Sunday, April 6, 2014

Six Heads of the Reformy Hydra

Public education really does have many enemies these days, and while it may sometimes seem like they are a large amorphous mass, there are distinctions to be made. These six groups have come together in a perfect storm to bring us to the mess that is our current high stakes test driven corporate agenda status quo. To defend ourselves, it's best to see each one clearly.


The Profiteers (money)


The education sector involves of hundreds of billions of dollars that are just sitting there doing nothing when they could be turning profits for operators and investors. To get their hands on that money, profiteers have focused attention on three basic initiatives:

1) Open the market. The government monopoly on school operation needed to be broken so private school operators could be allowed to have a shot at all that money. Let a million charter schools bloom.

2) Unify the market. Trying to sell products and services to thousands of different customers (schools), each with different requirements, wastes time and money. Worse yet, the specter of open-source DIY teaching materials was getting scary-looking. Instead, let's find a way to get all of the customers (schools) to be in the market for the same services with the exact same requirements. CCSS turns all schools in the nation into one market for teaching materials.

3) Cut costs. The challenge of the education biz is that it's very hard to generate more revenue. Instead, focus has to go to cutting costs. Teachers are expensive, and the longer you keep them, the more expensive they become. Tenure and FILO are expensive.

Profiteers have been primarily those who are already filthy rich; to clear a path for their initiatives, they have spent a lot of money making sure that the rules are rewritten to favor their business plans. Pick up a copy of Fast Food Nation and you can see what they're up to. Use legislation to set market rules that favor your business model. Replace all labor with unskilled, regularly turned over employees. And of course, you have to be free to run your business as you see fit, without interference from pesky elected officials.

Profiteers aren't too worried about school quality. In their world, it's not how good a job you're doing-- it's how well you can sell it. Testing is useful because it's a scalable service that makes big $$. Profiteers are practical; not ideologues. Just show them the money. They recognize, however, that you can't just go out in public and announce that you want to make a lot of money, so they have looked for some kind of principled cover story.


The Business Competition Fans (survival of the fittest)

Unlike the profiteers, this group is largely composed of people who don't actually run businesses, but are pretty sure they would kick ass if they did. They are fans of economic Darwinism-- businesses that fail should be shut down, and employees who suck should be canned. Competition makes everybody better. If we made every school and teacher fight for their continued existence, education would be great. Dump the losers. Force the low scorers out.

These guys support testing because we need a way to separate winners and losers. We need teacher evaluation so we can separate bad teachers from highly effective ones. CCSS provides a nice clear list of deliverables, a way to keep score. BCFs have been deeply pissed off that we got beaten on the PISA. They would like tenure and FILO to go away because they are an affront to how the world is supposed to work.

BCF are ideologues. Profiteers may find them naive or impractical, but they provide good cover, so profiteers are happy to set BCF's up with their own think tank or congressional seat. Profiteers also find it useful to pretend to be BCFs, but if you wave the right stack of money at them, they'll drop their principles quicker than a well-greased pig.


The Systems Guys (organization)


These are the engineers and software developers. They believe in orderly, sensible systems. And what they saw when they looked at US public education was a horrid, random, higgledy-piggledy mess, a Rube Goldberg half-baked machine for delivering education to children.

Their vision is an assembly line in which each content delivery specialist (aka "teacher") is an interchangeable standardized piece of equipment and each student is an interchangeable standardized product who is receiving an identically shiny well-polished program. In the systems world, every classroom looks the same, every teacher acts the same, every student learns the same. On any given minute of any given day, each first grade teacher in the country would be speaking the same words. It has not really occurred to the systems guys that such an image is more horrifying than inspiring.

Individual human behavior and variations just mess up the system. Everything that can be done by computer (including grading essays) should be. Classrooms should be teacher-proof. The perfect educational program will work no matter what the student's background is. We need teacher evaluations to root out non-standard behavior. And it would be ideal to get democratically elected school boards out of the way because they are "unstable." Having all students take the same tests allows us to measure across the system, identifying and correcting any portions of the system that have slipped out of alignment.And while we'll talk about personalized education, what we really mean is an individualized station at which to board the exact same train on the exact same tracks as everyone else.


The Social Engineers (uplift for the masses)


These guys are out to fix society. They are alarmed. Students are not prepared for college. Workers are not prepared to be good productive learners. The Chinese and Indians are beating us in the competition for (crappy, lowpaying) jobs. Our children are weak and dumb, and their mothers coddle them and tell them they're awesome. And poor people insist on being poor.

What would fix all this? Better schools! Better schools would prepare students for college. It would give them proper training for high quality jobs. The achievement gap would close. And because every high school graduate, properly educated, would step right into a better-than-minimum-wage job, poverty would end.

To be honest, I'm not sure that anybody in the Reformy World actually believes this at all. But it is the heart of the shilling for the Common Core-- particularly in poor and urban districts:

"Your crappy schools have failed to teach your children what they need to know to get ahead in this world, so we have whipped up a list of what everybody needs to know in order to succeed, and we are going to require every single school to teach it-- including yours! If they won't or can't, we will close them and replace them with a school that will. Your kids will get access to the exact same tools they need to get ahead in America as every other child in the country. We have failed our children by letting them become weak and stupid. Now we will rigorously beat them into smarterness."

This, more than anything, is the sales pitch of Common Core. To espouse it involves some combination of ignorance and cynicism that I have a hard time imagining, but "there are more things in heaven and earth..." But regardless of its level of sincerity, it provides a shiny cover of respectability for all these other initiatives. And sadly, many people have bought it.


Data Overlords (data data data)


If we knew everything, we could do anything.

If we knew every detail of every aspect of every person, we could craft a perfect world. If we had "cradle-to-career" data about every child born, we could get the right people into the right jobs (or the right jails). We could become a real-life Hari Seldon and there would be no limits.

So go ahead and whip up some standards-- they will make perfect tags for every piece of data that students generate. And let's get everybody using the same data storage and transfer standards so that we can gather everything. Everything!! And let's rewrite laws because there is some data that is just sitting there that we can't touch now, and we do so much want to touch it and gather it so that we can haz all the dataz.


The Oligarchs (power)


I must be better than you. How else can you explain this giant mountain of money I've acquired?

The oligarchs may believe they have noble motives (I'm just trying to make the world a better place) or venal ones (I'm just trying to get a little more money and power because money and power rock!!), but the problem remains the same-- the belief that money and power are a sign of superior wisdom and importance. Oligarchs are not always profiteers; they aren't trying to collect more points so much as trying to assert their own judgment and control over the world. It may be the same sort of impulse that leads us to go pull weeds out of the lawn in order to make the back yard look the way we want it to, except their back yard is the world and the weeds are the rest of us. It is the impulse to impose our personal will on the world around us.

Democratic process is bad because it lets too many of the wrong people have a say. If teachers were important, they would be rich, so never mind them. When people without privilege argue with us, it's just more proof that they aren't really smart enough to know what's good for them, and we just need to push them aside and move forward. Mostly what the oligarchs want is for everyone to shut up, sit down, and do as they're told. Dissent is so....annoying.

This group attracts hangers-on as well. People who would like have some rich and powerful friends and so maybe get to be a little rich and sort of powerful, too. They might enjoy being right-hand-men, or being given a small fiefdom of their own to rule. These eager-to-please government officials, advocacy group leaders, and thinky tank speakers are often the more visible public face of this group. The message, usually carefully masked, is that the plebes should gratefully to submit to the Brave New World that their Betters are crafting for them.

These six groups have formed a symbiotic relationship that has fed the reformy beast. They serve as the voice, the face, the money, the muscle, maybe even the brains, of Reformy Stuff. All six lead cheers for each other, raise funds for each other, hide behind each other, but they only share a handful of characteristics:

1) They don't know anything about how high quality teaching and learning happen.

2) They don't really care.

Sometimes I imagine that there's strategy to made of attacking one particular group and pulling apart the whole Jenga-pile of mess. I'm pretty sure that the most effective attacks have been made by targeting one particular group; inBloom was one of the Data Overlords, and it was brought down by attacks aimed at the Data Overlord's aims and tactics.

They are big, they are powerful, and they are well-funded. Worst of all, for them American public schools are merely a means to their ends, a speedbump on the path to their real goals.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I agree with you that it's hard to imagine that there are people who are leading the reform movement who actually believe the social engineering propaganda that they crank out, but certainly there are a lot of fans/followers who do. There's also at least a few mid-level people who appear to believe this stuff (I'm thinking Davis Guggenheim), and they are used as useful idiots by the reformists.

    As for strategy, sadly, the way with the highest probability of working in America today is character assassination or the discrediting of the opponent. This is why teachers are in such low regard at the moment. This is also one of the main reasons it is so hard for teachers to fight back (the other being that most teachers are rule followers and will kill themselves to do what they're told to do even if they grumble about it because it's idiotic); a discredited person has a hard row to hoe if they are going to discredit their discreditor. Even if they pull it off, the results are likely to be meh. For better or worse, our collective fate is in the hands of academics and parents.