Who’s Responsible for the Technocratic Takeover of Ed Reform?

Robert Pondiscio has written a very important piece about the current state of the education reform movement.  He correctly notes that the previously diverse coalition leading ed reform is breaking down and he accuses the Left of taking over.  I’d modify his argument only slightly to note that the real divide in ed reform is not between Right and Left, but between Technocrats and those favoring more decentralized reforms. The danger is not just that Social Justice Warriors have seized control of ed reform, but that they are perfectly content to advocate no end of faux-scientific management and top-down regulation to impose their preferences.

Robert is not completely original in noting this hostile takeover.  I’ve been decrying the rise of the Petty Little Dictator Disorder for quite some time.  And Rick Hess warned last year about the wheels coming off of the old ed reform coalition.  However, the fact that the ever-conciliatory Fordham Foundation is declaring the Ed Reform Civil War seems to make it official.

In this post I’d like to talk a little about how we got to this point.  I blame the big ed reform foundations for facilitating this Technocratic/Social Justice Warrior takeover. An entire industry of ed reform activists has been created by foundation dollars.  They populate a host of organizations with a variety of banal names; few of which would exist if foundations didn’t pay their salaries.

So, we now have a giant industry of foundation-paid reformers staffed mostly by young, enthusiastic, and bright-but-lacking-in-wisdom, idealists.  It should come as no surprise that the profile of those who staff the ed reform industry tilts heavily toward the profile of Social Justice Warriors.  Their high education levels, lack of wisdom, and boundless self-confidence inclines them strongly toward Technocracy.

In addition, once you’ve assembled a large ed reform industry, what are all of these people supposed to do?  They aren’t likely to have a meeting at which they decide that parents and local communities are probably better situated than they are to devise solutions appropriate to the circumstances.  If they turned power over to families and communities, most of them would have to quit their jobs and close up shop.

Instead, they have meeting after meeting at which they sit around and dream about how other people should live their lives.  They develop plans, systems, and metrics, to guide, nudge, or force others to do the “right things,” typically from DC or other distant locations  And they have no doubts about what those right things are nor do they lack confidence in their ability to measure those good outcomes or to devise plans and systems for ensuring them.

I really wished that it would not come to this.  But I watched the New School Venture Fund Conference as Robert did and came to a similar conclusion.  Their hostility to the common values that held the diverse ed reform coalition together was manifest.  Their contempt for all non-believers was insufferable.  The way in which they swarm and bully dissenters on social media demonstrates anti-intellectualism and intolerance.

The good news is that this Technocratic Cult mostly doesn’t matter.  Education policy is mostly made by state and local governments paying virtually no attention to what foundation-funded organizations say or do.  It’s quite striking how national advocacy organizations promoting a Technocratic approach to school choice typically have no ability to anticipate where new choice proposals are going to make headway and usually play little or no role in shaping them.  Statewide school choice programs have been passed in Nevada and Arizona with only the Friedman Foundation and the Foundation for Education Excellence playing significant roles among national organizations. Students First actually tried to block Nevada’s universal choice ESA with the same lack of effectiveness that is typical of the national Technocrats.

The only thing lost by the Technocratic takeover of national ed reform efforts is the enormous amount of money being wasted.  But if the donors want to set giant piles of money on fire, they are free to do so.  I just hope they enjoy the warm glow because they aren’t getting much else good out of it.

(Correction — I incorrectly wrote Step Up for Students when I meant Students First.  My apologies.  Also, I changed Rob to Robert.  I keep forgetting which he prefers.)

26 Responses to Who’s Responsible for the Technocratic Takeover of Ed Reform?

  1. Correct as usual, your Greeneness.

  2. Seth Rau says:

    As someone who was on the ground in Nevada during the passage of the various reforms in the last legislative session, the legislators saw no difference between among outside groups. “Technocratic groups” like my previous employer (which funny enough received under 10% of its funding from national foundations) and Students First when compared to the foundations you mention were seen in the same light, except for the fact that the technocratic groups tended to be more locally based than the national foundations. Let’s remember that the Broad Foundation got an Achievement School District bill passed through an entirely technocratic approach (votes that went the exact same way as the ESAs-all GOP for and all Dems against).

    The problem in Nevada is that there is no bipartisan ed reform coalition among legislators. When the Democrats take control back of either the Assembly and/or Senate (which is likely this year), nearly all “reforms” will halt, but they won’t be turned back since the Republicans still control the Governor’s office. That being said, if the Supreme Court rules the ESAs unconstitutional for any reason (even a technicality that could be fixed by the leg), the program is effectively dead, unless it is done through a special session that Governor Sandoval is unlikely to call.

    It’s the fact that certain reforms are already identified with one party more than a “social justice, technocratic” approach that could doom many of the reforms moving forward.

    • Thanks for the on-the-ground observations. My guess is that state Republicans will become less and less interested in ed reform if it seems like a Black Lives Matter rally. And state Dems have not and will not lead the way on ed reform because they are too close with the unions. Again, turning national ed reform movements into Black Lives Matter rallies will not change that. So, for the foreseeable future reformers trying to make changes in states and localities are stuck with the Republicans. It might be a good idea not to piss them off too much.

      • Seth Rau says:

        That makes a lot of sense. At least from what I have seen, Black Lives Matter has yet to play a major role in Purple and Red states at the state government level in any issue.

  3. George Mitchell says:

    The long-running Wisconsin choice coalition — the school choice movement’s first — blew up in 2008-09. While each state has a unique set of personalities and issues, elements of what Jay, Rick Hess, and now Fordham say here apply to what came down in Wisconsin. What united the Wisconsin effort for more than two decades was the single belief that expanding educational options for parents was paramount. The adverse impact of the Wisconsin implosion continues to be felt in the Badger State.

  4. John R Webster says:

    It’s possible for effective education reforms to have bipartisan support. That’s exactly what has happened in Minnesota, where I’ve lived since 1988. Here is part of a comment I posted yesterday on Robert Pondiscio’s Facebook page that describes two Minnesota reforms.

    “Some of the best education reforms in America were first enacted in my adopted state of Minnesota with strong bipartisan support. Minnesota was the first state to have charter schools, which have overall been successful, and are especially popular with black parents in Minneapolis and St. Paul as an alternative to dismal and unsafe traditional public schools. Minnesota probably has the best dual high school/college credit program (PSEO), which has allowed tens of thousands of motivated and academically ready high school students to earn college credits – a huge savings in time and money. My son graduates next month from high school with over two years of college credits that will be accepted by the University of Minnesota when he transfers there – all paid for by the state, except for two summer courses.

    The K-12 establishment in Minnesota fought charter schools and PSEO as threats to the financial interests of Edworld’s employees. But Republican and Democratic Governors and state legislators resisted that pressure and truly put the interests of kids first, a distinction that most well-informed Minnesotans are proud of.”

  5. matthewladner says:

    A couple of historical notes- we have statewide choice programs in Arizona but their passage predates the Foundation for Excellence in Education. As for NV, I was far from the most engaged person from my shop in that effort and Seth certainly had a front row seat, but I am aware of positive contributions having been made by at least one other national group and there easily could have been others.

    Mike Petrilli sent Rob’s piece out to a large email blast of left and right reformers, and it was interesting to see the conversation it generated to quickly turn to details of ESSA. Out here in my cactus patch, the main and in fact only thus far I have seen of this law is to encourage a deeply misguided opt-out crowd. Thanks Olympian DC geniuses but please no more “help.”

    • Seth Rau says:

      The only other group that I saw playing in Nevada was American Federation for Children. Should have mentioned that up front.

      • matthewladner says:

        Yup- and you would be better situated than me to say who was and was not involved.

      • matthewladner says:

        Oh and one last historical note just to make sure that this conversation stays focused on issues rather than credit, out here in AZ where I have a front row seat it has in fact been AFC among the national groups that has been most deeply invested over the longest period of time among the national groups- and by a very wide margin.

  6. I think that one point sometimes lost regarding the Nevada breakthrough was Senator Scott Hammond’s courage and vision. Repeatedly he was told “you will have to compromise on some things — target it more, add more regulation, to encourage a more broad base of support” and he just said, “No. This is what we are going to do.” He proved that a near-universal parental school choice program can be enacted in the U.S. Sometimes you need a fresh-faced person like Scott to see and seize what is possible.

    • matthewladner says:

      Totally agree- and if our friends on the left remain convinced that means- testing is great practice and strategy for private choice, I invite them to introduce it for charter and district schools as well.

    • Seth Rau says:

      You don’t need to make compromises when you have a majority that supports a given provision and a minority that is firmly opposed to the bill in any form. That should be a universal truth in advocacy.

      That being said, there were lots of compromises and amendments within that bill. For example, Excel in Ed was not pleased that a Senator took out language related to allowing unused ESA funds to go towards higher education expenses. There were also compromises struck around testing and other issues of regulations, because those compromised ensured that every Republican would vote for the bill.

      • matthewladner says:

        I agree-and I still would like to figure a savings mechanism above and beyond rolling over funds if possible, understand the NV issue though.

  7. George Mitchell says:

    Senator Hammonds sounds like a real hero. For far too long the willingness to “compromise” has resulted in programs that fail to test the real value of choice.

  8. Tunya Audain says:

    Harnessing Love To The Education Mission — Not Technocracy Or Ideology

    So many parents will say they don’t want to get involved in all these conspiracy plots in education. They just want “practical” education to happen. They know that biologically they are designed to help their children in their early years to learn the basics of child development. And they also know that legally they have a right and duty to see that their children are educated.

    It’s only recently that “compulsory school attendance” is being challenged as an ironclad concept. The alternatives to public schooling now include options far beyond home education and expensive private schooling. The Nevada Education Savings Account Model encompasses so much wisdom because it folds in a double-love quality into its very nature. This is directly attributable to the fact that the chief advocate is both a parent and a 15-yr teacher, Scott Hammond, combining both the biological parenting and the professional “calling” of teaching into the language of this model.

    Notable from the Parent Handbook — http://www.nevadatreasurer.gov/uploadedFiles/nevadatreasurergov/content/SchoolChoice/Parents/Parent_Handbook.pdf

    1 “It is the parent’s responsibility to be organized and informed for the benefit of a student’s education.” (7)

    2 ‘Through their actions, Nevada leaders have embraced freedom in education, placing their trust in parents to pursue the education that best suits the unique needs of their child.” (4)

    3 The introduction clearly says that this program is not about “school” choice, but about “education” choice. There are mix-and-match ways possible — tutoring, private schools, therapies, materials, online programs, etc., etc.

    4 There is to be an Annual Satisfaction Survey for feedback and suggestions.

    5 There is an Appeals Process.

    For people believing that taxpayer funds are welcome in the expensive job of educating the young this Nevada Model is a great step forward to harmonizing the role of parenting and teaching into a noble effort. The Handbook is an eye-opener as to the long-term possibilities where practical agendas will supersede all these countless rent-seeking/ideological/technocratic/vanity agendas now competing for time, space and energy in busy parents’ lives. The Nevada ESA Model needs wide dissemination.

  9. Bob Eitel says:

    This is an excellent piece and an overdue analysis.

  10. […] My favorite paragraph skewers what I like to call the “meeting-class:” […]

  11. sstotsky says:

    For Matt or anyone else. Why do you consider the “opt-out crowd” “deeply misguided”?

    • matthewladner says:


      I wrote an entire post about this last summer. In my view it makes absolutely no sense for the federal government to mandate testing but then to fundamentally undermine the comparability and validity of the data.


      • sstotsky says:

        Please explain. The feds aren’t authorizing opt-outs. So they aren’t undermining their own mandates. The feds never anticipated opt-outs. Gates never had a plan for them. So how are the opting-out parents “misguided”?

      • sstotsky says:

        Matt, I just read your earlier blog. I am now totally confused. Parents don’t need a law allowing them to “opt-out”. They already have that right. Any time they want, they can keep their kids at home–from going to school. The consequences-policy needs to be voted on by a locally elected school board. That’s all there is to it, legally.

  12. sstotsky says:

    More important, could a few of you tell the rest of us out there in the weeds talking to parents what is it that needs to be reformed in education?

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