Thompson: A Teacher's Lessons From ED In '08
Old-fashioned journalists no longer have a monopoly in writing the "first draft of history." Alexander Russo's The Successful Failure of ED in '08, published by the American Enterprise Institute, has laid the foundation for the political history of this pivotal development in education advocacy, and it foreshadows the history of education policy during the Obama years which, hopefully, is still a work in progress. Even the political history of the 2008 campaign cannot be completed, however, until we learn whether the politician who was most influenced by ED in '08 was helped or will be defeated for reelection, in part, due to his support for the campaign's "reforms."
Russo reports that the billionaire donor who has the most anti-teacher position, Eli Broad, was a supporter of Hillary Clinton, who was endorsed by the teachers' unions. Bill Gates, who often is seen as the prime sponsor of data-driven "reforms," kept a greater distance from the campaign. Barack Obama, who emphasized his independence from teachers' unions by supporting charter schools and pay for performance, was the candidate who picked up on the importance of high national standards that would become the basis for Common Core.
Perhaps Russo's most important discoveries are found in his account of the process of closing down ED in '08. On one hand, its sponsors learned the importance of cultivating public relations to build public support. On the other hand, they were frustrated because, "the voters didn't get it." Consequently, "there was not even a postmortem evaluation of the effort to assess lessons learned, suggesting that the effort was not worth learning from."
One reason why this is important is that many educators have concluded that the "billionaires' boys club," which has pushed test-driven, market-driven "reforms," is a corporate conspiracy to privatize schools. Russo's narrative suggests something more subtle. Even when investing S25 million, the foundation sponsors are just as vulnerable to shooting from the hip. And, as one insider observed, "There was no real reflection, no collective learning. It was all about moving on to the next silver bullet."
At this point in the narrative, Russo's political history anticipated the education history of the next four years. The Gates Foundation "was already rolling out its newest big idea, focusing on improving teacher quality and effectiveness in selected school districts across the country, just as it had moved on quickly from its $2 billion small schools intiative two years before."
Then, presumably, the experience of ED in '08 influenced the media campaign, which dominated the first two years of the Obama administration. Teachers were portrayed as defenders of the "Rubber Room," and the "status quo" which perpetuated educational dysfunction.
At the same time, President Obama defended the mass firings of teachers in Central Falls, and thus opened the door for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to attack collective bargaining. The administration's RttT and SIG encouraged more standardized testing and the collective punishment of teachers who commit to the toughest schools.
Presumably, these "reformers" and the Obama administration were unaware that their test-driven "reforms" would inevitably produce the scandals that have dominated the news as the election approaches. Now, the media is full of the predictable results of bubble-in accountability such as "sleeveless pineapples, excellent teachers being fired because of experimental value-added models, teachers in the swing state of Florida being evaluated with the test scores of students who they have never met, and first graders in the swing state of Colorado being tested on Picasso paintings.
Russo concludes that, "if ED in '08 was at times overly cautious in its tactics and messaging, some of the initiatives launched in the aftermath have been overly aggressive, made inaccurate or misleading claims, and chosen particularly controversial priorities regarding teachers and teachers unions." He wrote that "most" reformers "stay within the accepted norms of centrist Democratic policies and the views of major foundations." But Russo closes with the words of the former executive director of ED in'08, who expressed the opposite sentiment, "who gives a s*** if you have the White House if they are not doing things that are right?"
Of course, Russo may be wrong. Perhaps, the billionaires just wanted us to agree with Rick Hess that ED in '08 was, "a silly, wasteful, and embarrassing mess." Perhaps the corporate powers just threw one expensive hurried, and wasteful silver bullet after another at education to ensure the failure of the "status quo." Its possible that the real goal always was a civil war between Democrats, the election of Mitt Romney and implementing vouchers ... I suspect, though, that Russo has provided a solid and enduring first chapter in both the political and education history of the Obama years.- JT(@drjohnthompson) image via.