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.