It’s really hard to debate policy with Mike Petrilli. In part it is so difficult because he’s such an amiable guy that you’d rather not disagree with him. But more importantly, it’s hard to debate Mike because his argument keeps shifting to please whatever audience he is addressing.
To one audience he’s a a champion of top-down accountability who favors everyone taking the state test, using those test results for the “default closure” of charter schools and to exclude private schools from participating in choice programs, and expecting that a lot of schools may need to be closed as a result. To another audience he’s an advocate of parental accountability who doesn’t prefer everyone taking the state test, opposes relying solely on tests when deciding which school options should be closed, and believes that school closures should be rare.
These changing views are not the result of a gradual evolution in his thinking, which everyone may do as they acquire new experiences and evidence. Instead, this ever-shifting set of positions can change and then change back again within a few hours, a few days, or a few months.
For example, last week Mike argued against relying on test scores to make closure decisions from afar: “If Jason [Bedrick] and Jay and others are saying that those of us in the Ivory Tower shouldn’t sit in our Star Chamber and decide which schools should live and die, based solely on their test scores, I say Amen.” But the next day he tweeted in support of state policies that would automatically close schools based on test results: “I would prefer not to have automatic closures, but some states with terrible authorizers may need them.” This sentiment echoed Fordham publications from December of 2016 and June of 2015 that similarly praised “default closures.” And just a few weeks earlier Mike was touting the use of state test results to exclude private schools from participating in voucher programs:
In Louisiana, participating private schools that serve more than forty voucher students must administer all of the state tests to them. They then receive a “scholarship cohort index” score that’s used to determine whether they can continue to accept new students. Louisiana state superintendent John White has already triggered the provision to keep several schools from accepting new voucher-bearing pupils.
In Indiana, schools must administer the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress assessment and report their graduation rates to the states. These data are used to determine each private school’s A–F rating—just like their public school counterparts. If a school is rated a “D” or “F” for two or more consecutive years, it becomes ineligible to accept new scholarship students.
Which is it? Does Mike favor a Star Chamber that decides whether schools live or die based on test scores or not?
Another example: last week Mike argued that closures should be rare: “Appropriately, it’s unusual for charter authorizers to pull the trigger—by one estimate, just three percent of charters are closed for poor performance. (Doing this infrequently is appropriate because Jason and Jay are right that we should defer to parents’ judgments most of the time, because they do have important information, and because we’re talking about their children.) ” But elsewhere Mike brags about the high numbers of closed charter schools: “During the same period, dozens of charter schools have also closed for a variety of reasons, including financial difficulties and academic underperformance. In fact, Ohio’s automatic closure law, which is based on academic results, required twenty-three charters to close during the period of study.” And even with this high number of closures he complained last week in a tweet that “Having bad schools fester hurt the OH charter sector bigly.” This was only a day after he wrote that charter closures were appropriately “rare.”
This dizzying change in positions is exacerbated by Mike’s habit of “triangulation.” It’s very important that Mike position himself as the sensible moderate. To do so he often caricatures the views of others so they sound extreme and then he positions himself just toward the center of that extreme. He fashions himself as the “realist” while others are “purists.” But if Mike is often locating his position relative to someone else’s, his own views will change depending on whom he’s juxtaposing himself against. If he’s establishing that he has some overlap with but is more centrist than top-down accountability proponents, he comes off sounding more like a top-down accountability advocate. And if he’s claiming that he has some overlap with but is more centrist that parental accountability supporters, then he comes off sounding more like a parental accountability advocate.
I do think Mike and Fordham deep down have consistent, principled views, but they cloud the picture with this triangulation. It would also be easier to debate (and sometimes agree) with Mike and Fordham if they devoted less energy to positioning and more just to articulating their worldview and the reasons for it.