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Thompson: An Attempt to End Our School Wars

SchoolwarsFormer Chief Accountability Officer of New York City SchoolsJames Liebman's Education Week Commentary, "Ending the Great School Wars," takes a step towards a framework for understanding our educational civil war.  

He argues that "the real fight" is between three methods of rejecting central mandates and promoting school-level autonomy. 

But which of the three is the right one?

Alas, it's not the one Liebman endorses. 

Liebman condemns "Managerialist" strategies where educators are given outcome targets by administrators who do not know what it takes for educators to succeed.

Liebman then dismisses the approach that I favor, "Professionalism" or "craft" strategies, where the intuition of teachers is trusted.  Liebman, I'd argue, caricatures that strategy, claiming that it rejects both input and output mandates and trusts the "magic" of gifted teachers. But Liebman is correct in doubting that our incremental effort to improve the craft of teaching, by itself, would overcome the legacies of generational poverty.  

Liebman favors Institutional-learning strategies. He laims that those strategies worked for his old district.  (Why an attorney like Liebman believes that his old position allowed him to know what was actually happening in his district's schools is beyond me, but that is a different issue.) He then makes recommendations that are inherently contradictory.  Liebman wants data to be used diagnostically, as well as for accountability.  He seems to believe that such a dual role is not only possible in an age of high-stakes testing, but that it has already worked in NYC. (Emphasis by Liebman.)
The bad news is that true believers in "output" accountability tend to kill the honesty that is required before the "structured-inquiry teams" that he favors can foster peer review and spur innovation. The good news is that the heart of Liebman's preferred strategy is consistent with the one he rejects - professionalism.
The collaborative effort of improving the craft of schooling is very compatible with his call for "systematic and accountable inquiry" into how empowered educators succeed. So, the way to end the great school wars  is to replace primitive numbers-driven mandates with collaborative efforts that respect the professional wisdom of educators. 
The combination of the "craft" and the institutional-learning approaches could monitor results and make adjustments based on what does and doesn't work, as opposed to making the accountability numbers look good.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.

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This is excellent work, and mirrors my own views. Unfortunately, Green Dot couldn't find enough talent in the years between when I first met Steve Barr and when they showed up on campus to take over in 2008, and so appear to have morphed from the second vision, emphasizing professional craft, to the first, managerialist vision, especially as Eli Broad, a benevolent man with great confidence in his managers' abilities, became more influential within the organization. But the Wall Street approach greatly overvalues (and overcompensates) business school graduates, whose value is shown, in Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow", to be mainly illusory. But that wasn't yet obvious in the last decade, the Naughts, when our first president-as-CEO had not yet finished wreaking havoc on our country.

The only vision here is to get absolute control of public schools and the people in them. I like Bruce's accidental disambiguation of Green Dot: "when they showed up on campus to take over in 2008".

Your only disagreement with this "accountability officer" is how to best to deliver that control to the financial speculators who are demanding it. Your preferred path requires some extra effort at cringing and posturing to cover your complicity, but the project is again to "end the school wars" by preemptive surrender to an arrogant, hostile take-over.

Eli Broad has no standing whatsoever to demand control of public education, and we have no need to reach an agreement with his minions. We are going to defeat these vultures outright.

Mary, you badly misunderstand the people you write about. Calling Eli Broad a "vulture" is dehumanizing, a hate tactic, and terribly undeserved; "financial speculators" implies the usual absurdity, laughable on its face, that billionaires are descending upon communities like Watts to make still more money; and I have no information that makes me believe that he and his friends are demanding control of public education, only that they'd like to see their philanthropy be more effective in improving it. What we planned initially was a partnership, not a takeover, and was presented, sincerely at least on our part, as such. If to form an alliance with a majority of reform-minded teachers on a campus to declare, what was subsequently proved to be true, that we could do better by a bunch of poor kids than they had been getting was arrogance, I guess I am guilty; but things turned out far from what we intended, so we will never know what might have happened if the professional craft vision had gotten a try on the Locke campus.

When someone has as much wealth and power as Eli Broad, it's bogus to feign shock and outrage when a powerless individual calls him names.

When he does incredible damage due to his unspeakably arrogant assumption that his uninformed whims should be imposed on our entire nation's education system, it's hard to argue that he DOESN'T deserve a barrage of vilification.

I doubt if those Masters of the Universe want to control public education in the sense of actually running things. They've made it evident through their actions that they believe their ideas should be imposed as policy without question. (And I agree that they're not doing it to enrich themselves -- though their activities certainly empower many predators whose entire motive is to funnel public education funding into their own pockets.)

It's hard for people to imagine the super-rich as simple poverty pimps, of course. They're actively wielding their dynastic fortunes for the purpose of establishing dynasties (duh). Unassailable, permanent, generational power and control is their currency, and they're coldly using their tax-sheltered investment foundations to assure their own control of other people's public and private lives, even consciences, as well as of the public funding stream. Let me run through a few of them for you, without even the usual links which you haven’t been opening anyway. You can Google for it, if you don’t believe me.

Rupert Murdoch controls Fox News, Dow Jones, and the Wall Street Journal. What does he want with the "funding stream" of US public education?

Apparently Joel Klein did him a good turn somehow while he was supposedly pursuing a Justice Department monopoly case against Murdoch, because Klein went straight to the board of News Corporation, from the Chancellorship of NYC public schools! And yes, Murdoch is grubbing around in Harlem and Watts, getting public contracts in his data-driven for-profit venture of holding children and teachers "accountable" to his vision.

The Milken Family Foundation served as a model for the Gates Foundation. What's its actual purpose?

Mike Milken is a convicted felon, and a thief and a fraud. His for-profit K12inc is bleeding funding from public schools in my state, and the "accountability" he promotes through his political bribes and lobbying has crippled and blighted public education for the poorest districts. Accountability is a just tool to take democratic away power from low-income communities, and doesn’t apply to his scams.

Eli Broad hired Cisneros straight from the Clinton administration for his KB Homes. He used government mortgage programs to sell low-quality housing tracts to the working class at vastly inflated bubble prices, and made a killing.

Then, he moved in to the ground floor at AIG to reap super profits by "derivitizing" the toxic real-estate debt he had generated. He donated that stock to his tax-free foundation before AIG crashed (at a huge write-off).

All across the country, the resulting foreclosed and crumbling housing stock sits empty on its cracked and settling concrete slabs, its cheap Chinese drywall exuding toxic hydrogen sulfide gas that corrodes the wiring, its plywood garage doors curling in the sun.

The generational wealth of my own people has flowed into Broad’s grasping claws, and now he uses it to enforce his mealy-mouthed charity. My own extended family is outcast, without medical care, and homeless in the wake of his brilliant management strategies, so I take it personally. Vulture billionaire.

I'll ignore the comments about the Murdochs and Milkens, since I haven't met them and wasn't defending them. Your comments with regard to Mr. Broad indicate you have problems with capitalism. Fair enough; capitalism deserves some criticism after the disaster of the last decade (I am writing this from an unheated home, and have lost my family's health insurance, which had been guaranteed for life under the public school employment contract I left). I also cannot vouch for the quality of KB homes. I have never heard anyone credibly claim that he is personally responsible for the sub-prime mortgage crisis that led to the financial meltdown and presumably reduced the value of his own holdings. He has already given $2 billion to various charities and has committed to giving away billions more; and I saw no claws on the hand that was giving a check intended to benefit, and that did in fact benefit, the poor students in my school. He's no vulture, and your vilification should not be defended.

Caroline and Bruce,

I agree with both of you, with one exception. Bruce was debating someone. He wasn't "feigning" anything.

Bruce, I first heard the term "vulture philanthropy" fifteen years ago. Here's one old link:
"Venture Philanthropy versus Vulture Philanthropy" -- November 17 (1998), at the Commonwealth Club of California.

"In the ongoing debate over social policy, almost all sides believe that new approaches are needed. "Venture Philanthropy" is a charitable endeavor based on risk-taking, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit based on the business model."

"Some believe that business has what it takes to bring a new model of philanthropy into being. But is this so? Bruce Sievers will lay out the arguments of using venture capital model and the problems with it, followed by a lively question and answer period. "

This serious, mainstream discussion which now long overdue. It deserves your attention and respect; note that the Commonwealth Club is no radical coffeehouse venue. In fact, I believe I was picketing Henry Kissinger there the first time I was ever tear gassed. Are education reform activists, who align themselves with the New Schools Venture Fund, actually unaware of its significance?

Here's an articulate 2008 blogger examining the questions Sievers raised.

Sievers has gone on to write an important book, in fact.
Bruce R. Sievers: Civil Society, Philanthropy, and the Fate of the Commons

I hate to put the amazon link, so here's a review.

Bruce says:
"financial speculators" implies the usual absurdity, laughable on its face, that billionaires are descending upon communities like Watts to make still more money; and I have no information that makes me believe that he and his friends are demanding control of public education"

Funny, I first heard it out of Broad's own mouth.
“We’re often accused of having too much influence in education,” Broad said. “I’m not sure how you’d restrict that.” While foundations and nonprofits are barred by law from getting involved in politics, they might expand their reach by spinning off organizations with a different tax status that allows them to back political candidates and lobby for pieces of legislation, Broad said. He said the Klein-chaired Education Equality Project is considering doing just that.

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