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Thompson: Pro-Reform Pundit Embraces Education Reality

YglesiasSlate's Matthew Yglesias supports education reform and yet his Education Reform, Not "Populism" Divides Democrats speaks the wisdom that must be heeded.*

Yglesias observes that the party is not that terribly conflicted over the arcane economic issue of whether "leverage ratio" should be 10 or 8%. But, "if you want to look at a really significant ideological divide among Democrats, you should look at education." Reformers made their case and Congress didn't buy it.

So, it is time to drop the theory that test-driven teacher evaluations can advance a progressive agenda and move on.

I hope Yglesias will listen to educators' explanation of why market-driven reform failed, so that he can advance conversations about the best ways for not making the same types of mistakes in other sectors of the economy. I also would like to hear from the reformers who Yglesias mentions, especially Sen. Cory Booker and President Obama, and understand why they embraced school reform. Did they do so because corporate reformers gave them an offer they couldn't refuse, or did we teachers make mistakes that encouraged them to attack our profession so stridently? 

Politicos may find this wierd, but the teacher in me keeps coming back to the question of whether we share the blame for the teacher-bashing known as "reform." Back in the 1990s, were we too slow to address the concerns of Chicago and Newark community organizers? Or, were we just in the wrong place at the wrong time and were bulldozed by the Billionaires' Boys Club? 

After the break is the case that I would like to make to Ygleisas.

Twenty-something years ago, teachers were just minding our business and trying to do our jobs. Off-hours, some focused on school reform, some engaged in union activities, others invested their spare time in coaching Little League sports, their churches, or just hanging out.

Reformers decided that our choices showed that we weren't devoted enough to poor children of color and then "deputized" us as the agents for overcoming generational poverty. From my perspective, educators were surprisingly quick in trying to respond to the challenge and unions, especially, were as flexible as I would think was possible in trying to work with these new reformers. After all, we also had to collaborate with states and school systems, as we persuaded our members to make adjustments. In theory, we could have turned on a dime and joined the reform crusade, as we also convinced the newcomers that they needed some policies that were more reality-based.    

These new reformers were sincere, but few of them had education experience and those who did had barely spent enough time in schools to learn where the restrooms were. They were in too much of a hurry to listen to practitioners or to even read any education history. Oblivious to an immense body of education research, reformers barged ahead with their hypothesis that instruction within the four walls of the classroom could systematically overcome extreme poverty, as opposed to producing individual victories in exceptional cases.  Instruction-driven, curriculum-driven reform failed in the ways that social science predicted. Reformers, however, blamed teachers for not seeing the beauty of their vision. 

Perhaps teachers and reformers can now unite behind the leadership of Mayor Bill de Blasio. Maybe we can put the last decade or two behind us and advocate for early education and full-service community schools.

On the other hand, perhaps the anger between educators and reformers is still too intense to talk about. Maybe, the best we can do is agree to disagree. Reformers could continue to believe that they could have fired their way to the top, as they quietly let their test-driven teacher evaluation policies fade into history. Perhaps, teachers should just bite our tongues and merely collaborate on non-education issues with our former allies turned mortal enemies. Regardless, no real improvement in schools is possible until we at least call a truce, and Matthew Yglesias's piece is a great place to start.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.          

*Hat tip to Alexander Russo for showcasing this call for a Democratic version of "Nixon to China."



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Great piece. I would add, however, that most of the reforms are not actually instruction-driven or curriculum-driven. They're more governance-driven and organizational-chart-driven and workforce-change-driven. In the reform efforts I've seen, there is not even time for curriculum or instruction changes to have an effect before a new leader is brought in or a new test regimen is introduced.

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