Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Conservatives Backing Away from Reform

Stephanie Simon's Politico piece "Mom's winning the Common Core war" includes a sort of second breath rededication of purpose from Michael Petrilli at the Fordham Institute and Wes Farno at Higher State Standards Partnership, a group that we've met before working hand in hand with Jeb Bush's FEE and the US Chamber of Commerce. Both Fordham and HSSP are big-fans of the Core (or, at least, big fans of being paid to promote the Core).

“We’ve been fighting emotion with talking points, and it doesn’t work,” said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, a leading supporter of the standards. “There’s got to be a way to get more emotional with our arguments if we want to win this thing. That means we have a lot more work to do.”

“The Common Core message so far has been a head message. We’ve done a good job talking about facts and figures. But we need to move 18 inches south and start talking about a heart message,” said Wes Farno.

Beyond the practical advice we might offer Farno (specifically, measure twice, cut once, and don't accidentally talking to peoples' intestines or genitals), there's a case to be made that these guys have missed the mark both on the diagnosis and the prescription. But don't take my word for it. listen to some actual conservatives.

Neal McCluskey of the CATO institute has been on the No Love For CCSS bus for quite a while, and his "Core Reporters: We've Just Been Too Darned Principled" pulls no punches.

The argument for the Core – to the extent one has even been given – has mainly been a simple one of “build high standards and success will come.”...This ignores the major empirical evidence I and many others have brought against the Core, and national standards generally, showing that standards – much less the Core itself – have demonstrated no such power. 

He goes on to observe that the Core defense strategy has depended on neither evidence nor data nor facts, but on calling opponents names. And indeed, both in Simon's article and back in David Coleman's Aspen Chat, the new refrain in reformville is "No, we never should have called those guys names. They're actually fine people."

But we don't have to travel to CATO to find conservatives with doubts. On Tuesday, Andy Smarick posted on Fordham's own blog a piece that asks the question "Is education reform anti-conservative?" Smarick frames the question with his own personal journey (throwing caution to the wind and forgetting David Coleman's admonition that nobody gives a shit what he feels or thinks").

Smarick says he has become "restive" about reform (which would make a fine song lyric or t-shirt) and after considering many of the things he's restive about (failure to operationally embrace diversity, too much compromise with hidebound traditionalists), he finds his answer:

After months of frustration, I finally put my finger on the essence of the problem: there is no conservatism in today’s education reform...

Others might argue contemporary K–12 reform is premised on conservative principles (expanding choice, utilizing competition, resisting public-sector unionism), so I should stop bellyaching. But this free-market orientation is only one strand of conservatism.

He enumerates some conservative values that are lacking in school reform, including a respect for tradition, and an aversion to activist government that leads to respect for evolutionary, not revolutionary, change. And I just want to point that I've been saying this for a while-- I come from a whole family of traditional conservatives, and the current state of ed reform is not something they are in tune with.

Meanwhile, Rick Hess continues to be in front of the conservative discussion of reform. A while back he asked the question, "What should conservatives be for in education?" (and I answered it), and while I don't always agree with Hess's conclusions, he's a conservative who's generally willing to behave like a grownup and exhibit some intellectual honesty.

About a week ago Hess celebrated the anniversary of Race to the Top by examining what a cock-up it turned out to be. He notes two serious flaws in RttT; it's an underachieving list, like making a list of two attractive women at the Miss America pageant, but the two observations are worth noting.

One is rarely mentioned, but significant-- by offering up a plate of money at a moment of financial disaster, the feds gave states a way to put off solving problems. States looking at real financial crises said, "Okay, our solution is to plug the hole with these free federal funds." This turns out to be somewhat like treating a compound leg fracture with strong doses of pain killers; eventually the pain killers wear off and you're in even worse trouble.

The second is more familiar-- a version of the "if only the feds had stayed out." However, instead of the usual imaginary world where states all signed up to Common Core their hearts out, Hess envisions "a collaborative effort of 15 or so enthusiastic states." But by rushing the whole process and forcing, by RttT or by waiver, every state to climb on board, the feds "pushed states to hurriedly adopt new teacher evaluation systems and specifically to use test results to gauge teachers, not-ready-for-primetime evaluation systems are now entangled with the Common Core and new state tests." Common Core and its various attached reformy things could have been a contender, but now Hess fears it's just a cautionary tale.

So what actually happened? The answer, I suspect, is in Smarick's line

But this free-market orientation is only one strand of conservatism.

As I've told many of my civilian friends, the reformster assault doesn't make much sense when you try to parse it as liberal versus conservatives-- you end up with all sorts of people on the "wrong" side. But when you reframe it as "corporate $$" versus "educational concerns," it suddenly makes a lot more sense.

Both parties, both political bents, are infested with people who are far more concerned about corporate bucks than... well, anything.

I don't believe that the rush to RttT that Hess decries was the result of just political ambition or simple over-reaching wonkery-- I'd bet that behind the scenes were corporate folks like Pearson et al who could just taste all the delicious money to be made if the feds would just open up the entire education market. Folks who could smell that enormous pile of money, who were writing pieces about education as the next big investment opportunity-- they were not going to settle for a measly fifteen states poking along toward Core-centered reform.

It's hard to tell where some people fall on the political spectrum these days, but it's really easy to tell whether big business pays their bills or not. We've watched money infect the process of defending the country and providing a food supply by warping and twisting the political process surrounding those sectors. Today we're simply living through the same infection spreading into education.

There are always going to be some serious conservative-liberal disagreements about how public education should work, but we all ought to be able to agree that money-driven political baloney does NOT improve the situation.


  1. "As I've told many of my civilian friends, the reformster assault doesn't make much sense when you try to parse it as liberal versus conservatives-- you end up with all sorts of people on the "wrong" side. But when you reframe it as "corporate $$" versus "educational concerns," it suddenly makes a lot more sense." - Peter Greene

    I am one of those political conservatives that has been mortified to see the way local schools have been commandeered by my state government (Indiana), and how some of that newly-confiscated state power has been transferred to the federal government by NCLB and Race to the Top.

    You are right - this is a complex fight and you cannot be picky about your allies. If the Tea Partiers are against Common Core, fight side-by-side with them here and fight against them on something else.

    For example, I'm okay with the concept of vouchers but I argue all day long that this obsession with testing is damaging schools by making everything aimed at passing the Language Arts Test and the Math Test. I think the tests are the bigger danger so I don't bother to argue about vouchers with people who are joining me to fight the tests. I look at it like this: Let's all beat the common enemy (the tests), have a big party to celebrate and then we can argue about the vouchers.

  2. I think it's less corporatism and more libertarianism run amok.