, is a vice. but the unions are no more self-serving than are private investors. Both are part of the economic context in which public education operates. My point was that it is bigotry and/or naivete to attribute motives to one group and not to the other. They both have the same motives: maintaining a standard of economic survival. Many of the so-called philanthropists are really “venture philanthropists”, formerly referred to as “influence peddlers”. They have lots of reasons for “donating” (investing) in schools. Their “donations” have strings attached. My view is that no one should have the power to use their wealth to determine public policy. All of this teacher/union bashing obscures the realities about public education.

  6. Robert says:

    Jay, I don’t know if you’re still monitoring this post, but I’d appreciate your reaction to my previous comments. Do you disagree with them? Do you agree, but have reasons for considering private investors to be more legitimate than unions, in terms of addressing the needs of students?

  7. robert says:

    I wish you had given me the courtesy of a reasonable response.

  8. Daniel Earley says:

    Had it occurred to you, Robert, that at on any given day or week there could be a multitude of pressing matters–deadlines, urgent issues, etc–that preclude responding at the snap of a finger to blog comments? I believe that is reasonable to assume.

    Another reasonable assumption might be this: that some of us have personally met and know many of the philanthropists you allege as having ulterior motives. Witnessing their sacrifices and commitment regularly and quite intimately–including enormous amounts of personal time with no compensation or interest in it–it’s just ever so slightly possible that your question shows such a blind preloaded disregard for the genuine selflessness and generosity of so many that it may simply fail to merit a response.

    • Robert says:

      I assume that the subtitle of this blog makes it legitimate for you and others to respond to a question that I initially asked the person to whom the blog is titled.

      You presented me with two reasons for not meriting an immediate response. Humility allows me to recognize the reasonableness of your first point about “drop of the dime” responses. Please forgive me, as I am new to the blogosphere.

      Your second response is both interesting and confounding. Contrary to your insinuation, it is plain to see that I did not paint the title, “philanthropist” with a broad brush, and I feel that your reply was unnecessarily defensive, antagonistic, and morally condescending. There is nothing-absolutely nothing in my comments that reasonably qualifies as, “ such a blind preloaded disregard…” for anyone. Consequently, any notion that I did not “merit a response” on that basis is unreasonable, and quite frankly, telling.

      Although, in truth, I am not generally sympathetic with respect to the content on this blog, the genuine purpose of my initial question, after all, was simply to learn why proponents of this content subscribe to it so strongly. I didn’t realize I was entering an echo-chamber where people are offended by someone with the temerity to ask a reasonable question, which, by the way, would have been far less time consuming for you to have addressed.

      The initial question stands…

  9. […] unions are still quite powerful and policy battles will continue to rage. But a big political and cultural shift has […]

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