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Thompson: Russo's Wrong On "Reform Critics"

image from farm5.staticflickr.comAlexander Russo acknowledges that contemporary school “reformers’” hubris, their misuse of data, and their distance from the classroom are “pretty familiar now.”   

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.”

Just kidding!

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


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But this is all complicated by the fact that the vast majority of voices espousing the current "reform" policies are financially compensated to do so, in one way or another. Their jobs or funding or fellowship posts or blog monetization depend upon their continuing to push those policies. Clearly they're not likely to be open to an epiphany about how destructive and wrongheaded the policies are.

In my view, the only people who fall for this **** who are NOT doing it for financial gain seem to be the folks at the top of the food chain -- the Gates/Broad/Walton/Tilson crowd -- plus (inexplicably to me) voices in the media. (A number of them HAVE career-changed into the lucrative ed-reform world, though.)

Follow the money. I may just have to reformat my log-on to say that.

I'm not concerned a whit over whether Russo hates me or not. His effort to triangulate into a position without responsibility for the disasters he's helped engineer is also fine with me. There are some things he might do, right now, to defend some communities in LA and Chicago for which he does feel genuine responsibility, I think. This is an emergency, and he could be a real help if can find his way to it. You might not have noticed several occasions when he broke with his reform allies on matters of actual conscience, possibly at some cost to his own career security.

What we don't need, though, are false allies who claim to be opposing corporate reform while spinning elaborate and misdirecting justifications for it.

You, for instance, promulgate and endorse their core narrative when you snivel, "Secondly, convinced that the educational “status quo” was irredeemable, contemporary “reformers” tried to destroy the village system in order to save it. " Based on that distortion, you work yourself all the way up to this catharsis: "We need fair-minded names for the different schools of reform thought that will emerge in the post-“reform” era."

Michelle Rhee worked for Edison Education from the way back, since Baltimore, and the forces of corporate greed have been our real enemy from the beginning, not any theories that were expounded among the credulous. Once the political, profit-centered power players are dealt with, academic discussions will become possible, but I have plenty of names for them already, thank you. By refusing to call them out, or even admit they're the problem with "reform", you carry water for them more than Alexander ever did.

I'll offer you the same challenge I did him, John.

Bryant’s conclusion is,
“Over 10 years later we see how education reform mandates have played out – powerful corporate interests are mining new profit centers while poor children of color, who were the intended beneficiaries of reform, are getting stuck with the shaft.”

Bryant asks you to pause to reconsider, whose side are you on?

I have some trouble wrapping my mind around some of this. You write:

"...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.

I am not sure schools CAN overcome generational poverty, at least not by themselves. We are stuck within this paradigm that says societal efforts to eliminate poverty failed, and the only social institution left with this responsibility is the school. Even if we include robust social services, I do not think this is viable. When Martin Luther King, Jr. took on the scourge of poverty, he explicitly said that piecemeal reforms in education and housing were insufficient for the challenge. He called for a guaranteed living wage and other fundamental programs to ensure employment opportunities and economic justice.

I have another concern when you write that:

"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."

We have been told that the only way schools can improve is through "scalable" reforms. What does that mean? It means that whenever we come up with some great initiative, the only way it can make a difference is if it can be packaged and replicated. There is certainly value in sharing great models, and many can be built upon and re-created anew. But I believe there is an underlying bias towards uniform solutions that are packaged and sold as innovations. I think of the great wave of Professional Learning Communities that swept through a few years ago. We had been working in Oakland in a variety of collaborative formations doing teacher research, lesson study, common assessments, and so forth. But we were told we had to do the "new" PLCs, and hundreds of thousands was spent on expert consultants to show us how.

I think we DO know how to improve ourselves as educators, and we have been doing it for years. We know how to look at student work, we know how to conduct systematic inquiry into our practice, and so forth. We have far too little time to do this work, because this sort of intellectual work is not considered part of our job, far too often.

Maybe I am nitpicking here, but I do not accept that we are in an era of "austerity." There is more wealth in our society than ever. We just have some cash flow problems, if you know what I mean.

The "reform" movement since A Nation at Risk was wrong on every single issue every single day.

The chickens are coming home to roost now as each destructive reform yields nothing of any value.

The diagnosis was wrong from the get go and everything else followed.

There is one single issue. Poor kids do badly in school. There is one known solution, eliminate poverty.

Everything else is window dressing.

Doug, For the life of me, I can't understand why rational people would believe that test-driven accountability could work. So, I can understand why some would conclude that "reformers" had another agenda. But, the world isn't rational ...

Caroline, follow the money applies to all issues. I think education is unique in one way. You can make more profits using scorched earth politics. In schools, when all this venom is dumped on teachers, much of it inevitably rolls down to the kids.

Mary, I guess I got a soft spot for Bill Gates when he said that his test-driven policies had failed, but that he couldn't help it - he just loves the smell of napalm in the morning. Just kidding.

Anthony, I don't see the difference between what you are saying about poverty and what I'm saying. Perhaps you are saying that we've let the "reformers" define the battleground, and clearly you are right. "Reformers," secure in the knowledge they didn't have, persuaded policy-makers, who were equally ill-informed on education, that the issues were fighting poverty and scalability.

They won that battle. Why deny it? The question is how do we win the next battle.

You write:

"'Reformers,' secure in the knowledge they didn't have, persuaded policy-makers, who were equally ill-informed on education, that the issues were fighting poverty and scalability.

They won that battle. Why deny it? The question is how do we win the next battle."

There are a whole list of "battles" the reformers have won. However, as we move forward, we can see that they cannot hold the ground they have staked out. They have claimed to HAVE scalable solutions. They clearly do not. That means we must go back and revisit their demand that all of OUR solutions be scalable. If their supposedly scalable solutions are unworkable, perhaps there is a fundamental problem with the concept of top-down reform. And their top-down nature is the thing that MAKES a solution scalable, and also dooms it to fail. We will get NOwhere competing with them to come up with better top-down reforms. The very approach undermines our aims. So we MUST revisit the issue of scalability, and assert the need for bottom-up models of change. These do not meet most of the definitions of scalability now in place, but they represent much better opportunities for sustainable growth.

Am I then correct in concluding that our difference is over tactics. I'm focusing on discrediting "reformers" mistakes and cover-ups, while you say that at the same time we should raise consciousness regarding the "scale-up" mantra?

I think my current priority is consistent with this:

what do you think about concentrating on a chorus of arguments like Alexanders, yours, and mine?

In this case I am not sure we agree or not.

Do you think that "social context reformers" such as us are obligated to come up with what would be accepted as "scalable reforms"?

I drew that conclusion based on your previous comment. I disagree with that for the reasons I stated. Can you clarify?

I think test-driven reform is on the ropes.

Job#1 is knocking it out.

Let's take a Broad Church approach to challenging the credibality and the claimed results of "reform." Then we can trash out other issues.

Ooops, forgot your question. No, we shouldn't be held to the ill-conceived "scaling up" standard. I think that is a second tier issue to be thrashed out later.

Then I think we do have a difference over tactics, or perhaps strategy.

I think the most powerful stance we can take is to present the most comprehensive case we can for an alternative to the phony reform paradigm, and challenge each and every faulty assumption within it. I do not think we are going to prevail by negotiating issues one by one. We are up against a cohesive, comprehensive overhaul of education, and we need to present a coherent response to each and every faulty aspect. Each piece is connected.

On scalability: taking specific programs and insisting they be designed to apply to highly divergent circumstances is educational stupidity or destructiveness. We have made some progress in identifying factors, elements, that are important in school improvement (some of which take serious money, some do not). This is not a question scaling this or that specific model of professional collaboration, but of insisting educators have time to collaborate. This may be scaling of core factors, but it is not the scalability that 'deformers' have promoted.

That said, some strong things can be scaled up. Take the Learning Record (learningrecord.org). It is a structure that allows - requires - serious teacher autonomy, encourages collaboration, is child centered, provides for an organized gathering of information about each child and thus for individuation, yet has developmental reading scales that can be widely applied. In short, it is the kind of thing that can be scaled and - I think as we cannot be certain - would not cause the one-size-fits-few damage of most 'scalability' projects.


I agree completely.

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