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Thompson: Rick Hess Is Back!

Rick’s back! And Hess’s Personality Quiz: Am I a Wannabe Edu-Bureaucrat? is hilarious. Every other paragraph, I had to shout at the computer screen, “I wish I’d said that!” 

The conservative Rick Hess, who hasn’t explicitly repudiated his identification as a school reformer (or conservatism), is back blogging at Education Week after a several week hiatus. Hess unveils a 17-point quiz which can determine, “Congrats! You're an aspiring bureaucrat!” In doing so, the American Enterprise Institute scholar explains the rise of a new “cheery, ready-made mantra for your brand of ‘reform.’ It's: ‘Meet the new boss; same as the old boss . . . except this time you're going to be lucky to have a really, really smart boss. Not like all those others who have come before.’"

Hess identifies wannabe edu-bureaucrats by asking whether they “routinely describe teachers and schools as ‘good’ or ‘effective’ based on limited, simplistic, standardized metrics like reading and math scores,” seek to impose the “right way to train all new teachers” and mandate teacher evaluation models “for every school in every district in their state,” or condemn parents who opt out of standardized tests as irresponsible.

Wannabe edu-bureaucrats “get a warm feeling when talk turns to ‘P-20 alignment.’" They believe that “people who disagree with me on Common Core, ESEA, teacher evaluation, and the rest are mostly just playing politics. … [and] really wish they'd simmer down and shut up.” Aspiring bureaucrats aren’t trained to conduct or evaluate research, and they “rarely read beyond an abstract,” but they find that "good” research usually agrees with their views on reform. These wannabes “find it easiest to communicate in acronyms and buzzwords.”

Hess writes that you might be a wannabe edu-bureaucrat if “I've never been reminded of the USSR's 'five-year plans' when the U.S. Department of Ed orders waiver states to devise . . . five-year plans, with ambitious (if arbitrary) race-based performance targets.”

A serious analysis of “reform” overreach can’t pack the punch of Hess’s wit, but it can supplement it. For instance, there are reasons why Hess is correct and reformers have become more edu-bureaucratic in the last five years. Under Arne Duncan’s USDOE, competition-driven, test-driven reformers got everything on their wildest wish lists. Many of the reformers’ market-driven, standards-driven, and accountability-driven policies are mutually contradictory. Some policies verged on Libertarianism (for their choice schools) while others imposed social engineering on the rest of us. But, Duncan and the Billionaires Boys Club "incentivized" almost every state to abruptly codify reformers opinions' into law.  Now they have to double-down, forcing schools into fulfilling the unkeepable promises they were coerced into making.

Pre-Duncan, the term “earned autonomy” encapsulated the tension between Free Marketeers and wannabe edu-bureaucrats.  Favored schools, with high test scores (resulting from creaming higher performing students), were granted the autonomy to teach meaningful concepts in an engaging manner. Low-performing schools (that serve everyone who walks in the door) were often required to teach to the basic skills tests and to follow a mandated "aligned and paced" curriculum. If its Tuesday, students must master Reconstruction and move Wednesday to Imperialism, and so on. 

Hess is thus lampooning the results of a dog catching the bus it was chasing. Charter management organizations (CMOs) were incentivized into taking over larger numbers of failing schools that creamed less (and had often been made worse by top-down micromanaging by edu-bureaucrats.)  Now charters are supposed to be reporting large increases of test scores as evidence that they produced transformative change. So, many of them are now trapped by the same dynamics that damaged traditional public schools. Many new edu-bureaucratic charter school bosses mandate the same disgusting, lockstep, teach-to-the test pedagogy. They require their teachers to practice education malpractice, skimming through the tested material in a manner that guarantees the information goes into one of students' ears and quickly out their other. 

Of course, it is more fun for traditional public school teachers to read Hess's scorn of edu-bureaucrats who micromanage neighborhood schools. But, he is just as skillful in ridiculing the wannabes who are pressuring charters to abandon the policies, such as Spartan disciplinary regimes and the refusal to "backfill," that gave them an unfair advantage in competing with neighborhood schools.  

We should not pick and choose between Hess's hilarious indictment of edu-bullying by reformers and laugh only at his lines that are consistent with our own agendas. The big difference between the social engineering that preceded Duncan and the edu-bureaucracy he unleashed is that it is now dumped on the poorest kids in both neighborhood and charter schools. Both absurdities are the result of a hubris that would be hilarious were it not for its effects on students and teachers-JT(@drjohnthompson)


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