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Ideas: Stalemated School Debate (You're *Not* Winning)

MetronomeThere's no shortage of polarizing figures in education today -- Michelle Rhee, Diane Ravitch, etc. And perhaps it will always be this way (fun!). Education is a polarizing issue, after all, and neither side is willing to tolerate much independence from its champions (seelout!).  

But still I'm curious about those who are at least attempting to hold the middle ground.  NYU's Pedro Noguero took on at least some of this role, at least until he resigned from the charter authorizing committee last month. The Harlem Children's Zone's Geoff Canada could have been in this middle space, given his media presence and his commitment to social services, but seemed to have been co-opted by the charter school hedge fund crowd.  Linda Darling-Hammond has maintained ties with the Obama adminstration and with traditional educators.   

But really there's no one I can think of who's acceptable to both sides.  And the absence of a unifying figure -- and some sort of a joint rallying cry -- is a  problem that most of those currently engaged in battle don't seem to appreciate.  This is in large part because both sides of the fight seem to think that they're winning.

The motivation behind this thinking isn't any unrealistic hope for peace and understanding or even the unease that I'm told the education wars generate in the pits of some peoples' stomachs but rarely experience myself (fight!).  Rather, it's a pragmatic impulse.  Watching reform and anti-reform folks fight each other has become boring. It's devolved into stalemated trench warfare.  I don't think either side of the current education debate has enough "oomph" to generate a clear victory at this point.  The ideas and the personalities just aren't there, far as I can see, nor the organizational capacity.  Congratulations, everyone. Well done.

So what? Who cares?  Well, if reformers and anti-reformers continue to fight it out tooth and nail at every corner bodega encounter, then the current education system is likely to stay as it is, which would seem sort of sad.  It won't become the highly efficiency technocracy that reformers would like it to become, or the teacher-centered progressive utopia that many educators seem to imagine.  Instead, the public and policymakers will get turned off and walk away, taking their attention and dollars with them.  Both sides will declare victory, but we would know better.  The house will have won again (yay). 

What if reformers and reform opponents joined forces and used their combined might against entrenched stakeholders and inertia instead of beating each other with sticks and knives?  On what topics --  universal preschool, for example, or beefing up teacher preparation -- do education combatants share enough common interest to join forces in a meangful way? What kind of a dent in the current system could teachers unions, reformers, and foundations make if they came up with something big and bold and put all their attention and resources into it?  

We'll probably never know.  Both sides think they're winning.  It would take some sort of dramatic standoff or public outcry to convince reformers and their opponents that it was in their best interests to give up the current fight -- or perhaps some new, as-yet-unknown figure to shame education into a direction that could generate actual change.   


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I still think a model school, replicable because not dependent upon selective admissions or extraordinary resources, but simply using best practices that are currently benefiting students in various parts of the world today, could provide leadership here, showing people what how much can be achieved with current dollars more efficiently spent. I am still dedicated to that venture and vision, and hope that attempts to bring the world together are not pointless pipe dreams. I assure you that our competitors are not frittering away their time on endless debates; they are improving their systems quickly, and many Americans can already feel the shift in the winds. These problems have been obvious to me since I returned to America in 1999, but it's been very hard to get Americans to listen.

Why would we join forces with those we believe are willfully and actively doing damage to children, schools and teachers (and those who enable them, largely due to being co-opted by their funding sources -- who might go the other way if the funding motivated them to do so)? The only way for that to happen is for us to stop believing that that's what they're doing, which isn't going to happen.

I agree with Bruce that there are innovations that could and should be attempted -- positive visions that involve funding and resources and support for the educators. Unfortunately, there are many who intend to profit from offering "innovations" that will draw public funding their way, so any movement to "innovate" draws those parasites.

There is too much greed and too much malicious, harmful intent for those of us whose eyes are open to stop fighting it. And we're certainly not about to join forces with the greedy and malevolent.

Vilifying opponents goes nowhere Caroline when they just do the same in response.. Your post makes the case for the need for a diplomatic solution. Fighting isn't going to get kids anywhere though some adults seem to like it an awful lot.

I'd say that both sides konw, accurately, that the other side is losing. Being a member of the side you call anti-reform, we know that they have been kicking our tails, politically, for nearly two decades. Since NCLB, we've dumped billions of extra money our schools and our side, even though we have vastly more knowledge and we have a long history of being reformers, have been almost completely cut out of the action.

"Reformers" have been winning politically, but we who actually have experience in neighborhood schools know how badly they've been losing the actual battle to improve schools. And there is a limit to how long society will dump incredible amounts of money on their theories, so I'm afraid that the "house" will again "win." By the way, had we taken the worst of the "houses" (and plenty of them are awful) by accident they could have spent the extra billions better than the "reformers."

The bad news is the good news. Reformers have failed because they have both ignored practitioners and they've ignored an overwhelming body of social science. On the other hand, we now have even better answers to the question of what would have worked. You cited one, high-quality early ed. Community schools is another. The problem, as you implied, is that both require high-quality implementation and that's hard to do with one hand while your using the other to fight off your opponent.

But, the best way to improve schools is the same way they you win in sports - reduce unforced errors. Charter school teachers who have actually been in the classroom, I bet, would be cool with the idea that when you're stuck in a hole, first stop digging deeper. Rather than continue to implement the same teacher-proof and teacherless silver bullets that have failed repeatedly, simply stop taking risky gambles. And here's a first thought experiment. What percentage of teachers in principals in SIG schools know that they have been made to use a lousy playbook, and that they don't have a snowball's chance to make sustainable improvements but they are just doing the best they can with methods that have a long history of failure? And among those SIG teachers who don't believe that they've been handed a rotten playbook, what percentage of them are too young to know why those methods failed the last time?

I'm explaining why we school advocates can't make common cause with the opposition, Alexander. Whether or not it "goes nowhere," I'm trying to provide clarification.

It's our children and our communities we're talking about, and we are not able (or willing) to be bloodless about it. It's easy for those who don't have that stake to be dispassionate.

John puts it well here:

Reformers have failed because they have both ignored practitioners and they've ignored an overwhelming body of social science.

The "reform" fads continue to be propped up despite their series of failures -- or big obvious asterisks in the case of apparent successes (KIPP attrition; the charter sector's failure to serve the highest-need students) -- because of the incredible amount of money behind them and the correlated support of political leaders and the mainstream media.

But even those advantages can't prop up failed ideas forever. We saw that in Florida when the Parent Trigger died on the floor of the state senate.

These are the two sides:

One group has taken the public position that opening profit-making opportunities for investors to directly control public education will spur "innovation" to transform American public schools. They demand that public school children and teachers be "held accountable" to them. Underperforming public resources must be siezed by legislative authority, and put under their control, so they can force improvement of educational outcomes through their innovative transformations. They claim, as an article of faith, that data from "standards-based" tests will vindicate their control of a new type of command market.

After ten years of their corporatist domination, we see lies, corruption and insider dealing. Their proprietary data manipulation is an empty shell-game; it can't be bent enough to cover the damage they do, let alone claim improvement. There are no transformations because they have no expertise to sell. And, gimme a break, these clowns aren't vending any "highly efficiency technocracy". They are creating a wasteland, and it's just no longer possible for you to pretend there is no profit drive behind it.

So, we're the "other" side; it isn't just lifelong visionaries like us teachers, it's a whole coalition. Everything BUT the takover drive I just described is the "status quo" you are decrying, so everybody not in on your scam is "anti-reform". Polarization is a positive step towards transparency, and there is no need to compromise with the failed eduventurists. What was it you frauds and hireling adventurers thought you would win, anyway?

The anti-reform people will win in the end because the teachers and support staff, academics and system leaders are all on the same side. They simply need to do rope-a-dope boxing with the odd well chosen counter punch and the "reformers" will punch themselves out like George Foreman vs Mohammid Ali.

At the top, the reformers are the wealthy especially tech-wealthy Gates-Dell types who hope to reshape American education in their techno-dystopia so to make the state its greatest customer. The next level down, the hedge fund managers just hope to cash in on privatization, level three, the true believers of Hayak-Friedman etc who caused the 2007 meltdown are ideological dinosaurs.

Sadly level four contained outraged parents of SE kids who "did everything right" but ended up with a child of limited prospects and are very angry about it. They want a scape-goat.

Last on the list are frustrated black parents and leaders like Sharpton who have misdirected their fire at the seriously underfunded inner city schools and boards and hit the PS system with colateral damage.

America spends far too much on suburban schools and not nearly enough on urban schools.

Outside of school, they need Canadian style single payer state medicine, much higher minimum wage laws, and other housing and transportation supports.

Asking progressives to compromise with reformers is asking for compromise with greedy self interested business men (word chosen carefully) extremist ideologues, and frustrated but misdirected casualties.

The belief in American exceptionalism holds the USA back when all of the solutions are available in Finland, Canada, Korea, and a few other rapidly improving nations.

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