The Paradoxical Logic of Ed Reform Politics (Part 2)

In my last post I suggested that “In education, as in military and political strategy more generally, the most direct and definitive path to victory often lays the foundations for defeat.  Instead, the indirect and less definitive solution is almost always more effective.”

The paradoxical logic of military and political strategy is a result of the fact that in the strategic world one’s opponent is able to react to your efforts with counter-moves.  Technocrats seem to think that effective policy-making just consists of identifying the optimal solution and then imposing it on everybody.  Strategists understand that the other side of a policy battle has interests and values that lead them to different policy preferences. Even if the technocrat can identify the optimal solution and manage to get that solution adopted as policy (and this is a huge if), the other side doesn’t go away no matter how much the technocrats just want them to shut up and disappear.

Technocrats have an authoritarian streak that makes them expect the losing side to surrender permanently in deference to what “science” and “experts” have decided is best.  But in a diverse, decentralized democracy, people don’t have to accept what you claim based on your science and expertise (and they might be right in doing so).  They can subvert effective implementation of your policy and bide their time until they can re-open the debate and regain control over policy.

The more completely and directly you try to prevail in a policy dispute the more you mobilize the other side to oppose you — if not at the time of adoption, then later in implementation or when the debate is re-opened. Seeking total victory often lays the foundations for defeat.  In  Dred Scott v. Sandford Chief Justice Taney seemed to hand supporters of slavery a total victory, but it led to their ultimate defeat.  As Wikipedia summarizes it:

Although Taney believed that the decision represented a compromise that would settle the slavery question once and for all by transforming a contested political issue into a matter of settled law, it produced the opposite result. It strengthened Northern slavery opposition, divided the Democratic Party on sectional lines, encouraged secessionist elements among Southern supporters of slavery to make bolder demands, and strengthened the Republican Party.

In a diverse, decentralized democracy you can’t settle contentious issues once and for all.  In policy-making there is no total and final victory, only perpetual struggle.

Technocrats are inclined to seek total and final victory.  If science or the experts have shown something to be wrong, why should that wrong be allowed to continue anywhere?  This produces a tendency to over-reach.  Technocrats can’t tolerate the notion that a solution won’t cover everybody and improve things for everyone.  If things are bad in Mississippi it just ruins their whole day.

But trying to fix everything, everywhere usually leads to fixing nothing anywhere — or sometimes to making things much worse.  In the end the technocrat doesn’t seem as motivated by helping as many people as possible, as much as motivated by the unreasonable feeling of responsibility for “allowing” something bad to continue for someone.  But addressing your inner angst about someone still suffering somewhere at the expense of making progress toward helping more people is egotistical.  It isn’t about you.  You are not the Master of the Universe who “allows” bad things to happen.  You’re just a person trying to work with others to make progress.

People sometimes think that I’m a radical because of my preference for parental control over the education of their children.  But I think I’m really the moderate in education debates.  The extremists are the ones who are trying to devise fixes for everyone else’s problems.  They’re radical because they (falsely) believe they can identify optimal solutions and successfully impose them on everyone.  My approach is moderate because I accept that gradual progress toward better outcomes (even if some people  might make the “wrong” choices and not experience improvement) is more realistic and productive.

Even if you are a standards and test-based accountability person, you are better off not seeking total victory as the Common Core people have.  Yes, some states had lousy standards.  And yes, some tests were poorly designed or had low thresholds for passing.  But trying to fix all standards and tests, everywhere, all at once is the wrong approach.  Seeking this total victory has more fully mobilized the opponents of all standards and testing.  In response to a more heavy-handed and top-down national effort, more previously un-involved people have flocked to the anti-testing side.  Not only will these folks undermine effective implementation of Common Core, but in their counter-effort to roll back national standards, they will destroy much of what was good about state standards and tests.  The whole idea of standards and test-based accountability is being undermined by the imprudent over-reach of Common Core.

I apply the same cautiousness to my approach to parental choice in education.  I would never recommend adopting nationwide school choice programs.  The truth is we don’t know how best to design choice programs.  Is it best to have vouchers, tax-credit funded scholarships, individual tax credits, ESA’s, etc…?  What kind of regulatory framework should we have?  Should testing be required?  What test?  I have my guesses about what would be good, but I don’t have the technocrat’s confidence that I can identify the right solution and impose it everywhere.  Let’s let different localities try different kinds of programs and gradually learn about what seems to be working and what doesn’t.

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.


17 Responses to The Paradoxical Logic of Ed Reform Politics (Part 2)

  1. George Mitchell says:

    This is an excellent analysis. It certainly applies to the history of the school choice debate. It also has more universal application.

  2. Mark Dynarski says:

    The famous epigraph in Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics is ‘natura non facit saltus,’ nature does not make jumps. I think your framing is more like “our society does not like jumps.’ Both make sense.

    In this framing, the Common Core brain trust should have resisted when states rushed pell-mell onto the bandwagon. They should have said let’s wait and see, let’s test it out, let’s first deal with the issues. The federal government would have adopted a similar stance and not pushed for states to embrace the Core as part of Race to the Top.

    In retrospect, this incremental approach seems more scientific in its focus on testing and more likely to succeed. But what the post points to as a monolithic technocratic solution also is risk mitigation to policymakers. Any one state signing up to the Core could point to its 44 brethren and say we are all in this together. Bandwagons can be confused with runaway trains, and it’s a challenge for policymakers to see the difference. Maybe the post is arguing that either one should send up warning signals.

  3. Greg Forster says:

    Hemisphere fallacy! You’re not moderate, Jay. You’re a gradualist. In an environment where everyone wants total victory right now, gradualism is not a centrist or moderate position.

    • It is moderate in the sense that it is consistent with the virtue of moderation, not in that it is in the middle of what others are like. Who cares what others are like?

  4. matthewladner says:

    Stomping on the gas in the Ferrari is totally awesome, right up to the point when you wrap it around a telephone pole.

  5. 3rsplus says:

    Let’s let different localities try different kinds of programs and gradually learn about what seems to be working and what doesn’t.
    Here’s what’s wrong with that. That’s what is going on now, but “program” and what constitutes “different” aren’t defined, so nothing is learned. When we look at “what seems to be working and what doesn’t,” all that we see is “variability.” And when we try to “scale up best practices,” we find that “practices” are highly dependent on human “leaders” and financial subsidization that can’t be replicated.

    The Fed-Corporate initiative that began in the 1980’s and that is today the “Race to the Top Reform” was engineered by ideologs, not technocrats. There wasn’t then, and isn’t now any technical foundation for any of the four “Assurances” that constitute the RttT “Reform.”

    It seems that the leading think tank proponents have recognized that the “Common Core” plank of the Assurances is collapsing, and that “mistakes were made–but not by me.” They make a persuasive case individually, but not collectively.

    The good news is that teachers, parents, and the citizenry were little affected by the “Reforms.” Most, as Jay says, didn’t even know there was anything going on, because despite the Fed-Corp “stimulus,” not much was going on.

    Part 3-N of the story is needed.

  6. A simple, “Amen!”

  7. mike g says:

    Interesting and provocative.

    But in this set-up, the Common Core folks are the technocrats. Yet if you flip the lens, are those who supported the Massachusetts standards equally “guilty,” just at a smaller scale?

    • The more centralized the decision, the more likely it is to suffer from technocratic over-reach. This is the whole logic of federalism, but few people seem to appreciate it anymore. It’s a pretty darn good system.

      • matthewladner says:

        Texas says hello…

      • mike g says:

        Appreciate the response. Hoping to clarify my question.

        Let’s stipulate less centralized = less likely to suffer from T.O.R. World < USA. USA < States.

        My question is — do you generally think state standards are technocratic overreach, even if federal standards are more overreach?

      • I’d rather have schools set their own standards and let parents choose the schools and standards they prefer. People forget that many states did not have standards before 1990. The idea of centrally setting standards is a pretty recent idea. And there is little indication that centralizing standards-making even to the state level produced any improvements for students.

      • Dick Schutz says:

        People forget that many states did not have standards before 1990.
        What they did have though, were “Curriculum Frameworks.” Per Wikipedia, “A curriculum framework is an organized plan or set of standards or learning outcomes that defines the content to be learned in terms of clear, definable standards of what the student should know and be able to do.”

        Curriculum Frameworks can be traced back to 1918 and Franklin Bobbitt, but they have historical antecedents extending back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

        The “Standards” ideologs stripped out and retained the “content” aspect of the Curriculum Framework, leaving the rest of the “curriculum” ostensibly the responsibility of “qualified teachers.”

        This is not the place to go into the structure and history of US pre-collegiate education. RttT proponents are finding that it is more complicated than they anticipated. However, that they took unsound short-cuts (that are becoming unrecognized after the fact) is no basis for retreating on the worthy aspirations such as teaching all kids how to read by grade 3, providing greater individual instructional choice, and so on. It will be a “sad day” if that proves to be the outcome of failed Fed-Corporate ideology.

  8. […] recent posts (see here and here) point out that it is a gigantic mistake to aim for total victory. He notes that the planners of […]

  9. […] recent posts (see here and here) point out that it is a gigantic mistake to aim for total victory. He notes that the planners Read […]

  10. […] storm brewing around test-based accountability has recently reached near fever-pitch. In a recent post, Jay Greene described the situation and its impact, noting that, “the whole idea of standards and […]

  11. […] going to end up with weaker testing and standards in many places.  As I suggested in my post on theParadoxical Logic of Ed Reform Politics, seeking total victory often produces stunning […]

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