Command v. Choice Part II: Trust and Teamwork

July 27, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster) 

Jay P. Greene’s Blog Presents: 

Ineffective Teambuilding Techniques!

Group Religious Instruction


Mandatory Employee Leave Policy 

See Part I.

The existing school system persistently fails to pick up and reproduce best practices. Reformers have identified no end of good ideas that hold a lot of promise – provided you can get schools to try them. But no matter how good the ideas are, no matter how many high quality models you build and demonstrate, other schools never seem to pick them up and adopt them.

Therefore fixing schools will require the exercise of power. Somehow we have to get people to do things they currently find unpersuasive or excessively painful.

But people don’t like to be made to do things. They want to live in the way that seems right to them. And this is a legitimate desire – we can’t “live in the truth” if we have to live in ways that we experience as inauthentic. The more we have to do things that we don’t believe in because others, who have power, force us to to them, the more inauthentic our lives become. This makes us miserable, destroys motivation and idealism, shuts down the entrepreneurial drive for improvement, and breeds resentment.

That last item on the list can’t be stressed too strongly. Command and control is not only destructive in many other ways, it also fails to accomplish its explicit goals, because people who are subjected to it quickly develop a strong sense that cheating the system is okay, even virtuous, since the system itself is evil.

Reforms only work if you have three things. First you need a good idea – the reform itself. Next you need people who are capable of carrying it out – hence the rise of teacher quality as a focus of reform. But there’s a third thing you need, and this is why command-based approaches never work: you need an institutional culture in which reform is viewed as legitimate, necessary and empowering.

In any organization, institutional effectiveness is driven by trust and teamwork. To the extent that people are merely obeying rules, chasing carrots or avoiding sticks, effectiveness collapses. Effective institutions are ones that succeed in 1) cultivating trust and teamwork – for real, not the phony kind you get by making people do ropes courses and stuff; and 2) harnessing the trust and teamwork of the organization for effectiveness.

That second point is key. The trust and teamwork of an organization can be oriented toward goals other than the proper goal of the institution. They can even be oriented against the proper goal of the institution – as in Atlanta, where the whole system mobilized in a high-trust, intensive team project to cheat on accountability testing.

But trust and teamwork can only be mobilized for the right goals when people sincerely believe in the goals. The processes – and reforms – necessary to achieve those goals need to be understood and experienced as legitimate. Reform can’t just be imposed by power; it needs to become part of people’s truth.

Forgetting this fact, and actively corrupting the social processes that people rely on for truth, is the great temptation that always comes with power. The Gates Foundation, having succumbed to this temptation, is now embarking on what looks to be a wasted, deeply counterproductive decade or so (depending on how long it takes them to come to themselves) of command-and-control based reform.

So how can we accomplish reform in a way that is both humane and effective?

Let’s go back to the original reason we need power: “Somehow we have to get people to do things they currently find unpersuasive or excessively painful.” Emphasis added!

People need to be persuaded to adopt reform as part of their truth – something they experience as legitimate, necessary, and empowering.

“But wait!” I hear you cry. “That’s what we’ve been trying for decades, and it hasn’t worked!”

That’s right, so let’s ask why it hasn’t worked. I mean, isn’t it a little odd that 1) the system is so overwhelmingly dysfunctional that it’s destroying millions of children’s lives, 2) the people in the system are normal people, not psychotic or anything, people who by all accounts care about children’s education at least as much as the average person if not, you know, a lot more, and yet 3) the people in the system can’t be brought by any means to see reform as necessary?

What is it about the system as currently constituted that ensures reform is never embraced as something legitimate, necessary and empowering?

The system is moribund because it is a monopoly. When any institution has a captive client base, support for innovation vanishes. Reform requires people and institutions to do uncomfortable new things. Thus it won’t happen unless people are even more uncomfortable with the status quo than they are with change. So we need institutional structures that make the need for change seem plausible and legitimate. A captive client base ensures that such structures never emerge. An urgent need for change never seems really plausibile. An institution with captive clients can – or at least it will always feel like it can – continue to function, more or less as it always has, indefinitely. So why change, when change is uncomfortable, even painful?

This is why even small reforms that seem like they would be easy to implement have consistently failed to scale, and the attempt to impose such reforms through national command structures will fail even more spectacularly. Institutional culture in the existing system is hostile not just to this or that reform, but to reform as such, because it excludes the only institutional basis for making the need for change seem plausible and legitimate: the prospect of losing the client base.

This is what school choice advocates are talking about when they talk about the value of competition. “Competition” does not mean a cutthroat, ethics-free environment where individuals and institutions seek their own good at the expense of the good of others. Rather, competition is the life-giving force that drives institutions to become their best and continuously innovate, because it is the only way to hold institutions accountable for performance in a way that is both productive (because it aligns the measurement of institutional performance with people’s needs) and humane (because it creates accountability in a decentralized way rather than through a command-and-control power structure).

Where real competition is present, the cutthroats and self-servers are generally the first to fail. It is the individuals and institutions that focus on serving the needs of others who find success.

This is why big corporations, Wall Street firms, etc. are always opposed to free competition and are always seeking partnerships with government to undermine and eliminate it. They want to be able to use their dominant position to extract wealth without being accountable to serve anyone else’s needs.

This is the most important reason school choice has consistently improved educational outcomes for both the students who use it and for students in public schools. Studies of school choice programs consistently find that students using choice have better outcomes, and also that public schools improve in response to the presence of school choice. The explanation is simple: school choice puts parents back in charge of education, freeing the captive client base and creating an institutional environment in schools that makes the need for change seem plausible and legitimate.

Educators experience the urgency of the need for change when families not being served can leave for other schools – and they will never experience it any other way. Discomfort with change is also reduced for parents, because school choice restores their control over their children’s education.

This is not to say that power plays no role. The school choice movement needs power to break the union deathgrip on education policy and implement a real (i.e. universal) school choice program. And of course that means we need to be on our guard against the temptation to corrupt the knowledge process – to make power more important than truth, to say things that aren’t true but will help us get power. And power will continue to play a role, not only in continuing to defend real choice once it’s implemented, but also to enforce the rules of participation (to punish cheating, etc.).

But choice is the approach that is able to take both power and truth seriously. Command and choice are the two great methods of changing institutions. Command puts power in the driver’s seat, and sometimes (e.g. when punishing crimes) that’s necessary. Choice tends more in the direction of favoring truth over power.

I know which path I’m betting on. And so, I guess, does Gates. May the best man win.

Command v. Choice, Part I: Truth and Power

July 26, 2011

Vaclav Klaus and Vaclav Havel

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Jay is causing quite a stir with his two-part deconstruction of the Gates Foundation. To those who may be upset, let me say the following two things.

First: Jay’s posts will have no important impact – unless they’re true.

Second: That fact itself demonstrates why the Gates command-and-control approach to education reform is bound to fail.

As Jay points out in his two posts, the Gates effort has undermined the intellectual integrity of many people associated with it. Why? The immediate answer is simple. The Gates strategy is a power agenda. And as Jay and I have both had occasion to point out, power agendas seek to subvert “science” in order to create the impression that their policies are scientifically supported. Other knowledge systems are equally vulnerable, but in our society “science” is the only knowledge system whose validity and importance is recognized by virtually everyone; hence science is the key target for corruption.

Don’t get me wrong; power, considered simply by itself, is good. It’s better to have it than not have it. You can’t get much good done without it. But all good things come with natural temptations and dangers, and one of the natural temptations and dangers that always – always – comes with power is the constant threat to subvert knowledge.

I don’t know their hearts, but I’ll bet the Gates people are not bad people, as people go. They just aren’t awake to, and taking steps to check, this natural danger. They’re not aware of what they’re doing and don’t recognize the process of intellectual corruption for what it is even when it’s held up to their faces – because that failure of recognition is itself the natural attendant danger of power.

But this just leads us to a deeper question. Why do power agendas always display this tendency to corrupt knowledge systems? Why does Gates invest hundreds of millions of dollars in research when it’s clear they already know what they want to be true and aren’t interested in following the evidence? And why does it spend hundreds of millions more subverting the individuals and organizations who talk about education research? Why does Gates care what a bunch of bloggers think? What explains this enormous investment?

Because truth has a power of its own. People want to believe what’s true. Even wicked people who deliberately decieve others for the sake of power would not be willing to be decieved themselves for the sake of power. Every human being has a desire to know truth and live in accordance with that knowledge. To be sure, other desires compete with this desire and often win out over it. But the desire is always there and can always be harnessed as a force for social change – that is, for power. So the people who care about power always have to worry about the people who care about truth.

This dynamic is as old as time. From Plato to Paul, from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, people who care about truth more than they care about power have been a threat to those who care more about power than they do about truth.

And the reverse is also true, as can be surmised from the response of the powerful to the four people I’ve just named. Asked what he would do to help win support from the pope for the Russian war effort against Germany, Stalin snorted, “The pope? How many divisions has he got?” In a more reflective hour, however, he spoke with more shrewdness: “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?”

Mind you, though, the trouble is not entirely on the side of the “power people.” We “truth people” have our own, equally dangerous dysfunctions. We know that the social systems of power are a threat to the social systems of knowledge production, so our natural instinct in many cases is to fear power. We build high ivory towers and steer clear of the world of power. And by doing so we render ourselves not only irrelevant and irresponsible, but even irrational – because our isolation from “the real world” leaves us extremely vulnerable to falling for spurious ideologies that flatter our prejudices.

For example.

The natural and intrinsic dangers of the life devoted to truth are themselves just as much a threat to the process of knowledge production as the natural and intrinsic dangers of the life devoted to power.

In spite of the natural rivalry between truth and power, or perhaps because of it, people who have gone all the way to the two extremes – those who care only about power and those who care only about truth – often make alliance with one another. The power people provide subsidies that allow the truth people to spend all day in their offices thinking, computing, writing, talking, and doing everything they like to do; in exchange, the truth people anoint the power people as legitimate. Everyone gets what he wants – except for the other 99% of us, who get screwed.

The answer to this dilemma, of course, is that we have to care about both truth and power. Not to care about truth is dishonest. Not to care about power is irresponsible. Both are self-destructive. (Not to mention other-destructive!)

In reality, however, human beings are rarely so balanced. All virtues come in matched pairs of opposites (e.g. courage and moderation, candor and tact) and each person tends to care more about one necessary virtue than its opposite. That’s why people need social systems in which the legitimacy of opposing virtues is respected and processed in a way that doesn’t subordinate the one to the other.

As a little vignette to illustrate this, consider the roles played by Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus in Czech liberation. Under the Czechoslovak tyranny, Havel lived underground, writing tracts and plays and organizing a network of dissident intellectuals. He had no use for the regime’s systems of power, except as targets – and slow, fat targets they were for a powerful genius like his. Havel’s greatest non-fiction work may be his book-length essay “The Power of the Powerless,” in which he argues that truth is the power of the powerless because all people desire ” to live in the truth.” Unchecked power forces people to live a lie, and the more they have to live a lie the stronger the desire to live in the truth grows. When that desire grows stronger than the desire to live quietly, the power of the powerless becomes greater than the power of the powerful.

In 1989, Havel’s circle of dissidents triggered the crisis that brought down the regime. Protestors gathered in Wenceslas Square for days, then weeks, in defiance of machine-gun toting thugs who might gun them all down at any moment. Havel addressed the crowd daily, and was in little danger because wherever he went, throngs of ordinary people spontaneously surrounded him in an effort to shield him from snipers. “You have to kill us all” was the implicit message of the protestors – and the regime broke. Havel’s game plan, Havel’s leadership, Havel’s hour.

Klaus, on the other hand, was an economist for the state bank under the Czechosolvak tyranny. He was not a supporter of the regime, but he apparently saw nothing inconsistent between that and a banking career within the system. He joined the resistance movement early during the revolution of 1989, and before long he drew a large following of support backing him as a leader – two facts that indicate, I think, that he had legitimacy as a reformer.

Havel and his circle, however, couldn’t stand him. More important, they didn’t trust him. They still don’t. To this day, Klaus is dogged by whispers about all the nasty things he must have been doing to keep his position in the state bank, while people like Havel were going to jail for the sake of truth. And it’s not like there’s not some reasonableness to that disposition.

But the bottom line was that Havel didn’t know how to run a country, and Klaus did. In 1989-1991 those two facts rapidly became clear to a large number of people. Havel and his circle had founded Civic Forum as an umbrella party for the resistance movement, and after the regime collapsed it was the “national unity party” under which the new democracy was governed. A year after the revolution, to the surprise and disgust of the Havel circle, the national party deputies elected Klaus to chair the party. Before long an anti-Klaus faction walked out of the party and founded a new one, completing the transition to a system of electoral party competition. Havel, as president of the new nation, stood formally apart from these events, but everyone knew where his sympathies lay.

With the separation of the Czech Republic from Slovakia in 1992, Klaus became its prime minister. From then until Havel’s retirement in 2003, Klaus ran the government and Havel served as head of state. And a bang-up job they both did of it, too – Klaus’ political, economic and administrative leadership brought about a peaceful and successful transition from state ownership and command-and-control to prosperity and personal freedom, while Havel articulated for his nation a renewed understanding of the political community that grounded it in the humane and civil virtues of freedom and personal responsibility. Neither of those feats could have succeeded without the other.

Havel (truth) and Klaus (power) naturally dislike and distrust each other. But the Czech resistance after 1989 and the Czech government in the two succeeding decades made room for them both – Klaus became president after Havel’s retirement from office, while Havel has continued to write and speak. As a result, the Velvet Revolution and the subsequent history of the Czech Republic stand as miraculous modern models of peace, prosperity, order and justice.

So what would an education policy that took seriously both truth and power look like? Stay tuned for Part II.

(You can tell I’m smarter than Jay because I use Roman numerals for my serialized posts.)

Testing, Cheating, Culture and Corruption

July 21, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Matt draws our attention to some of the broader issues raised by the APS scandal. Cheating is not just about cheating.

Here’s another one of those broader issues I think we should take note of. To call this “cheating” is really inadequate. This was a whole institutional culture in which cheating had become not just acceptable, but normal. This was way beyond teachers subtly indicating the correct answers (such as through tone of voice) or deliberately seating bad students next to good ones (so they could copy). Those things happened, but much more happened.

Teachers had “cheating parties” in which they sat around erasing and remarking student answer sheets. There was one guy whose job was to open test booklets, copy the contents, reseal them (using a lighter to melt the plastic back into place) and then distribute the contents to everybody. This was a huge, pervasive, known-to-everybody cheating system.

And cheating was not just normal but mandatory. Hark ye, my bretheren, unto the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

For teachers, a culture of fear ensured the deception would continue.

“APS is run like the mob,” one teacher told investigators, saying she cheated because she feared retaliation if she didn’t.

Cheat – or else!

What’s going on here? This is not just the undifferentiated “corruption of human nature.” This is a very specific dynamic of institutional culture. This is a system whose organizational culture responded to NCLB by systematically embracing cheating at all levels, even to the extent of viewing non-cheaters (i.e. honest teachers) as threats to the integrity of the system.

We should think carefully about how that kind of thing happens. There is one hypothesis that sticks out to me as clearly plausible: This happened because the testing requirements of NCLB were percieved as evil, tyrannical and a threat to the integrity of education. Personnel at all levels actually viewed cheating as morally virtuous because it was necessary to protect an essential good (education) from being undermined by vicious oppressors with evil agendas. And given widespread teacher cynicism about the value of standardized tests as a metric of learning, in their perception nothing valuable was lost in the process.

This is about more than cheating. This is a wakeup call to our thinking about how reform works.

I have always been in favor of the aspect of NCLB that uses tests to create transparency. Remember, before NCLB you didn’t even have all states participating in NAEP. Anyone want to go back to that? No? Well, then, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

However, it is now pretty clear that NCLB does not work as an accountability tool. Might the systemic, institutional extent of the cheating in APS help explain why? Teachers and administrators don’t percieve the tests as legitimate – they see them as inaccurate metrics being imposed by evil oppressors as tools of exploitation – and thus don’t respond to them in positive ways. (On net, that is. Bad responses cancel out good ones.)

Contrast that with the use of testing for accountability in two other contexts. Jeb Bush’s A+ accountabiliy testing system in Florida did produce positive results. Could that be because Florida had spent years at the bottom of the national listings for education and was sick of it, and had spent years trying to improve through the tried and true ideas of the unions and was sick of failing, and was thus more open to new directions? In the context of this openness, Jeb Bush’s leadership, and his partnership with the right stakeholders, framed the reforms in a way that caused them to be experienced as legitimate at the school level.

Even more impressive, consider the use of testing in innovative charter schools like KIPP. Remember that David Brooks column blasting Ravitch? Brooks identifies what he calls “a core tension,” namely: “Teaching is humane. Testing is mechanistic.”

However, in schools where the entire institutional culture has been reinvented from the ground up around personal relationships between teacher and student that are centered around leadership, mentorship and accountability, testing isn’t experienced as mechanistic at all. Where the students really see the teachers caring about them, and vice versa, standardized testing is accepted as a tool that empowers this relationship:

The schools that best represent the reform movement, like the KIPP academies or the Harlem Success schools, put tremendous emphasis on testing. But these schools are also the places where students are most likely to participate in chess and dance. They are the places where they are mostlikely to read Shakespeare and argue about philosophy and physics. In these places, tests are not the end. They are a lever to begin the process of change…

Ravitch thinks the solution is to get rid of the tests. But that way just leads to lethargy and perpetual mediocrity. The real answer is to keep the tests and the accountability but make sure every school has a clear sense of mission, an outstanding principal and an invigorating moral culture that hits you when you walk in the door.

I think this means it’s essential that the use of tests for accountability purposes must be implemented only in contexts of institutional culture where they will be experienced as legitimate – and the degree to which the tests are used must be controlled by the degree to which the institutional culture permits this experiential legitimacy.

In some cases (as with Jeb in Florida) that could be accomplished statewide. In others it can’t. Sometimes it will have to be districts, or a network of charter schools. In many contexts it won’t work at any level. It certainly won’t work nationally, since the institutional context of the federal role in education could never permit this kind of thing to develop in a way that would be seen as legitimate.

How, then, do we drive accountability? Choice and competition, obviously. And guess what? Once schools face the disruptive threat of choice, they will be more likely to start using tests for accountability voluntarily – because they want to survive and they’ll be ready to reconsider their options.

You know, it strikes me that this principle might have application to other issues besides accountability testing. In general, the higher you go up the ladder of power – from school to district, from district to state, and from state to national – the less likely you will really be implementing your reform, and the more likely you will just be playing power games, and be seen to be playing power games, and thus cause those below you on the ladder to respond by playing power games of their own. As in Atlanta.

School Choice Triumphant – Unions Flee in Terror

July 5, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This morning’s Journal declares 2011 “the year of school choice.” For those of us who kept the fires of justice burning when others counseled despair, it’s a sweet moment.

The Journal also gets the big picture:

Choice by itself won’t lift U.S. K-12 education to where it needs to be…But choice is essential to driving reform because it erodes the union-dominated monopoly that assigns children to schools based on where they live. Unions defend the monopoly to protect jobs for their members, but education should above all serve students and the larger goal of a society in which everyone has an opportunity to prosper.

In totally unrelated news, Jim Geraghty provides a delctable roundup on the NEA’s unprescedented year-early endorsement of Barack Obama – a naked admission that the union no longer has any leverage beyond its mere access to cash and warm bodies, and is therefore now a captive to the movements of power politics rather than a major player in driving them. From now on, the unions do what their political masters dictate, not the other way around.

Geraghty’s political analyst breaks it down:

I can only think of one reason for this move, the Obama people are going into over drive to get as much into Obama’s coffers as possible, and thus asked for this explicitly.  These are action of a very desperate campaign…on both sides. The Obama administration obviously is not raising enough money; the NEA is losing friends on the Democrat side of the aisle (see Cuomo).

Geraghty also points to this comment on Daily Kos:

I am a building rep for the NEA.  I actually spoke personally with about 2/3 of my unionized teachers when the early endorsement – the first such in NEA history – was proposed. Out of the more than 80 teachers with whom I spoke only one supported the early endorsement. Many did not like giving up what little leverage the union had with the administration.

The comment just gets better from there – go read the whole thing. And there’s more where that came from!

In resopnse to these concerns, a team of spokespeople for the NEA released the following joint statement:


ORLÉANS: O Lord, the day is lost! All is lost!

DAUPHIN: Dear God! All is lost, all! Regret and everlasting shame sit on our helmets, mocking us.

[A brief blast of battle noises]

What stinking luck! Do not run away.

CONSTABLE: Our men have all broken ranks.

DAUPHIN: O, everlasting shame! Let’s fall on our swords. Are these the wretches that we threw dice for?

ORLÉANS: Is this the king we offered to ransom?

BOURBON: Shame, eternal shame, and nothing but shame! Let us die honorably. Back into the fray once again! He who will not follow me now, let him depart and stand in the doorway like a pimp, cap in hand, while some slave, no nobler than my dog, violates his daughter.

CONSTABLE: Maybe we can benefit from the same chaos that has defeated us. Let’s go offer up our lives en masse.

Looking forward to 2012!

Tight-Loose Imperial Vendor Management

April 18, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Darth Vader, pioneer of tight-loose management practices:

He doesn’t tell you exactly where to bring the fleet out of light speed, he just insists that it be the correct point for pulling off a successful surprise attack on the rebel base. If you pick the wrong point, that’s your fault – and that’s what the assessment and accountability systems are there for.

You have failed me for the last time, Governor Walker!

But for some reason I have the feeling that when the new federal tight-loose approach to standards, curricula and assessments is implemented, it will look a whole lot more like this:


April 9, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

You’re all clear, kids!

Now let’s blow this thing and go home!

Me and Jay Mathews: IT’S ON!

April 1, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Last week I challenged Jay Mathews of the Washington Post to a bet:

Tell you what, Jay. Let’s make a bet. You say there won’t be “a wave of pro-voucher votes across the country”…[W]e’ll set a mutually agreed on bar for the number of voucher bills passing chambers this year. If we hit the bar, you have to buy me dinner at a Milwaukee restaurant of my choice. But if we don’t hit the bar, I buy you dinner at a DC restaurant of your choice. That’s pretty lopsided in your favor, dollar-wise. How about it?

Today I’m proud to announce that Jay has accepted the bet!

The terms, exactly as I offered them to Jay over e-mail:

Here’s what I propose. I win the bet if at least ten legislative chambers pass bills in 2011 that either create or expand a private school choice program. Otherwise you win. Just based on my experience in the movement, I think if we got that many chamber passages, it would mark 2011 as a banner year for choice.

Definitions: A “private school choice program” is a program that funds attendance at private schools using public funds, either directly (by vouchers) or indirectly, through the tax code (as is the case with many school choice programs these days). That means charter schools don’t count. This is the definition we use here at the foundation. “Expanding” a program means increasing the eligible student pool, or increasing the amount of funds available to support the program (on either a per-student or global basis). That’s in your favor because I’m agreeing not to count, say, relaxation of burdensome restrictions on participating schools as an “expansion.”

Jay’s succinct response: “It’s a bet!”

Well, I didn’t plan it this way, but during the time I was working out the details and deciding how many programs to propose for the bet, and then communicating with Jay, there were a few votes on school choice programs!

When I proposed the bet to Jay earlier this week, I had missed the votes in Arizona a couple weeks ago. I thought we only had three of the ten passages needed for me to win the bet – the Virginia House, the Oklahoma Senate and Douglas County, Colorado.

When Matt clued me in on the Arizona votes, I realized that we were already at five out of the ten passages needed for me to win:

    1. VA House new tax-credit scholarship program (February 8 )

    2. AZ Senate tax-credit program expansion (March 8 )

    3. AZ House tax-credit program expansion (March 10)

    4. Douglas County, CO new voucher program (March 15)

    5. OK Senate new tax-credit scholarship program (March 16)

Then what happens?

    6. IN House new voucher program (March 30)

    7. U.S. House voucher expansion (March 30)

We got to seven votes before I even announced the bet! So much for my plans to make this a big, drawn out, suspenseful thing. The whole shooting match is going to be over before I even get three blog posts out of it. And here I made these cool ruler graphics and everything!

Here’s one other thing that’s bothering me. Was it unethical for me to make the bet with Jay without revealing to him that Indian is the official ethnic food of Jay P. Greene’s Blog?

“Academics” and the “Practical” Part IV: Seizing Power

January 19, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

For a while now I’ve anticipated that the next installment of this series would be about power. Since Jay has broached the subject, I guess it’s finally time to get around to writing what I’ve been planning!

A quick review of my Unified Field Theorem of Education Reform:

Part 1: Education reformers shake out into two groups, which I call the “liberal artists” and the “pragmatists.” The liberal artists want to teach first the three Rs, then traditional “academic” content more generally. Their strength is their insistence on tangible accountability for teaching all children; their weakness is their overreliance on standardized testing – now culminating in the current effort to create a government-controlled national testing regime which logically implies the further step of imposing a single curriculum on all schools under the control of a central authority. The pragmatists want to make education in various ways “more relevant to real life.” Their strength is their desire to create new models of education that will prepare students better for life in the (changing) world. Their weakness is their tendency to discount (in practice if not in rhetoric) the value of traditional academics, and especially their fear of accountability systems.

Part 2: Both sides undermine not only education governance (the focus in Part 1) but pedagogy as well. The pragmatists want to abstract “skills” from “content” and focus on teaching the skills; they fail to appreciate that the only way to learn skills is by leaning content. You can never teach “skills” directly. The liberal artists want to abstract “knowledge” from “practice” and focus on teaching the knowledge; they fail to appreciate that all the really important knowledge is intricately bound up with practice, and can only be learned practically.

Part 3: Liberal artists need to get over their testaphilia, and pragmatists need to get over their testaphobia. A vast quantity of what students deperately need to learn must be learned in ways that can’t be tested with the level of objective systematization the liberal artists insist upon. You can “test” practical knowledge but not in the ways the liberal artists want – and not in ways that can be effectively used as the basis of an accountability regime. Yet standardized testing, and more generally the “rote” “regurgitation” of “mere” “facts,” is always going to be a crucial part of good education. In Daniel Willingham’s language, you can’t get to the “deep structure” of problems, which is what the pragmatists want, until you’ve first mastered the “surface structure,” which is the rote facts the pragmatists disdain. You have to walk before you can fly.

Running through all this is the tension between governance and pedagogy. Once we decide what we want schools to do, how do we structure the system to try to get them to do that?

The links beteween each camp’s pedagogy and governance, both in their good and bad aspects, run much deeper than it may at first appear. What’s really at stake is our view of the human person.

An analogy to politics will help here. In modern political philosophy there are basically three anthroplogies on offer. They give rise to different political systems.

  • You can be cynical about human nature, thinking that people are basically bad. This leads more or less directly to an explicitly authoritarian, implicitly totalitarian tyranny of “enlightened” despots. Because people are basically bad, no one can ever have legitimate power (no one deserves it) and the world will really operate by illegitimate power no matter what you do. So you might as well give the power to the smartest people so they will at least make things run more smoothly and everyone will have an easier time of it. Machiavelli and Hobbes fit this model.
  • You can be naive about human nature, thinking that people are basically good. This also leads more or less directly to an explicitly authoritarian, implicitly totalitarian tyranny of “enlightened” despots. Because people are good, they will naturally want to cooperate to make everyone better off, which of course means putting things under the control of the smartest, best people. And those people ought to have the power to coerce everyone’s cooperation, becasue such power won’t really need to be exercised very much – just enough to encourage people to get over their less powerful selfish tendencies and live into their natural desire to benefit others, which is (underneath the superficial layer of selfishness) really their deeper and stronger desire. The payoff from giving dictatorial power to experts is huge (because the experts are not only smart but good and trustworthy) and the cost is small (because the power won’t have to be exercised much). Rousseau and Hegel fit this model.
  • You can take a mixed view of human nature, thinking that people are both basically good and basically bad. They need freedom to do their good stuff, but also enough restraint to keep them from getting out of line and destroying other people’s good stuff; the rulers, in turn, must be strong enough to restrain violence, but not so strong that they themselves become unaccountable. This is the anthropology of liberal democracy, freedom of religion, and the entrepreneurial economy; Locke, Montesquieu and Madison are its architechts.

The thing to note is that societies cannot be counted on to remain faithful to one model. In particular, the mixed model on which liberal democracy, freedom of religion and entrepreneurial economy are built is really darned difficult to maintain. We are constantly falling away into cynicism on the one side (e.g. Cass Sunstein, Catherine MacKinnon, Saul Alinsky) or naivete on the other (e.g. Michael Lerner, Alan Wolfe, Jim Wallis) with the same disastrous consequences every time.

How does this relate to pedagogy and governance in education? I propose that education needs to be based on a mixed model, but is constantly falling away into one or the other of two truncated models – and that’s why substantive education issues are constantly being hijacked by brute political power.

Look at the liberal artists. How did we get to a point where the people dedicated to the full flowering of human knowledge represented by “traditional academics” are in the process of reducing the content of education to what can be measured by bubble tests – and lining up to create a national dictator that will reach into every school in America and crush everything that isn’t bubble tests?

It’s because their anthropology privileges intellect over action. A human being is a mind that has a body. What they want is to educate the mind. The body is really of no concern to them. Even the mind is only of interest insofar as it knows things – the mind’s ability to do things through the body is not interesting. Re-reading my first post in this series, this is really clear in the exchange between Jay and Checker about whether schools should teach things like “entrepreneurial attitudes.”

Checker Finn’s ideal school

This anthropology implies an aristocracy of intellect. The system should serve the interests of those who are capable of learning. The liberal artists think they’re egalitarians and democratizers because they stick up for the poor black kids who want to learn – and, as I have said over and over, they’ve done us a great service. They have indeed been the great titanic warriors against race and class aristocracies. But there are other kinds of aristocracies as well. The liberal artists only stick up for the kids who want to learn in a certain way: the intellectual way, the bubble test way. They want the whole system to serve only the kids who desire to know for knowledge’s sake – and that’s not most kids. What about the kids who want to invent new things, or acheive greatness in other ways, and who might be willing to learn academics as a stepping stone to that but not for its own sake? They’re chucked into the maw of the intellectual tyranny.

Ken Robinson was wrong (in that video back in Part 1) to attribute this anthropology to the Enlightenment; it is actually far older, and has historically been associated with undemocratic power structures. Mind/body dualism was the philosophy of Greco-Roman aristocracy – Athens was the only democracy of any importance in the ancient world, and it executed the great dualist Socrates. Even during the Enlightenment, those who strongly embraced mind/body dualism (like Descartes) were strong supporters of traditional power structures. It was those who challenged mind/body dualism, like Locke, who ushered in democracy.

What about the pragmatists? It’s tempting to say that they have the opposite problem – they think kids are bodies that have minds. But that’s actually wrong. The strength of the pragmatists is that they’re not plagued by mind/body dualism.

Their problem is egalitarianism. They don’t want education to result in inequalities – no inequalities of life outcomes, but more fundamentally, no inequalities of educational outcomes. To draw a distinction, even in thought, between those who can accomplish more and those who can accomplish less is itself wrong. Anything that tends to reinforce the appearance of such distinctions, or (worse) explicitly assume such distinctions and build on them, is in principle radically evil.

This explains their testaphobia and their general aversion to accountability systems. It also explains why they are de facto but not de jure hostile to traditional academics. They have no objection to academics in principle – provided the illusion of equal outcomes is not punctured. But, of course, it always is. Much safer to stick to content-free, purely “practical” projects that teach “skills.”

The picture offered to us is one of glorious diversity in which every child is radically different, and none of the differences matter.

“You can think for yourselves!”
“Yes! We can think for ourselves!”
“You are all individuals!”
“Yes! We are all individuals!”

Naturally, while the liberal artists are striving to build an aristocracy, the pragmatists are striving to build a tyranny of the majority – the mob rule of unlimited democracy. This was their original sin going all the way back to John Dewey, whose perfidy begins right at the beginning when he sets out to redesign the whole educational enterprise to produce, not the fullest possible flourishing of human capacities, but people suited to fit the new, radical political system that early 20th century progressives were working so hard to build. Human beings are little clay figures just waiting for Dewey and his acolytes to mold them into the politically convenient shape. All the worst aspects of educational pragmatism can really be traced back to this original politicization of the project.

So both camps find substantial resistance to their desires – the liberal artists, in children who are capable of achievement but don’t highly value knowledge for its own sake; the pragmatists, in children who are capable of excellence (even the kinds of excellence pragmatists claim to value) and need special nurturing to achieve it.

And both camps, their vision cramped by narrow anthropologies, fail to see the legitimacy of this resistance. To them, the resistance appears to be simply obscurantism. Hence they feel perfectly justified stamping it out by force.

And naturally, when they seek power, they both reach for the strongest of all social weapons in modern culture – science.

Say that you favor a given approach – in education, in politics, in culture – because it is best suited to the nature of the human person, or because it best embodies the principles and historic self-understanding of the American people, and you will struggle even to get a hearing. But if you say that “the science” supports your view, the world will fall at your feet.

Of course, this means powerful interest groups rush in to seize hold of “science,” to trumpet whatever suits their preferences, downplay its limitations, and delegitimize any contrary evidence. If they succeed – which they don’t always, but they do often enough – “the science” quickly ceasees to be science at all. That’s why “scientific” tyrannies like the Soviet Union had to put so many real scientists in jail – or in the ground.

This was, again, the original sin of Dewey and the whole “pragmatist” movement in early 20th century philosophy. The goal of that school was to undermine the philosophical structure of knowledge on which real science depends, so that they would then have a free hand to bend “science” to their will. I believe it was George Orwell who said that philosophical pragmatism amounts to saying that truth is determined by who has more guns.

But the liberal artists are no longer very much better. They didn’t used to flatten their understanding of a good education down to the level that could be measured “scientifically” on tests. But the imperative to seek power and crush resistance has driven them to that point.

How, then, do we escape from both aristocracy and mobocracy, and undo the tyranny of science? Stay tuned.

“Academics” and the “Practical” Part III: The Daleks Are Coming!

December 15, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This week Jay highlighted the fact that a study showing a positive correlation between test prep activity in the classroom and improved learning is being portrayed as having shown a negative correlation between test prep activity (“drill and kill”) and improved learning. At this point it’s not known (at least to me) where the error arose, and I don’t have anything to say about the question of who said what. But I think it illustrates how the whole subject of drillandkillaphobia needs to be revisited.

Lately I’ve explored in some depth how testing has come to be the focal point of the fight between the two great factions in the education space, the “liberal artists” and the “pragmatists.” Liberal artists have gradually come to invest all their hopes in standardized testing. Pragmatists have gradually come to invest all their fears in precisely the same thing. This is a mutually reinforcing circle – over time, the liberal artists increasingly think testing must be good because the pragmatists hate it, and the pragmatists increasingly think it must be bad because the liberal artists love it. So naturally the battle line over testing has become more and more absolute.

The problem, as I’ve tried to show, is that this dynamic causes each side to reject something that’s essential to good education. The liberal artists seek curricula (or standards that can only lead to curricula) that emphasize sterile head knowledge of facts to the exclusion of practical problem-solving. We don’t know how to test what Daniel Willingham calls “deep knowledge” of subject area content, and even if we did the tests would be almost infinitely vulnerable to manipulation if they were ever used for accountability purposes. But we do know how to create rigorous tests for head knowledge of facts, so the liberal artists define “subject area content” to mean simply head knowledge of facts.

The pragmatists do the opposite. And since I was pushing pretty hard last time to emphasize what I thought were the dysfunctions of the liberal artists, I’d like to balance the scales with something about drillandkillaphobia.

Merely mention the subject of testing and it seems that pragmatists instantly jump to the conclusion that you want schools to look like this:

Now the interesting thing is that these days, they will engage in the most hysterical drillandkillaphobia while all the time affirming that we need to keep standards high, content knowledge matters, etc. To some extent I think that must be intentionally tactical – P21 knows that its flavor of loosey-goosey crunchy granola doesn’t sell these days, since they’ve lost a lot of battles in the war of ideas. But I don’t think that explains all of it. Take another look at that Ken Robinson “Changing Paradigms” video, where he begins by saying that of course we don’t want to lower standards. Clearly he, at least, really means it. It seems completely obvious to him that there’s no contradiction between his attacks on testing and his affirmation of high standards.

And that’s the problem. It seems so obvious to him that he fails to even take the question seriously. (That was one of the key points in Willingham’s stimulating critique of Robinson’s video.)

If the liberal artists need to get over their testophilia, the pragmatists need to get over their drillandkillaphobia. I’m not aware of any hard evidence linking test prep to worse outcomes. Sure, lots of people are really convinced that it must be the case, but that’s hardly a solid ground for making policy. (The floor is open in the comments section if you have some hard evidence you want to share.) And it’s not like this is a new question. I’ll admit that I haven’t done an exhaustive review of the research (again, if you have, the floor is open) but Jay and I conducted a study a while back showing that attaching rewards and penalties to a test doesn’t change the results; that would seem to speak right to the heart of drillandkillaphobia. This new Gates Foundation study, finding a positive correlation between test prep and learning outcomes, would seem to be another piece of evidence against it.

People can’t learn what Willingham calls the “deep structure” of practical problems until they’ve learned what he calls the “surface structure.” You can’t get from the pool deck to the bottom of the pool without passing through the surface of the water; similarly, you can’t get to deep (i.e. practical) content knowledge without first getting shallow (i.e. factual) content knowledge. If you like, it’s “merely” or “sterile” head knowledge. But head knowledge it is and head knowledge it will remain, even after you add the “deep” part.

People learn head knowledge by memorization. And any kind of memorization will appear, to those who wish to stigmatize and delegitimize it, to be “merely” “rote” memorization. You can call it “regurtitation” when people know facts, and in a sense you’re right – but people do need to know facts and be able to summon up that knowledge as necessary, whether you call that “regurgitating” or not. And for everyone but the real genius students, gaining head knowledge of facts will involve some kind of “drill.”

As the pragmatists themselves never tire of reminding us, real learning is hard. Well, yes it is. You can’t learn if you don’t memorize stuff. Memorizing stuff is hard and unpleasant, and it’s a lot more so for some kids than for others. That’s the world; deal with it.

I fully admit that if you really want to learn you are never just memorizing. You must be trying to understand the facts you absorb – understand their significance and the connections between them. But while it must be more than memorizing, it is never less than memorizing. Of course, if it must be more then by definition it can never be less.

Take that great, perennial boogyman of rote memorization – historical dates. People whine, why does it matter in what year a certain event occurred? Well – why does it matter? If you stopped and seriously asked that question and sought out the answer, you might . . . well, you might learn something.

The great irony, of course, is that at the same time the pragmatists are pushing this new bout of drillandkillaphobia, they’re working hard to impose a federal-government controlled system of national testing – excuse me, a totally “voluntary” system of “common” “assessment” that has nothing to do with the federal government, nothing to see here, move along, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. That really is an attempt to handcuff real learning and turn us all over to the benevolent dictatorship of soulless men in white coats who must be trustworthy because, after all, they’re scientists. And that, of course, was always the original sin of the Progressive movement, in its educational form as in all other forms. Handing over all power to a tiny priesthood is the very epitome of “democracy” as long as we’re careful to call the priests “scientists.” But now I’m broaching a whole new and much deeper subject, one that will require another post to handle with any justice.

“Academics” and the “Practical” Part II: Neither Just Skills nor Just Facts

December 1, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Picking up (after a month of constant travel) on my effort to build a unified field theorem of education reform, I want to respond to a strong challenge Jay issued to my use of the word “skills” in my original post.

I used the term “basic skills” to refer to the three Rs, without even thinking about it. I didn’t even stop to define it; after Jay challenged me I thought he had misunderstood what I meant by that term, so I went back and posted a clarification. But it turned out Jay had understood me perfectly well. He just wanted to challenge that use of the term.

I think this is likely to be a crucial issue in my effort to reconcile the legitimate interests of “liberal artists” with the legitimate interests of “pragmatists,” so it’s worth pausing to hash it out.

Jay pointed me to this article by Daniel Willingham: “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” I haven’t had nearly enough time to digest it fully, I’m afraid, but I’ve digested enough of it to offer what I think is a useful next step in thinking about this issue.

First off: In a discussion of the controversy between teaching the three Rs (and all the other things liberal artists want) and teaching critical thinking (and all the other things pragmatists want), why did Jay challenge my conception of what it means to teach the three Rs and then, to back up his challenge, point me to an article on critical thinking? Why not an article on the three Rs?

Because this is, really, an article on the three Rs, and on the whole liberal arts agenda more generally, disguised as an article on critical thinking. Presumably that’s how he got it published in American Educator – an organ of the AFT! It’s the educational equivalent of the Sokal hoax. Willingham has a bunch of pragmatists – teacher union pragmatists, no less – publishing liberal artist propaganda. It’s a brilliant practical joke.

…or so I thought when I first looked at it.

But the more I look at it, the more I think the joke is as much on us liberal artists as it is on the pragmatists.

Willingham’s thesis in a nutshell:

First, critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context. Second, there are metacognitive strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely. Third, the ability to think critically(to actually do what the metacognitive strategies call for) depends on domain knowledge and practice.

The idea that critical thinking isn’t a skill is the real core of the article:

Critical thinking does not have certain characteristics normally associated with skills—in particular, being able to use that skill at any time. If I told you that I learned to read music, for example, you would expect, correctly, that I could use my new skill (i.e., read music) whenever I wanted. But critical thinking is very different. As we saw in the discussion of conditional probabilities, people can engage in some types of critical thinking without training, but even with extensive training, they will sometimes fail to think critically. This understanding that critical thinking is not a skill is vital. It tells us that teaching students to think critically probably lies in small part in showing them new ways of thinking, and in large part in enabling them to deploy the right type of thinking at the right time.

Rather, critical thinking is what emerges when you do a good job of teaching content. That’s because learning “to deploy the right type of thinking at the right time” only happens when you learn a specific field. You don’t learn the scientific method by studying the scientific method (which is what is implied by calling it a “skill”). You can learn about the scientific method that way; that is, you can acquire “head knowledge” of facts about it, facts that could be regurgitated on a test. But it doesn’t make you any better at actually using the scientific method. Studying biology, on the other hand, will make you better at the scientific method because you’re actually using it. It will even make you better at using the scienfic method in all other disciplines, even the ones you haven’t studied. That’s because in your study of biology you’re learning 1) knowledge of the “deep structure” of problems in that field, and 2) “contextual cues” in that field that signal you when to do what. That knowledge, and not “the scientific method” learned as a skill in its own right, is what helps you figure out “deep structure” and “contextual cues” in other fields.

So the pragmatists, who want to focus on “critical thinking” as such, have it all wrong, and the liberal artists, who want to focus on teaching content, have it all right. Right?


Throughout Willingham’s analysis there is an emphasis on how critical thinking emerges from learning these content-specific disciplines in practice. You learn “deep structure” and “contextual cues,” not by studying deep structure and contextual cues as such, but by learning specific disciplines like biology. However, you learn deep structure and contextual cues in biology, not by reading books about biology, but by doing biology. You conduct experiments, you do field research, etc. You go out and solve problems and create knowledge.

Look again at one particular phrase in my description of Willingham above: studying the scientific method as such wouldn’t make you any better at using the scientific method, but it would give you facts about it – the kind of thing you could regurgitate on a test.

And there’s our problem. We liberal artists really do have a strong tendency to reduce content knowledge to “head knowledge” of facts. If you can pass a test on a subject, you know the subject. But – and here we are hoist on Willingham’s petard – that is not the kind of content-specific knowledge that leads to good critical thinking.

Obviously we need to have head knowledge. Students need to learn facts. That’s vital. In particular, for all the reasons outlined in my original post, I think the emphasis on standardized testing emerged for good reasons, and standardized testing needs to remain an important part of our educational landscape.

And I’m not giving up my position that the pragmatists, in their zeal to equip students with critical thinking, creativity, the entrepreneurial mindset, etc. have historically sought these qualities at the expense of, rather than in addition to, content knowledge – and that this has historically had devastating effects.

But I’m also sounding a red alert that we liberal artists have gone just as far wrong in allowing our zeal for accountability – which in practice has come to mean “testing” for too many of us – to drive us into a reductionistic approach to what content knowledge really consists of.

I wonder if it would help to go back to Aristotle’s concept of “intellectual virtues.” He classified the goal of education as imparting not skills or facts, but virtues. And alongside the “moral virtues” he put “intellectual virtues.” Indeed, he thought the two were not just equally important but interdependent; you couldn’t have one without the other.

He warned that a “virtue,” whether moral or intellectual, cannot be reduced to either just a personal characteristic we possess or a thing that we do. If a virtue is just a characteristic, then we’re “virtuous” while asleep or in a coma; if a virtue is just a thing that we do, then our “virtue” depends as much on circumstances outside us as on our character. Rather, virtue must be something that is both active and intrinsic.

Aristotle solved this problem by proposing that virtue is a habit. To possess a virtue means to be in the habit of doing the right things at the right times.

Now, I suppose (stretching just a little bit) that the reductionistic tendency of the pragmatists is to pursue their goals – critical thinking and so forth – as merely something they want students to do. They seek the activity but not the intrinsicness. And the reductionistic tendency of the liberal artists is to pursue their goals as merely something they want students to have inside them; they seek the intrinsicness but not the activity. It might help us to start thinking of learning as the imparting of good habits – to intrinsically possess the quality of being prone to do the right things.

But whether Aristotle helps or not, it seems to me that a recovery of good education must be neither a turn away from the practical toward the academic, nor a turn away from the academic toward the practical, but an acknowledgement that, by separating the two, we have really lost both.

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