Thompson: Russo's Wrong On "Reform Critics"
But his Friday blog post (Sure, The Reform Brand Is Tarnished. But So Is The Other Side's) concludes that “The reform ‘brand’ has become tarnished, sure, but so has the reputation and credibility of all too many reform opponents. And right now, those of us in the vast middle sort of hate you all -- both sides -- in roughly equal measure.”
Russo's entitled to his opinion, but he's not being entirely fair or accurate.
One of the original sins of data-driven “reform” was zealous proponents forgetting that they had the burden of proof. Too many sincere advocates for children thought that the existing system was so rotten that it couldn’t get worse. So, true believers in testing ignored a vast body of social science on teaching and learning. They failed to consider the human costs of their experiments and ask whether they would outweigh the likely benefits. And, few of these newbies had any idea about how their preferred policies had been tried before or why they had failed.
Secondly, convinced that the educational “status quo” was irredeemable, contemporary “reformers” tried to destroy the village system in order to save it. The unintended effects of the politics of destruction would have on the adults and students inside schools were ignored. When the accountability hawks' cheaper and easier quick fixes met the same fate as previous silver bullets, they doubled down on teacher-bashing. Of course, the result was a "sort of hate you all -- both sides" of the battle.
I’d like to hear more about Russo’s thoughts circa 2002 when NCLB was announced. In my experience, teachers, principals and central office administrators were equally convinced that the purpose of the law’s utopian timetables (though not the entire law) was the destruction of public schooling as we knew it. The inevitable result would be series of reports on failing schools. So, of course, the predictable response in school systems was to play the numbers games and hope that bubble-in accountability would soon be forgotten. After all, who would have thought that the way to improve 21st century schools would be to permanently remodel them along the lines of Henry Ford’s assembly line?
Most educators I knew (and I) gave reluctant support to NCLB. We saw no alternative. We hoped to get some extra money, and assumed its accountability regime would collapse under its internal contradictions. I didn’t know ANYONE, however, who believed that bubble-in accountability had the potential to help students and we assumed that any real effort to implement it would backfire.
Even if “reformers” condemned our professional judgments on data as “low expectations,” the lack of buy-in should have given them pause. But, they rushed full speed ahead. Billions were spent on body counts keeping score. However, systems could only afford a fraction of what it would have cost for schools to overcome poverty.
Of course, market-driven “reform” got new legs when President Obama‘s basketball buddy became Education Secretary. It was a wonderful story for print and movies. The “Billionaires Boys Club” had already hired the world’s best public relations experts for spinning the story of a Left/Right/Neo-liberal alliance to break the power of teachers and unions. When Arne Duncan was winning battles for billions of dollars for “innovations,” it was easy for the non-education media to revel in “reformers’” political victories.
But, Duncan did not deescalate a lost war that should never have been fought. Instead, he doubled down on the most destructive aspects of NCLB-type accountability. His brand of scapegoating focused on teachers who committed to the toughest schools. While praising most teachers as heroes, Duncan’s SIG, RttT, and test-driven evaluation mandates often narrowed the war on teaching to a purge of Baby Boomers. Duncan incentivized the exiting of educators with gray hair so that we would not contaminate the 23-year-olds’ “expectations” recount the histories of failed reforms, but districts got the bonus of driving down salaries and benefits.
Russo concludes, “Who's going to get this discussion restarted? The rabble rousers on both sides will continue to exaggerate and pontificate -- that's their job, or at least their habit -- but what's really needed is someone who can figure out how to admit past mistakes and move forward.”
I, for one, am perfectly willing to admit that the pre-reform mistakes of administrators, though not teachers, opened the door for the scorch and burn politics of “reform.”
Seriously, I bet most teachers would agree that Russo is right in arguing that both “occupy some pretty shaky ground.” That is our point! We don’t know how to redesign schools in order to overcome the legacies of generational poverty.
To improve our toughest schools, we must learn the lessons of a generation of faith-based “reform,” as we reconsider what was right and wrong about the old-fashioned social scientific approach to school improvement. We need early education and full-service community schools. Educators who oppose the testing mania must admit that our preferred strategies would require high-quality implementation, and neither do we know how to scale them up. For our policies to work, we would need the same investments in aligning and coordinating socio-emotional interventions as have been devoted to aligning curriculum, instruction, and testing. And, we would have to do so in a time of austerity.
But, the conversation that Russo calls for would not cost anything. He could contribute by helping to break the convention where true believers in testing are praised as “reformers,” while veteran teachers who disagree with them are labeled, “anti-reform.” In fact, many of us were reformers before non-educators seized the mantle of “reform.” Now we must extricate ourselves from this punitive morass. Next, we need a truth in labeling standard applied to the postmortems of the bubble-in “accountability” movement. We need fair-minded names for the different schools of reform thought that will emerge in the post-“reform” era.
Alexander, why don’t you go first and nominate names for the next cycle of reform? If you can come up with a couple of non-pejorative labels, it might speed up the conversation that you want.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via CCFlickr