Changing the Conversation is Not the Same as Changing the World

Last week I noted that attention is not influence.  When foundations and others reward reform organizations for clicks, tweets, hits, etc… they are not actually rewarding influence.  If foundations really want to influence policy they have to reward actions that really lead to policy change.

Today I am extending that argument by emphasizing that changing the conversation is not the same as changing the world.  There are times when everyone around us seems to agree on something and we are liable to feel a sense of accomplishment.  “We did it,” we think to ourselves.  “We won.”

But having people around you change what they say is not the same as accomplishing it in the world.  Perhaps it is a result of pervasive post-modern thinking, but our representation of the world is not the world.  Mass rallies with #bringbackourgirls or #jesuischarlie did not free girls in Nigeria or establish the right to produce images of Muhammad.  There really is a world out there and what we say about it does not necessarily lead to changing it.  We also have to do something to make our talk real.

In education reform the conversation has been dominated by discussion of Common Core.  It was amazing how easy it was for supporters to accomplish this.  Getting a bunch of DC-based organizations to write some reports, hold conferences, and engage in advocacy for Common Core doesn’t take all that much money or effort.  It’s not that these organizations are saying things that contradict their beliefs.  They just don’t have a lot of deeply held beliefs and are eager to remain relevant and active on whatever everyone else is talking about.

It wasn’t even that hard to get state boards of education to endorse Common Core.  While they don’t say it out loud, many state officials (rightly) see standards as a bunch of vague and empty words in a document that have little effect on what really happens in schools.  If someone is offering them grants from the Gates Foundation and the possibility of millions from Race to the Top in the midst of an economic crisis, why not declare fealty to these standards?  In addition, state officials regularly get drawn into fights over standards.  Why waste political capital on something that hardly matters?  It’s much easier to just join the Common Core crowd and hide behind the skirts of “experts,” national organizations, and the federal government than to defend and constantly revise their own crappy state standards.  Besides, they could always change their mind later when it came to actually doing something, like adopting tests or imposing consequences on schools and teachers based on their actual implementation of Common Core.  Even state officials who embraced Common Core understood, on some level, that what they were doing was just talk.

Don’t get me wrong.  Standards could matter.  Determining what students should learn and when could have a profound effect on education.  And the difference between excellent and lousy schools has a lot to do with whether they have high expectations for their students and seek to teach worthy content.  The problem is that in a large and diverse society we  have little agreement on what constitutes worthy content or appropriate expectations.  To obtain democratic support for state (let alone national) standards, they have to be written at such a level of generality that they are largely meaningless.  That is why multiple studies show no relationship between the judged quality of standards and academic outcomes.  And to the extent that standards actually stand for anything, they draw opposition from those who disagree.  In a democratic country that opposition has plenty of opportunities to block, dilute, or co-opt standards, preventing the “talk” of Common Core from becoming reality.

I’ve been making this point that Common Core “talk” will not result in real educational change for years now.  When I do, I hear things like, “At last count, 1 state out of 45 has repealed the standards.”  And DC-based folks take comfort from the fact that everyone they meet at receptions agrees that Common Core opposition is crazy, paranoid, hysterical, political,  [insert your preferred empty pejorative here].  They all falsely believe that they have won the conversation and therefore have won the policy.  They continue to hold their hashtag signs.

But since I am not a post-modern and still believe that there is a world out there that is not changed simply by our words, I have developed a wager with Morgan Polikoff as an imperfect indicator of whether Common Core really is changing the world:

In ten years, on April 14, 2024, I bet Morgan that fewer than half the states will be in Common Core.  We defined being in Common Core as “shared standards with shared high stakes tests-even if split between 2 tsts.”  Given 51 states and DC, Morgan wins if 26 or more states have shared standards and high stakes tests and I win if the number is 25 or less.  The loser has to buy the winner a beer (or other beverage).

Well, it didn’t take long but I think am already ahead on that bet.  Mississippi just voted to withdraw from using PARCC, one of the two Common Core-aligned tests.  In addition, Chicago is refusing to administer PARCC to all of its students.  And governor Walker in Wisconsin just re-iterated  his desire to withdraw the state from Common Core standards and testing.  A bill to that effect failed last legislative session, but the dike will only hold for so long.  It’s hard for me to find a current count of what tests states are using, but I believe we have dropped below half using one of the two Common Core tests.  If nothing changes over the remainder of our 10 year bet, I will win.  But I expect more states will abandon Common Core standards and/or tests.  The talk was easy.  The implementation is hard.

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One Response to Changing the Conversation is Not the Same as Changing the World

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Well put. Of course, just as standards “can” matter under the right conditions but don’t automatically matter just because they exist, talk can change the world under the right conditions but doesn’t automatically do so just because it occurs. For example, people in power might read this post and be persuaded by it.

    “Or other beverage”? Who gets to choose? Could you select, say, a tankard full of melted 24K gold? You wouldn’t have to drink it, of course; the terms don’t require that.

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