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Thompson: Telling Reformers Apart

Newspeak1 In the monthly Education Roundtable on Friday, Valerie Strauss, Larry Abrahamson,  Howard Blume, and Alexander Russo discussed the misuse of the word "reform."   The word wrongly implies that new policies are effective and represent an improvement over "the status quo."  Steve Brill's term "so-called reformers" is accurate, as is Alexander's term "accountability hawks," but my favorite is his "reformy types."  The press could distinguish between "data-driven reformers" versus "traditional reformers" but that would require a background knowledge of the long history of education reform.  As "reformers" mourn the defeat of Mayor Fenty, it is becoming clear that their real issues are not about education but about control.   As much as they love standardized testing, their true desire is the untrammeled power to run schools.  I would borrow from Larry Cuban and distinguish between the "business model" reformers versus "collaborative reformers."  - JT


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JT: "As 'reformers' mourn the defeat of Mayor Fenty, it is becoming clear that their real issues are not about education but about control."

Well put, John. This is the reason that you can't get reformers to talk about the core issues in genuinely improving teaching: instruction and curriculum. They're not interested in what teachers do all day. Plus they don't know much about what teachers actually do all day. Some admit upfront that the "how" is not important to them--only the "results" (a word I'm beginning to loathe). And collaboration with teachers would mean admitting that teachers have good ideas, too--anathema to many reformers.

I think "accountability hawks" is the most accurate descriptor.

I have found Jeff Henig and Clarence Stone's breakdown of reform efforts to be helpful here. They identify 3 key current reform movements: The "professionalism model," focusing on recruiting and training quality teachers, and exemplified by those like Linda Darling-Hammond; the "market model," by which markets are applied to improve school choice and reward winners and punish losers; and the "grassroots democracy model," of focusing on collaboration with and empowerment of families and communities.

Current efforts which seem to have claimed the "reform" mantle focus primarily on the market model, with an emphasis on improving teacher quality through consequences rather than training. Full-service community schools and Jeffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone would be prominent examples of "grassroots democracy" models, or at least in part.

You both make great points. I'm reminded of grad school where we knew Trotskyists who thought Marxism went wrong when Trotsky was beat versus Trotskyites, meaning robot-like true believers. The distinction meant nothing to the old Communists who used both as expendable flying wedges to attack the system. Besides, by the 70s, it was all academic way.

I'd distinguish between reformists like Rick Hess, Mike Petrilli, and Ed Sector, who believe that accountability must drive reform but who have minds of their own versus reformites like Michelle Rhee who have made a fetish of destroying "the status quo." You can have evidence-driven debates with reformists. Reformites just want to defeat their enemies. They seek a Hurricane Katrina or a Hurricane Rhee to wipe away the old, in righteous faith that magically the Market will create a new world.

Maybe that's too complicated though. Maybe the distinction is between people of all schools of thought that want to build a barn, versus the jackasses who just love to kick things down.

Regardless, the billionaires have annointed Rhee as the head of their flying wedge trying to take out unions and the liberal arts. She, like Newt, wouldd be happier doing it as a media star rather than being distracted by the nitty gritty needed to run schools.

John, an interesting distinction. To follow up with my example, Henig and Stone propose a 4th way, of building civic capacity, that is willing and able to pragmatically utilize components from all three veins of reform to increase civic capacity. I think this may fit well with your definition of the barn-builders vs. the jackasses.

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