Petrilli vs. Petrilli

Image result for fight club punching himself

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.

10 Responses to Petrilli vs. Petrilli

  1. matthewladner says:

    There is something about that scene from Fight Club and this topic…

  2. Greg Forster says:

    I do think Mike and Fordham deep down have consistent, principled views

    Honest Q: Why?

  3. Zeev Wurman says:

    I think Petrilli wins in the Petrilli vs. Petrilli argument.

  4. Jimmy Kilpatrick says:

    Michael loves that Gates money and just can’t keep the facts straight…the clouds of green seem to interfere with his memory, logic and especially character or lack thereof.

    • Jason Bedrick says:

      Jimmy, that’s a really unfair attack on Mike. Poor form.

      Note that when Jay or I criticize Mike, we criticize *his ideas*. We point out the flaws or inconsistencies in his arguments. We don’t question his motives.

      Stick to arguing with ideas, Jimmy. No room for smearing people’s character here.

  5. Jason Bedrick says:


    “Here’s the one problem: not all our schools are good or great. Some are downright awful. They might be safe, but they aren’t putting their students on a pathway to success. Their students hardly know more in June than they knew in September. Their teachers are ill-trained, ill-equipped, and outmatched. And yet they live on, zombie-like, in the district, charter, and private school sectors. They are the payday lenders of the education system, preying mostly on low-income parents who either don’t have a choice, or, for a variety of reasons, are making bad decisions with the choices they’ve got. These schools are serving neither parents’ interests nor the public good. If I were king, I would simply shut these schools down.”


    “The prevailing wisdom from bankers and policy makers went like this: People who used alternative financial services – like check cashers and payday lenders – were making expensive and unwise decisions. If we could just educate the “unbanked” and “underbanked” and usher them into the modern financial system with a bank account, their fortunes would surely improve.

    “But [Professor] Servon, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania and a former dean at the New School, spent 20 years studying low-income communities, and to her, that picture didn’t add up. Most of the unbanked (the roughly 7% of US households without checking or savings accounts) and the underbanked (the nearly 20% that had such accounts but still used alternative financial services) that she encountered were neither naive nor irresponsible about money.”

  6. Don Crawford, Ph.D. says:

    If you shut down schools that are low performing you are often leaving parents without a viable alternative to the even worse district-run schools. Poor schools should be subject to enough competition so that they lose their students. If there aren’t enough better schools to do that, then it is manifestly unfair and hurtful to eliminate the ones you think aren’t good. Some people imagine that there could be schools that would do a better job. But parents cannot choose imaginary schools. They have to choose among the schools that exist. Parents can only choose better schools after more effective schools are in business with space available. Once they can do that, the poor schools will lose out. Taking away options before there are enough good schools to create competition makes no sense.

  7. Jim Stergios says:

    Mike and Checker before him have careened from guardrail to guardrail on issues. To Mike’s credit he is nice; unfortunately, nice does not mean that there is an underlying coherence or principles to all of Fordham’s positioning and repositioning. From the way back machine:

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