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Bruno: The Mistaken Logic of "Other Peoples' Children"

11702251703_cd2a666b14_nIt has become popular among critics to argue that many education reformers are pushing for changes they would never subject their own children to because they do not really care whether "other peoples' children" receive quality educational opportunities.

You can see the "other peoples' children" argument being made here, here, or here. It even has at least one Twitter hashtag.

The underlying logic of that argument has always puzzled me because it seems plausible that different kids have different educational needs and that the children of prominent reformers are likely to be systematically different than other children, particularly the least-privileged children who tend to be the focus of reform efforts.

So I'm not sure why we're supposed to recoil in horror at the thought that education should be differentiated, even if we can reasonably disagree about precisely what that differentiation should look like.

Even more puzzling is the fact that the "other peoples' children" argument only makes sense if you assume that "other people" don't want the proposed education reforms for their own children.

That assumption is often wrong as an empirical matter of fact. As Bonnie Eslinger reports this week, for instance, KIPP and Rocketship charter schools are often very popular among "other people" despite (or because of) the fact that they embody many reformy ideas.

Does their popularity among actual parents mean that those schools and ideas are necessarily effective or optimal as matters of public policy? Of course not. (Although there is some evidence to that effect.)

It is a useful reminder, however, that dismissing ideas on the basis of the essentially ad-hominem "other peoples' children" argument is probably not wise. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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How is that ad hominem? We're talking about something highly relevant that exists quite flamboyantly through the entire world of "reformers," not picking on individuals for personal characteristics.

Parents who choose "no excuses" charters are often attracted because of the self-selection or pro-active selectivity -- kids who can't cut it aren't there, and aren't dragging down or disrupting their kids' classes. That's what we hear that Rocketship "happy parent" saying. So that's a complicated issue.

But when "reform" critics talk about powerful people imposing policies on schools while cloistering their own kids in school that do the opposite, we're talking about things like the idea that temp beginner teachers are preferable and experienced veterans are useless deadwood(not in their own kids' schools); that cutting out art, music, P.E. etc. are preferable and a high degree of test prep is ideal (not in their own kids' schools); that large classes are fine and small classes are a pointless waste of money (not in their own kids' schools).

How are those criticisms not valid, Paul? And, again, that is not an ad hominem comment -- it's completely fair, valid and relevant.

@Caroline - Of course, it's perfectly reasonable to argue that any particular reform is bad for kids in general or for particular kids. As I said, the ad hominem part is the assumption of bad faith on the part of reformers, which is at the core of the "other peoples' children" rhetoric. The whole "other peoples' children" line only makes sense as a claim that reformers don't actually care as much about "other kids'" educations.

If you are assuming bad motives - in this case, a lack of interest in the well-being of "other peoples' children" - that is an attack on reformers' "personal characteristics" and therefore ad hominem.

I don't agree with that as a definition of "ad hominem." It's completely reasonable to point it out if Ford dealers only drive Toyotas, or whatever. It shows quite conclusively that they don't believe in the quality or efficacy of what they're selling. That observation doesn't address their motives; it just demonstrates that they themselves have no faith in what they're telling us.

It's the equivalent of fact-checking a politician's claim and then accurately announcing that it was false. Not ad hominem -- completely righteous, fair, valid, reasonable and justified.

I can't imagine wanting to own a pickup truck - I've got a Civic I'm very happy with - but I might nevertheless recommend a pickup truck to somebody else. You could reasonably disagree with that recommendation, but assuming bad faith or poor motivations on my part would be ad hominem as it would be an attack on my "personal characteristics" (your words, incidentally).

Caroline, parents don't choose their children the way they choose cars. Different people have different needs, children included.

CarolineSF (have you been ill? The Internet has missed your ubiquitous anti-KIPP diatribes):

The situation is rather more like if the Chipotle's CEO was found eating at steakhouses and confessed that he actually didn't like burritos. Would that prove anything about how delicious other people might find Chipotle's or how nutritious their burritos might be? Obviously not.

In any event, your caricature of edu-reformers is silly. Rewording things:

"we're talking about things like the idea that temp beginner teachers are preferable and experienced veterans are useless deadwood."

NO ONE says this. What edu-reformers say -- and you have to pay attention, because this is not logically equivalent to what you said -- is that experienced teachers are not automatically better than younger teachers. Instead, good teachers can be found at every age, and there are some (not all) older teachers who may be burnt out or in the wrong place. Thus, rigid rules like LIFO or rigid pay scales that automatically give people more money just for being older are not a good way to encourage good teachers to stay in the profession. Instead, good teachers should be encouraged no matter how old or young they are. That is what reformers say.

"that cutting out art, music, P.E. etc. are preferable"

No one says this, not ever.

"and a high degree of test prep is ideal."

No one says this either. Some charter schools do have more reading and math class in order to help kids catch up.

"that large classes are fine and small classes are a pointless waste of money."

Some reformers make an argument that simple-minded people might confuse for this. But it's more complicated. What these reformers would say is that class size is secondary to the quality of the teacher. If the teacher is awesome, it may make more sense to have more kids in that class. And if reducing class size indiscriminately requires hiring a bunch of newbie incompetent teachers (which happened in California and which you were supposedly against), then reducing class size is a bad idea.

If you present me with a new product you've created, and your sales pitch is "This is the absolutely healthiest choice for every single child in the country," whether or not you choose that for your own child is neither ad hominem nor beside the point. That choice tells me whether or not you actually believe your own story.

Common Core and its attendant reformy features were not pitched as standards that might be good for some students. They were pitched as the best thing for every single child in the country. Is that the truth, or not?

The "other people's children" argument does not rest on the assumption of bad faith-- it creates it. If a coach, for instance, tells you that he wants all the children on the team this new supplement because its harmless and good for everybody, but that he would never give it to his own child, your reaction has nothing to do about how much you trusted that coach in the past. However it will surely affect how much you trust that coach in the future.

What is it with anti-reformers, that you have to exaggerate so wildly? No one has even remotely said that Common Core "is the absolutely healthiest choice for every single child in the country." If you pay attention, Common Core supporters will, at most, say that having a common set of standards is better than what we have now (a patchwork of inconsistent standards of highly varying quality). Bill Gates makes that point -- and whether his own child is in a Common Core-using school has absolutely no bearing on whether that point is true.

If every edublog commenter was WT, I might go back to reading comments on edublogs.

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