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Thompson: NY Reformers Claim that Elections Don't Matter

A cornerstone of the contemporary school reform movement is the assumption that experience and a knowledge of education research, history, and the way that systems actually operate don't matter.  A few weeks of summer training supposedly preps 23-year-olds to be teachers and business leaders to become superintendents, and to mandate the top-down policies favored by the non-educators at the Broad Institute.  

During the first decade of NCLB, reformers drew upon some of the best public relations spin that money can buy and corporate reformers won political victory after political victory. Over the last few years, hugely expensive test-driven reforms have produced little in terms of education improvements and they are now suffering political defeats across the nation.

The implication of Kate Taylor's New York Times analysis, Bloomberg Is No Longer Mayor, but His Schools Agenda Thrives in Albany, is that in New York, at least, elections no longer matter. Taylor reports that Bloomberg "has been out of office for a year and a half, but his influence over New York schools is practically as strong as ever." 

Taylor explains that StudentsFirstNY, "a group devoted to continuing his education agenda and founded in part by his longtime schools chancellor has become one of the most powerful forces in Albany by pouring millions into lobbying and adroitly exploiting rivalries in state politics." Taylor doesn't editorialize, but her reporting leads to the question of whether the most vocal of those Albany forces, Governor Andrew Cuomo, is more interested in the substance of school improvement or in rebuking Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Not surprisingly, the elite reform coalition has been skillful in attacking de Blasio, teachers' unions, and, basically, anyone who disagrees with them.  Perhaps it is surprising however, that corporate reformers have come close to revealing what they are really devoted to - and its not democracy.

Governor Cuomo and his deep-pocketed allies ignored the fact that de Blasio was elected by voters who presumably knew that their mayor is in charge of NYC schools. He slapped down the duly elected officeholder by limiting his control of schools to one year.  Cuomo then explained, “Next year we can come back, ... and if he does a good job, then we can say he should have more control.”

De Blasio's spokesperson replied, “When a group professing to support education reform opposes mayoral control of schools, it calls into question what exactly it stands for.” That is an appropriately precise characterization of New York edu-politics, but a broader question must be asked. Nowadays, what does the accountability-driven school reform movement stand for? 

Alexander Russo, in NYT Details Topsy-Turvy NY Education Debate But Mysteriously Omits FOIA Emails, grounds the topsy-turviness in some reality, "And it’s also worth noting that the hard push from Governor Cuomo and others has included some proposals that have appeared to be more reckless than bold, such as making student test scores count for 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation."

I wonder whether Russo means that he see these policies as "progress" for schools, not just towards a political goal. Regardless, he acknowledges that they produced "enormous pushback." He further observes, "Reform advocates were able to keep ahead of the critique in New York City, by and large, but would seem to have lost some amount of parent support in surrounding areas."

This also brings us back to what matters for today's reform movement. I'm sure reformers would like to improve schools, but their priority seems to be defeating persons who believe differently than they do. Are reformers concerned about governing, or are they obsessed with revenge against their opponents?

Jim Dyer's Charming, Ruthless Andrew Cuomo, in the New York Review of Books, read in conjunction with Kate Taylor's piece, helps answer that question in terms of New York. Dyer recalls Cuomo's vindictiveness, pettiness, "poor grace," and his practice of "asymmetrical warfare," as well as some of his previous nicknames such as "Mario's Id." The young Cuomo said, "I like to think that I think the big thoughts. But I also like to operationalize."  (emphasis added) 

Are Cuomo and other reformers still determined to impose their big thoughts on schools while calling them "reforms?" If they could reverse their edu-political defeats of the last couple of years, would they be interested in learning operational lessons from their education failures? Or, are they mostly contemptuous of the quaint concept known as democracy? -JT(@drjohnthompson)


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John, please put "reform" in quotation marks -- I use "so-called 'reform' " to make the point clear and in my humble opinion you should too. From the San Francisco Chronicle stylebook: "Reform ... means a change for the better. A reform to one person may be a change for the worse to another. Use 'change' or another word unless it is clearly a reform."

John, please put "reform" in quotation marks -- I use "so-called 'reform' " to make the point clear and in my humble opinion you should too. From the San Francisco Chronicle stylebook: "Reform ... means a change for the better. A reform to one person may be a change for the worse to another. Use 'change' or another word unless it is clearly a reform."

Caroline, I did that for years. Now, given the obvious failure of that ill-fated experiment, the quotes seem unnecessary.

Thank you John for your always timely factual analysis of the problems we are experiencing in education and the solutions to those problems.

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