Sun Tzu and the Art of Education Reform

May 12, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jay recently wrote two excellent posts about policy overreach and the pace of reform. Little Ramona even took time off from whipping her AFT intern pool with a cat o’nine tails to get them to write fake Diane Ravitch tweets faster to write an admiring post regarding Jay’s advice:

Greene ends his second post with a sage observation that ought to be pinned to the wall in every government office, every executive suite of every foundation, and every advocacy group:

Whether your preferred policy solution is based on standards and accountability, parental choice, instructional reform, or something else, the better approach to reform is gradual and decentralized so that everyone can learn and adapt. Your reform strategy has to be consistent with the diverse, decentralized, and democratic country in which we live. You won’t fix everything for everyone right away, but you should avoid Great Leaps Forward. Seek partial victories because with the paradoxical logic of ed reform politics total victory ultimately leads to total defeat.’

Jay’s post got me to thinking about my favorite warrior-sage, Sun-Tzu. What might he think about this?

On the one hand, Sun Tzu explicitly warns against long wars:

When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength. Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare…In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.

In other words win and win fast.  Sun Tzu advises against one of those hours long Rocky vs. Apollo type slug-fests where even the victor goes to the hospital.  He advises something more along the lines of:

Alas the education reform movement finds itself caught in an Ali rope a dope fight rather than an Iron Mike early conquest.  Neither George Washington, Winston Churchill, George Kennan, Ho Chi Mihn nor Martin Luther King Jr. had the opportunity for a quick and easy knockout either so you are in good company.  Jay’s point about seeking total victory leading to total defeat finds echoes in Sun Tzu as well:

In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.

As an example of the above, I think it is safe to say that Sun Tzu would have little admiration for the quality of the effort put forward by American abolitionists.  From John Brown to Sherman’s March to Reconstruction these well-meaning people with a just cause seemed overly fond of the full frontal assault.  None of this excuses the actions of southerners at all. Note  however that it would have been rather extraordinary if the justices on the United States Supreme Court had failed to notice that the federal efforts in the south had almost completely backfired by the time of the contemptible Plessy case. Abolish slavery, hello sharecropping!  Amend the Constitution, say hello to Jim Crow. Deeply resentful southern racists eventually took  over the United States House and people in the north grew weary of their occupation of the south much faster, which is what one should expect given that everything they were doing more or less backfired.

Plessy was deeply horrible on many levels, but it essentially ratified the facts on the ground-facts that with sickening irony that abolitionists had helped to create.  Abolitionists did not achieve supreme excellence- they not only did not break the enemy’s resistance without fighting, they failed to break it with hundreds of thousands dead.  Their lack of supreme excellence, along with a great deal of idiocy on the part of southerners, helped usher in an additional century of Southern dark age.  We of course will never know how much of this tragedy could have been avoided, but we do know what actually happened and it was awful.  Britain and France went to war with Nazi Germany to protect Poland’s freedom only to see Poland put under the Soviet boot, but at least this only lasted half a century.  In the aftermath of America’s bloodiest war America’s slaves were transformed into sharecroppers without the right to vote and with little decent schooling.  We are still grappling with this sordid legacy today.

As Jay said, seeking total immediate victory often leads to abject failure.

All this is all the more tragic given that American abolitionists could have learned a great deal from the earlier triumph of Wilbur Wilberforce in England in abolishing the slave trade and eventually slavery itself.  Notice the crucial elements of success: undaunted effort, indirect means, an eventual embrace of patient incremental policies after the failure of multiple frontal assaults, no bloody war ultimately accomplishing little to nothing.

It’s no mystery why a reactionary like Diane Ravitch would find solace in Jay’s Rx- she is quite happy with the status-quo, and has a lot of K-12 workers hanging on her every word as she tells them what they desperately want to believe. This does not however mean that reformers should ignore Jay’s advice-he’s on to something important regardless of whether Ravitch or other reactionaries hope to make use of it. In fact, reactionaries themselves should fear reformers taking this advice to heart. If they do, defenders of today’s failed status quo will face far more effective opponents.  Jay is yelling reformers a warning from their blind spot.

Last year I spent a lot of time in Texas working on education reform. During the session I got an email from someone whose opinion I highly respect and who told me some things I really, really, really did not want to believe.  The email said in part:

Matt, Some of the efforts to improve ‘choice’ were heavy handed and arrogant. Vouchers always have had common enemies from both the left  and right, from rural and suburban, from minorities who would be the  beneficiaries.

Expectations were too high and ignored several factors—the  finance lawsuit being a major factor, delaying any real reform efforts  until it’s settled.

Some leading ‘reformers’ collected a variety of practices  purported to be effective in other states and proposed those for  Texas without doing the necessary base building for real support.  Even the A through F idea was  never  really sold well.  The battle fought last session over the over-engineered  accountability system was won by proponents but  they ultimately lost the war, exacerbating the growing  anti-testing sentiment.

The business community was split on ‘accountability’ for good  reason. There has been an over emphasis on ‘college ready’ and not  enough focus on ‘job ready’ with the latter having been subsumed by the former.  The resulting curricular pathways will show that for some segment  of employers simply raising standards is no longer enough and some new  designs are needed.

A big part of me wanted to fire off an angry email explaining that illiterate Texas kids didn’t have another day to wait, etc. Instead I let it sit for a day.  The next day I had to confess to myself:

Damn it all to hell he’s right on every single point.

Sadder and wiser I wrote back:

You are totally correct that there are going to be plenty of servings of humble pie to eat at the end of this session. I also fear that we reformers have gotten into the habit of viewing reforms as military conquests over bad guys to the detriment of efforts to inform and persuade. Persuasion is slow and its benefits can be ambiguous but where to you ultimately get without it?

Well it is mid 2014 now and the answer from the Texas example is pretty clear- nowhere.  Private choice failed, the commissioner did not implement A-F school grading after having the legislature forbid him to do so, the legislature has left the state’s accountability system as a complete train-wreck.  Sign me up for a double serving of humble pie.  Even the raising of the charter school cap represented only a symbolic victory as there were already ways around the cap and charter holders can open multiple campuses under preexisting Texas law.

Don’t get me wrong: I still believe that Texas school kids don’t have another damn day to wait for better schools. I must accept however the fact that failed attempts at reform don’t do them any good.  If there is going to be major changes in Texas K-12 education reformers are going to have to convince far more than 76 members of the Texas House, 16 members of the Texas Senate and one governor that they are good ideas. In fact, Texas reformers might be better off thinking of those 93 people as the last on the list to persuade rather than the first. Mere legislative majorities resemble words written into the sand of a beach without broader consensus and support.

If reformers want faster change, we must embrace the need to persuade a broader universe of people on the justice of our cause and the effectiveness of the means by which we hope to achieve them. If mere legislative majorities tempt you into thinking you can proceed without such consensus, think again.  Parental choice supporters should therefore embrace the burden of building a broad consensus while recognizing the danger overreach.  Persuasion is slow and its benefits can be ambiguous but where do you ultimately get without it?

Stomp on the gas reformers, but do take a look at the traffic conditions.  Your car won’t do you much good if it gets you and more importantly your passengers killed.