Wednesday, February 28, 2018

What Jonathan Chait Doesn't Know

Jonathan Chait has waded again into the education policy field, and despite the confidence with which he speaks, "Obama Has To Save His Forgotten Education Legacy" is a dazzling display of bold, sparkling wrong, welding revisionist history onto a hard shell of incorrectness that is used to cover gaping holes where facts, or at least interpretations grounded in the reality of our own earth, ought to be.

In short, this piece has a lot of wrong in it.

Let's look at all the things that Chait doesn't know.

1) Chait doesn't know how Race to the Top happened.

On February 17, 2009, Barack Obama signed one of the most sweeping federal education reforms in American history.

It wasn't.

In fact, it owed most of its substance to No Child Left Behind, the bi-partisan train wreck implemented under the George W. Bush administration.

Chait notes that RttT was a grant program, modestly sized and hidden within the stimulus package. What he doesn't note is how much of it was simply an extension of NCLB. In fact, the RttT grants were no more influential than the waivers offered to states that followed the RttT requirements, and those waivers were attractive only because every single state was in imminent (if not current) violation of the law under the still-operational NCLB.

NCLB, as we all recall, required 100% of students in 100% of schools in 100% of districts to be pull above average scores on the federally-mandated Big Standardized Test. I occasionally exaggerate for effect; this is not one of those times. Congress had passed a functionally innumerate and literally impossible law on the theory that they would fix it later, before the bill was due. They didn't. So the Obama/Duncan offer was simple-- run your schools the way we tell you to, or be found in violation of federal education law. Most of the states caved.

So NCLB was the stick with which RttT was sold. RttT did one good thing-- it took away the impossible 100% goal. But in all other ways, it assumed that the problem with NCLB was that it was too loose. So the feds would tell states what BS Tests they had to give, they would make the penalties for those tests more punishing, and they would reduce the state/district autonomy over their education standards and plans (howdy, Common Core).

The result was “a marked surge” in school reform, rooted in studying data and spreading best practices.

Also incorrect. The result was a huge emphasis on test results over everything else, with the BS Testing tail wagging the educational dog. Curriculum was narrowed, students were sorted out according to how much their test scores would help or hurt a school. There were no new "best practices" to spread, except for practices intended to increase BS Test scores-- and those practices usually came at the cost of actual educational best practices.

So maybe RttT was "most sweeping" in the sense that it picked up the sledgehammer of NCLB and swung it around the China Shop of education with greater vigor and gusto. But that's nothing to brag about.

2) Chait doesn't know that people talked about it.

Chait seems unaware that RttT was used to push the Common Core. I cannot imagine what rock he hid under to have missed the considerable discussion about that bit of educational awesomeness.

Another reason is that, since the policy split both parties, nobody had an incentive to talk about it.

"Split" seems an odd word. United might be a better one.

3) Chait doesn't know how teachers unions reacted.

Teachers’ unions hated the entire premise of the reforms, which spurred states to adopt policies that gave more money to the most effective teachers and allowed schools to replace the least effective ones.

Wrong again. Teachers union leadership mostly like RttT just fine. Actual teachers, on the other hand, hated it a lot. This had nothing to do with giving more money to the most effective teachers, a policy that was implemented practically nowhere. Teachers hated it because suddenly our classroom practices were tied to a set of amateur-hour, top-down inflicted standards, and our reputations and, in some cases, careers were tied to the result of a single narrowly-aimed, poorly-designed standardized test.

Chait notes that the unions didn't want a public split with a beloved President, and he is correct hen he suggests that many teachers held out the vain hope that somehow Obama didn't know or understand what terrible policy his buddy Arne Duncan was inflicting on education. It is also true, however, that union leadership had to be pushed-- hard-- by members to even issue the milquetoast critiques of Duncan that they finally coughed up.

As long as Obama occupied the White House, though, teachers’ unions had to hold back from a full-scale assault on his education policies, and Obama had no need for a high-profile public defense.

Not wrong, but it was more than Obama-- lots of pseudo-left groups like DFER provided cover for a raft of conservative ed reform policies.

4) Chait hasn't heard of neo-liberalism.

The Obama administration is no longer the public face of liberal education reform. Instead, its opponents are attempting to attach that policy to Donald Trump and his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Chait makes it sound as if this is some sort of trick to "attempt," when in fact it's like attaching the idea of wetness to water. But the real problem here is that Chait is trying to attach the idea of ed reform to some sort of Democrat versus Republican struggle, and while it is true that the parties have made various attempts to leverage ed policy for political points (e.g. "Common Core will turn your daughters into lesbian socialists" or "Only charters can save poor children from poverty"), ed reform has found a coalition standing shoulder to shoulder since the days the both parties signed off in No Child Left Behind.

What ed allies like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush have in common is a dedication to the idea that public spaces like public schools should be carved up, sold of, and left to the private sector to run. You can call it neoliberalism or corporate power grabbing or whatever you like, but the arc of ed reform follows the idea that if we have the right tools, we can prove that public schools are failing and open up that giant mountain of education money to private entrepreneurs, while simultaneously launching a massive program of data mining that will make some folks rich even as it makes the Lesser Classes more useful tools for their Betters.

But none of that matters here because...

5) Chait doesn't know what the "sides" are.

Chait posits that there are three "broad approaches" to education policy. They are...

A) The "left wing" which supports neighborhood-based public schools, "opposes any methods to measure or differentiate the performance of teachers or schools," and argues instead for "alternatives to school reform" like increased anti-poverty spending and getting middle-class parents to enroll in high-poverty schools.

I literally cannot think of a single person who fits this description. In particular, I do not know anyone who opposes any attempt to measure the performance of teachers or schools. I know lots of people who oppose bad attempts to measure performance using tools that cannot actually do that job, but that's a different problem. The "alternatives to school reform" line is particularly clever, since school reform itself is touted as a means to erase poverty, so one might say that the opposing position is less about alternatives to ed reform and more about saying, "The best way to fight poverty would be to spend money actually fighting poverty.

B) Conservative education policy which "believes market competition holds the key to improvement." They like vouchers "to send low-income students to private schools" and want to open charters "with as little regulation as possible" and let the Invisible Hand sort them out.

This is a bit incomplete. Conservatives like the theory that competition breeds excellence-- and so did Arne Duncan and Barack Obama, which I'm pretty sure is not where he's going with this. Voucher fans like to sell vouchers as a poor-kids-go-to-private-schools measure, but mostly what vouchers do is funnel public tax dollars to selective religious schools.

C) The liberal position "sits between the two." Which is why Chait had to pretend that the Left Wing education stance is a thing-- so that he can seem to be championing the reasonable middle. Liberal wingers, apparently, believe in charters, and believe that schools need "more ability to reward excellent teachers and fire low-performing ones." Because teacher contracts make it "virtually impossible" to fire bad teachers. So, so far, liberal reformsters are exactly like conservative reformsters.

But wait! Liberal reformsters also believe that the market is not enough, and that strong oversight boards are needed to keep charters in line. He's going to cite Massachusetts as an example of charter awesomeness here, as well as proof that left-wingers oppose charters even when those charters are awesome. He does not explain where the gazillion people who voted against Massachusetts charter expansion came from, nor does he place the failed dark money astro-turf support group that backed the expansion-- where do they fit here?

Chait has other fish to fry. He wants you to know that his guys-- the liberals-- spoke out against Betsy DeVosian reform in Michigan, and that his side does pay attention to things like the research that says voucher schools do poorly. Because he really, really, really wants there to be some space between Obama and Trump on education reform policy. He wants you to know that the left and the right keep trying to make this a two-sided debate, but his team is totally all by itself in the middle. Also, he wants you to know that only his liberal buddies pay attention to facts and research-- everyone else is just a raving loon.

6) Chait doesn't know what planet he's on.

It's at this point that I can barely track his reasoning.

The left (as defined by Chait) is out to drive Democrats away from liberal reform (as made up and defined by Chait) by treating it as identical to the conservative agenda. But they aren't the same, because even though they both favor charters and both distrust teachers and both think the market should drive school and teacher behavior and both think we should pay (and fire) teachers on merit they are different because.... because.... Wait. Why are they different again? Liberals don't like vouchers?

Never mind, Chait considers this point already made, somehow, so he's moved on. DeVos doesn't count because she's an inadequate failure (Best line: "You can’t do much to alter primary education without some money to spend and a lot of cleverness. Obama had both. Trump and DeVos have neither.") But see, that's okay with the GOP because they just want to shrink the federal government, and so do the unions because the feds are "the only force powerful enough to upset tenure arrangements unions have decided to prioritize" and now I feel like I'm reading one of those articles where a Trumper talks about how the President has increased our prestige abroad and moral authority at home and all I can think is what are you even talking about-- I don't even know where to start. Chait is no help-- his link to support the idea that the GOP and unions are forging "low-key alliances" is a short piece (by himself) that offers as evidence that one time that Diane Ravitch used the word "local" seven times in an article. And he backs that up with an article Ravitch wrote in 2010.

7) Chait doesn't know what his problem is

So the real threat to real education reform is the alliance between the left-wing (as defined by Chait) alliance with the GOP, which in turn has led to the left-wingers attacking liberal reform "as crypto-allies of the GOP." Left-wingers are a wily bunch; I really hope I meet one some day.

But they might succeed because, as Chait posited at the top, nobody knows anything about ed reform, and into their ignorance will swoop the wily left-wingers to paint lovely liberal reform with an ugly Trump brush. And it might work, because to people with eyes and ears, it looks kind of true. Go figure.

But there is a solution!

8) Chait does not know what Barack Obama is capable of

There is, however, one person who has the power to change that: Barack Obama. The former president has nearly universal support among his own party, and he has the platform to command attention to issues he wants to highlight. The people who want to dismantle Obama’s education legacy can only exploit Obama’s absence from the public stage if Obama stays absent from the public stage. If instead Obama decides to speak out for his agenda, and to create room for Democrats to sustain his agenda, he’ll have enormous leverage to do so. Obama could make the case to teachers that they would be better served by unions that prioritize higher pay rather than job security for the least competent members. And he can can explain that progressives should support an active federal role in education, not local control that has perpetrated mediocrity and segregation.

We have now entered the magical thinking portion of our program.

First, Obama never made a compelling case for his education program in the first place. Second, his legacy is not his legacy, but a legacy that belongs to a whole lot of people, including Jeb and George Bush. Third, many teachers still have a funny ache in the middle of their backs, right where he stabbed us.

And nobody-- nobody-- can make a good case for merit pay based on bad metrics like student scores on bad standardized tests (which is what, in Chait's statement, "higher pay" really means-- along with no job security).

Finally, while Chait may be contemptuous of what local control "perpetrates," the feds have had well over a decade to make their case for the reforms they anted to push, and they have failed. The Common Core did not make schools better. Using standardized tests as a proxy for educational achievement, and attaching those tests to punishments and rewards and more punishments did not make schools better. Unleashing charters and the power of competition did not make schools better. Disenfrachising local elected school boards did not make schools better. They had their chance. They failed. Better PR and a more charismatic spokesman will not change that.

9) Chait does not know that people have already been talking about all of this

For about two years, reformsters have been talking about how things break down within their movement, what worked and what didn't, what alliances have been formed and which ones have been tested. Honestly, they've been pretty thoughtful about it, and considerably more reality-based than Chait is here. The next time he gets an urge to write a piece like this, he should try talking to or reading the work of other reformsters. I think they could help him out here.


  1. NCLB became a form of de-facto entrapment. By 2014 it was unconstitutional and should have been challenged. Imagine a law that requires every municipality to have one road that all cars were required to travel - complete with hefty fines for speeding. A clause in the traffic law also requires the speed limit to decrease annually, until it reached Zero. Yet cars are still required to travel down the road. All cars are thus forced to violate the speed limit of zero and thus subject to fines because of a law that no driver could comply with even if they wanted to. If challenged, such a preposterous law would not stand a legal leg to stand on. States sat on their hands as the USDOE implemented such a law and then played the extortion card: The offer almost no state could refuse. Get out of jail if . . . and thus the Common Coercion was spawned along with its bastard children, PARCC and SBAC and VAM and BigData.

    A tale so unbelievable that any non-teacher I have explained this to has had trouble processing such cognitively dissonant information.

    And all just to shine a spotlight on the unfortunate. Just a spotlight. Year after year after year under NCLB: "Hey look at all those failing schools and failing teachers and failing children. And their solution to the problem of millions of mostly poor, minority children failing standardized tests in math and ELA - let's make the tests harder! Hopefully, the history books will not treat the test-threaten-and-punish reform movement very well.

  2. I've read Chait's crap before. Here's something you should always keep in mind.

    Chait always sneaks in --- using the digital text equivalent of mumbling under one's breath --- that his wife makes a living in the charter school industry (yet fails to mention that it's a hugely lucrative living at that.)

    He's trying to avoid the embarrassing fate of Campbell Brown when she failed to mention her husband's ties to corporate ed. reform. She got roasted over this, and was forced to issue a half-assed apology for it.

    In effect, he can then say, "Oh yes, I DID mention my wife's position in the charter school industry ... you know, where I kinda-sorta mentioned, or rather vaguely implied it in the third sentence of the sixth paragraph, so I'm off the hook on that, folks."

  3. "Let's look at all the things that Chait doesn't know."

    It would take many, many lifetimes to cover all that. Glad you stuck to a handful of specific, relevant things he doesn't know about education.