Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Is Ed Reform a Clash of Class Cultures

At CRPE, Steven Hodas has an interesting read of the conflict reformsters and traditionalists (tip of the hat to Andy Smarick). I think his "Clash of Cultures: Blue Collar, White Collar and School Reform" gets the wrong read on some aspects of the issues, but there's some valuable insight in there as well.

Hodas is writing specifically from the perspective of New York City's reformy battles, but most of what he says could be considered in the broader sense.

The first part of his notion about culture clash is telegraphed by the title. He sees teachers as a blue collar culture squaring off against the white collar world of reformsters, and these culture clashes fed into an increasingly heated battle that turned to personal and brutal attacks. Hodas outlines what he sees as the fundamental difference in cultures. The traditional school culture was much like a culture of tradesmen:

The techniques of day-to-day practice (on a job site, at a fire, in the classroom) were largely unwritten; passed through stories, lore, and peer-mediated experience. Coming up through the system was both an educative and a normative experience, reinforcing the workplace culture and drawing clear boundaries between insiders and outsiders. The centers of gravity and legitimacy were situated with the front-line workers themselves, and only those managers who had risen through the ranks of successive apprenticeship had legitimized authority. Attempts by non-legitimized authority to impose rules or shape practice were generally ignored or subverted.

I'm not sure how strictly blue-collar this is. Lawyers and doctors have a similar trade-like approach to earning your way into the profession by paying your dues, learning the Way We Do Things, and apprenticing (but for professional folks, of course, apprenticing is called interning). But that's not how things work in the white-collar managerial culture, says Hodas.

Contrast this with the white-collar, managerially focused culture represented by Bloomberg and Klein. This was a much more abstracted, rationalized notion of practice that assumes that structure and incentives—not experience and relationships—are the most powerful determinants of practice. In this framework, seniority and experience are suspect, even potential detriments, because they are bound up with the culture and practices of the old worldview. They reek of personal loyalties and obligations, which are not assets but liabilities to org chart-style managers.

At this point, I think Hodas misses one other huge difference in cultures, though in a way it's not a difference at all. The white collar world of a Bloomberg or Klein really isn't that different all-- it, too, runs on relationships and experience. Follow the threads surrounding the history of reformsters like Klein over the past decade, and you find the management class consistently working with old friends, old connections, people who have proven themselves to be "the right kind of people." The Broad Academy, like many elite universities, counts a great deal on networking and bringing the Right Kind of People in contact with each other.

Broad and TFA are both examples of how the "white-collar" culture rejects the tradition of training and experience and replaces it with the notion that the Right Kind of People can skip all of that. There's no structure and incentives there-- just connections among people who have proven to have the right background by virtue of their relationships and experiences.

Now, I think Hodas is right about the reformster love of systems and incentives-- but not for themselves. Those kinds of structures and systems and incentives are required for the Little People, but not the reformsters themselves-- they don't need any such structure because they already know they are the Right Kind of People. When folks in this elite class need someone to fill a particular top-level job, they do not rely on systems and structures and rationalizations-- they cal a guy they know. They resent both the traditional tradesman-style structures and their own rationalized systems because those are for little people. Someone like, say, an Eva Moskowitz should not be held back by rules because she's already known by her relationships and experience to be the Right Kind of Person with connections to more of the Right Kind of People.

In short, I'm not sure the culture clash as Hodas lays it out is so much about different ideas of structure as it is about different levels of social class.

But he correctly points out that much teacher resistance and bristling has been about a sense that people like Klein and Moskowitz and organizations like TFA represent a challenge to and devaluing of the very culture that teachers came up in professionally themselves.

I think Hodas also misses one other important point here-- the reformster programs, their systems and structures and rationalizations, have been used in the service of bad practices. Reform has given us lots of things that our new leaders swear ought to work-- and yet do not. This is not a phenomenon restricted to public schools. Private industry sees plenty of it, too, where new management comes in and sweeps clean the old structures, traditions and culture of the company.

The critical difference between failure and success in these instances is not about the clash of cultures-- it's about whether the imposed culture actually shows expertise and accomplishment. If the new way of doing things is successful, people shut up fairly quickly and fall in line. Ed reformers have had at least a decade to procure this result, and they have failed. Every one of their reformy ideas has failed. So it's not just the culture-- it's that the culture did not bring anything useful with it.

I am aware that my last point hinges on the definition of the words "fail" and "succeed," and that those definitions are themselves culture-dependent. But let me move on to a point that I think Hodas hits on the head.

Reform critics are correct to have sniffed a corporatist agenda within this strand of school reform, but they have fundamentally misconstrued the motive. It’s less about extracting profits than it is about advancing a cultural hegemony.

Absolutely. I've never believed that Bill Gates was pushing reform because he thinks it will make him more money. I believe that he and many other reformsters look at US public education and see a system that just doesn't work right. I believe they are in the grip of the same basic impulse as an OCD person walking into a room with twenty portraits hanging crookedly on the walls. From their perspective, they see a system that just doesn't work the way a system should, and they want to fix that.

They want to extend their culture into school culture for the same reason that European missionaries wanted Africans to wear pants-- it's just the right thing to do.

The newly debarked white-collar managers saw themselves as missionary and insurgent, their nominal authority threatened and undermined at every turn by aboriginal cultures of practice. Where they found strongholds they dismantled them, most significantly in the community school districts and in the central Division of Teaching and Learning (headed at the time by Carmen Farina, now de Blasio’s Chancellor and settling scores). Wherever possible, the ground was salted and a new language of practice imposed in an attempt to prevent the old order from reestablishing itself.

In other words, for them, success was not primarily about educating students well as much as it was about making the school system work the way it was supposed to, to follow the right rules. If some feel as if reformsters want to put teachers in their place, it's because, yeah, the pretty much do.

...what is saliently "corporate" about these sponsors is not that they are profit seeking, but that they represent thoroughly white-collar notions about work and value expressed in endless wonky tweaking of measurements, incentives, and management structures that feel increasingly disconnected from the lived experience of students, parents, and teachers.

It's a model worth noting, because I think we traditionalist often ascribe motives to reformsters that are both more and less complex than their real ones, and because any kind of discussion across the lines of battle will require us to translate across cultural boundaries. I think the cultures on both side of this divide are far more diverse and varied than Hodas allows for, but then, I'm no stranger to over-simplifying to make a point. However, it's worth noting that on top of the white collar managerial culture that he's talking about, reformsters also include the culture of the super-rich and the mega-powerful, and that's a whole other kettle of balled-up wax fish. Still, the lens of clashing cultures is one more way to view the struggle for the soul of public education in this country, and it offers some insights worth seeing.


  1. Powerful corporations have been wielding influence in public education in this country all along. Horrendous as it is, it really shouldn't come as a surprise that business people are dictating the who/what/how of educational policy and practice in this day and age. It is my observation that even the most progressive politicians look to education as a means to "level the playing field" and lessen the extreme range of inequality in this country. Business leaders and politicians cannot understand why many of us see corporate involvement as destructive, obvious as it may be to us. I cannot help but conclude that the culture war is not something so simplistic as the white collar/blue collar divide. Most people in this country don't even know what a blue collar mentality is. The sad truth is that school is supposed to prepare students for life in the "real world" and the "real world" as we once knew it, has changed. I will stand by my personal philosophy that education is about cultivation, and that a cultivated person can adapt and learn and integrate into many different scenarios. But a cultivated person's abilities cannot be assessed, even by the most sophisticated software. If testing isn't the answer (and it isn't), what is? How can you present an argument about what it means to be educated that powerful people who only understand numbers will accept? That question is at the heart of the cultural divide.

  2. Steven Hodas makes me very, very angry. His own profile describes himself as being an "education and online-communities entrepreneur" in the "business of education." My first point: education is not a business. Hodas has no background in education. Two years ago he became the director of NYC's Dept. of Ed's Office of Innovation and is "most proud about having launched a successful collection of initiatives to forge stronger relationships between districts and edtech vendors." (This is from edsurge.) It's nice that he's worked to get teacher feedback to vendors to improve their software. But he's just another IT business guy like Gates who thinks technology is everything and who feels superior to everyone else. Technology is nice but give me a whiteboard or chalkboard, paper and pencils for the students, and a few selected readings and I can do a very good job of teaching. He quit his director job because with de Blasio's election, "Carmen Farina's restoration clearly represents the return of the repressed ["aboriginal" meaning "primitive"] culture" of "practitioner over managerial perspective" so he feels his power is being taken away. He mischaracterizes himself as being an objective outsider watching the "mutual distrust and incomprehension of the two cultures" when it's clear which one he belongs to. Yeah, it's a question of hegemony (hegemony: dominion; preponderant influence or authority of one group over another) and it's also about profit, because that's where these people's power comes from.

    I find it interesting that he considers teaching a blue-collar job. He lumps teaching in with other municipal jobs like police, fire, and sanitation, then lumps them together with the trades and talks about how traditionally people didn't have college for these jobs or were the first in their family to have it, so they're blue collar, while business managers are white-collar. Say what? You've always needed college to teach. I'm a teacher and all four of my grandparents had college degrees. I have great respect for the trades, though Hodas doesn't seem to, but it just doesn't make sense to me to call teaching either blue or white-collar. I think, although it got somewhat better once we had more men in the profession and got unions, that teaching, like other jobs that women mainly held like secretary and bankteller, has always been disrespected as a profession in this country because it was thought of as a women's profession.

  3. To me Hodas gets it wrong in almost every way. He says that blue-collar jobs, among which he includes teaching, were traditionally - until the reformers came in to save the day - built on "craft apprenticeship" and "the value of personal relationships gained through immersion and tenure in the workplace" and knowing the hierarchy and rules, and that "techniques of day-to-day practice were largely unwritten," while "only those managers who had risen through the ranks of successful apprenticeship had legitimized authority." Meanwhile, the new-to-education "white-collar, managerially focused culture represented by Bloomberg and Klein" was a much more "abstracted, rationalized [what does that even mean and why should it be good?] notion of practice that assumes that structure and incentives - not experience and relationships - are the most poweful determinants of practice."

    I do not even recognize this universe of "culture" that Hodas uses to describe teaching. I'm ok with him talking about "craft apprenticeship" because I do consider it a craft, but there's really not an "apprenticeship," it's more like throwing you in to sink or swim. The only "personal relationships" I had time to form during the school day were with students in forming a learning community, and I don't think that's what he's talking about. I don't consider hierarchy and rules particularly helpful. The techniques of "day-to-day practice" that I consider most helpful are the written ones that come from cognitive psychology. The principals or "managers" that I've known did not "rise through the ranks of successful apprenticeship," they were mostly failed teachers. Most teachers who like to teach don't want to be principals because they want to teach, not "manage," though all teachers are managers because they have to manage their classrooms. Again, I don't know what "relationships" he's talking about, because there's no time in the school day to form the professional relationships among colleagues that could be helpful, and I thought a main reason for unions was that you didn't have to suck up to the higher-ups. And how can experience be a bad thing? Most teachers are more motivated by the incentive of seeing their students learn than by monetary reward incentives or the disincentive of being fired at whim. And I believe structure is important, but the structure of applying cognitive learning strategies, not a system of misapplied data-gathering. In short, Hodas' analysis shows he has no freaking idea what he's talking about and I find everything he says wrong, demeaning and insulting.