Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Conservatism vs. Ed Reform (Pt. II)

Andy Smarick continues his examination of the uneasy interface between conservatism and ed reform. I took a look at Part I of this series previously, but this time I'm going to skip over the bulk of his post to look at his conclusion, where he posits four issues that he is chewing over.
  • Why doesn’t ed reform seem to appreciate dispositional conservatism?
  • Why doesn’t ed reform ever discuss what should be preserved?
  • I wish my progressive friends appreciated the trouble with technocratic change.
  • Is there a compelling dispositionally conservative response to tragic, longstanding K–12 injustices, like the ongoing failure of urban districts?
The first two strike me more as clues than as questions. In other words, we know ed reform doesn't do those things-- what does that tell us about the nature of ed reform?

Defining dispositional conservatism is a challenge all by itself. I like this picture from Corey Robin (author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin):

Conservatives, at least by reputation, are supposed to be calm, reasonable, quiet, averse to the operatic, friendly to the familiar.  They don’t go looking for trouble in far-off lands. They stay home, tending their gardens, patching the roof, taking care of their children. They want to be left alone. They’re not interested in history’s adventure. They want to leave things be, even if things aren’t so great, because they know that trying to change things, particularly through politics, will only make them worse.

This kind of conservatism was never going to embrace or be embraced by the ed reform movement. Any time you want to shift the flow of power or money in society (and the ed reform movement sought to do both), you have to dynamite some stream beds. Nobody ever gathered money or power by standing up and saying, "Okay, everyone. There's not really a big problem here, so just sit down and don't get excited." It's the same reason that government is always declaring war on some and that disaster capitalists like disruptive change.

Discussing what should be preserved was never going to be on the menu initially, because ed reform was looking to mine money and power out of New Things. There was probably also an element of reformsters believing that anything explicitly preserved from the old system would just become a toehold for resistance to hang onto.

Ironically, dispositional conservatism is now part of the ed reform landscape, because much of the ed reform agenda is now the status quo, so we get reformsters like John White in LA arguing that we must stay the course because changing now will create disorder and disruption.

Sometimes dispositional conservatism is just about whether things are going your way or not. If things aren't going your way, you're not disposed to be conservative.

In other (fewer) words, the lack of love for this type of conservatism and its concerns in ed reform is a clear signal that not all ed reformers were trying to answer the question, "How can we create the best education system?" Some, maybe many, were busy answering a different question, like "How can we open up education to more investment and profit opportunity" or "How can we wrest control of education away from the people who have it now."

If it will make Smarick feel better, I can assure him that many of his progressive friends are not fans of the technocrats. The fact that you have cool computer toys and a big brain and a stack of money does not mean that you have a remote clue about education and how best to do it.

I'd argue that technocrats are the progressive counterparts of rich conservatives. In both cases, we're dealing with someone whose stance is "I have more X than anybody, therefor I should be the person calling the shots." X may equal money, brains, or some manner of success, but the resulting problem is not one of politics, but of ego. You're not trying to run the show because you think you've tapped into some superior philosophy-- you're trying to run the show because you just believe that you are better than other people in a way that makes you qualified to Take Charge.

The fourth question is the hardest one. It's a version of the older question-- can dispositional conservatism solve problems are really extreme. How can "Let's just slow down and think this through carefully before we do anything rash or extreme" be a good position to take if you're in a burning building?

Smarick's question is further complicated by the question of whether or not urban school districts constitute a burning building, and if they are burning, does it matter that the same people who want to demolish the building are the same ones who set fire to it in the first place? Are there actual crises, and are they really educational crises, or crises of power, money and politics?

When considering the possibility of incremental responses to urban schools, it's worth noting that the radical approach to urban school district real or supposed failure has produced no successes, at all. From Philadelphia to New Orleans to Newark to Chicago to Los Angeles to DC, ed reformers have had ample opportunity to try every kind of radical reformy reboots they ever wanted to, and they've pursued these programs with an eye explicitly on scalability. According to the original ed reform narrative, we are by now all supposed to be sitting around learning how to follow the model from some highly successful re-imagined school district. We aren't. Instead, we just keep reading bulletins from Texas and DC and Atlanta, revealing that the miracles were actually illusory.

In other words, even though Smarick seems afraid that a measured dispositionally conservative response to urban school district problems, the evidence suggests that a measured thoughtful careful response to these crises is, to borrow a phrase, the worst possible solution, except for every other one.

These are tough and worthwhile questions to ask. It would be interesting to see if there were a common ground in education for discussion between conservatives and liberals who have concluded that their own leading figures in education have lost sight of the principles of both conservatism and liberalism.

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