About this blog Subscribe to this blog

Thompson: A Teacher's Lessons From ED In '08

ObamaOld-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 explains that that "ED in '08" began as a "risk-aversive organization."  It produced 150 pages of "research" papers (the quotation marks are mine) and 6,000 media stories, but because it was scrupulously nonpartisan, it lost opportunities to cultivate relationships with the candidates and their campaigns.  Bill Gates acknowledged, "Most of what we were causing people to do was mouth platitudes."  But, as Diane Ravitch observed, ED in '08 may have once seemed "irrelevant," but "in retrospect it may have set the ground" for subsequent reforms. "Little did we know."

 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.   


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

What we should try to do is to get the Obama and Gates people onto a better track, for example by ensuring that better tests (not the bubble-in variety that our students have been suffering with; essay tests that show students can write and think) result from the Common Core effort, and get the Gates Foundation to look beyond the KIPP model to the point where poor children have access to a quality of and approach to education similar to what they are pursuing for their own children -- in other words, to get rid of the two-tier approach to education that is the essence of the hypocrisy of the mainstream American educational reform movement. If you really want equal educational opportunity for all children, that means raising up the opportunities for the poor by giving them educations second to none.

Great point. I THINK that may be doable. A first step would be the recognition of the impossibility the bubble-in "reforms" of the first term coexisting with the principles of Common Core. I don't think they have any clue about the supports for kids that will be necessary before Common Core can work. I'd also like to know what they are thinking about something that they must know is inevitable. With Common Core, test scores will collapse. What then?

And that gets us back to Alexander's piece. It adds more support to the most plausible explanation, that the super rich are different than us and they feel free to turn on a dime any time they want, thinking that the rest of the world will change too. Alexander's piece reinforced the only plausible reading of "reform" that I can think of. Its all shortterm tactics and nobody has played out the chess game or articulated any sort of constructive end game. I've yet to hear a plausible scenario where this does more good than harm for kids. Which, Bruce, is what you are calling for.

I often am confused as to why exactly Obama’s Common Core is so bluntly attacked by the right, seeing as they had, on multiple preceding occasions, proposed something similar. But more important, as Russo noted, was ED’s shift in tactics. They were, if I remember correctly, attacked for being too passive. It’s funny, given the aggressive approach was indeed less effective.

John, the way they should handle the predictable test-score collapse (a friend of mine who works in the most depressed section of Los Angeles has seen some sample questions, and he is incredulous) is to not draw any historical comparisons, to let the NAEP long-term trend data take care of that; if the new tests are sufficiently different, as they should be, everyone will see that this is an apples-to-oranges comparison.

As I see it, and I have met a few of these super-rich and a bunch of their representatives, they are mostly well-meaning, super-rich amateurs, who are likely surprised to find how difficult improving public education actually is.

And Sarah, you're right, the aggressive approach is turning a lot of people off, and has incited a fierce resistance.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.