Monday, August 4, 2014

Does Reformster Character Matter?

When I posted this morning about the giant confluence of issues and money that is K12, Inc., I received this comment from ready Candy Crider:

I would rather you address the curriculum - is it sound and will it help students learn and love learning? Bashing the people who built it tells me nothing about the program itself.

"Bashing" is a fairly plastic term in bloggy circles. Sometimes "bashing" means "using ad hominem name calling" and sometimes it means "pointing out annoying facts."While this is a sass-heavy blog, I actually try to stay away from "this person is just a big doody head and so we should ignore them." And it's simply more accurate to write "this person said a very stupid thing" than "this person is very stupid." Smart people write and say stupid things all the time.

But the question of character is a tricky one. It is absolutely true that my piece about K12 did not directly address the curriculum or lessons that K12 uses, and I'm perfectly comfortable with that. Ms. Crider says that looking at the people involved tells us nothing about the program itself. I disagree. I think it tells us loads. Let me propose a scenario.

A new medical practice has opened in your town. You know the following things about it:

* It was not started by doctors or people with medical background, but by investment bankers who heard that you can make a big profit in medicine.

* It pays bottom dollar for its staff, scooping up practitioners who couldn't find work with any other medical practice.

* It requires those practitioners to move patients through at unheard-of rates so that the owners can get maximum profits by collecting maximum insurance payments.

* The practice measures its success not in patients served or cured or helped, but in dollars pocketed.

* The practice aggressively markets itself to patients who are in great need of health care, but who lack the sophistication or knowledge to make highly informed choices about their health care.

Now, Ms. Crider. Your child or mom or someone else you care about is sick. Do you look at this new practice, and with all you know say, "Well, we won't really know how good they are until we give it a shot." Intellectually, you may know that could be true-- but would you really play those long odds with the life of someone you love?

No, your understanding of the operators methods and motivations is more than enough to let you make conclusions about the quality of care. The character of the operators matters.

When David Coleman said that growing up means understanding that nobody gives a shit what you think or feel, that told us a great deal about his goals in writing ELA standards and his vision about what writing instruction should look like.

Likewise, reading Mother Crusader's chilling connect-the-dots between Campbell Brown and Paul Singer doesn't necessarily tell us anything of substance about the New York lawsuit to destroy tenure. But it immediately tells us two things.

First, that Brown is being at best disingenuous when she says she's worried about the protestors going after her backers, and second, just how hard these folks are likely to fight. Because Brown's husband hangs with the kind of people who fight nations and topple governments just to make a buck.

And on the plus side, paying attention to character and motivations allows us to the spot those reformsters who really do value learning and education but are simply clueless about how policies truly affect the achievement of those goals.

Character assassination is an easy game to play (because everybody has done Something Awful at some point) and not particularly valuable. But understanding someone's motivations and values tells us an awful lot about what they're likely to do (or not do). Yes, we should keep focused on the real issues and the substance behind them, and yes, sometimes good people do bad things and bad people do good things. But if someone picks your pocket, punches your spouse, kicks your dog, steals beans out of your garden, and then offers to sell you magic beans, you'd be foolish to say, "Well, sure. I won't know if the beans are magic until I plant them."


  1. Agreed! Character & history tell valuable stories that powerful officials should heed.

    One story that continually flies under the radar is Michael & Lowell Milken's other edu-bidness- teacher & school wide evluation.

    I posted this comment The Truth About K-12 and thought it was appropriate for your Character Counts!™ article.

    The Milkens are receiving loads of Dept of Ed federal grants through NIET- National Institute for Teaching Excellence teacher evaluation. TN mandated using NIET’s TEAM/TAP teacher/school evaluation program in 2010. TEAM/TAP is essentially a stacked ranking eval. and has no peer reviewed evidence demonstrating overall efficacy. The only reports making extraordinary claims of its effects were done inside The Milken Foundation and put out as white papers.

    In 2012, Duncan’s DoEd gave NIET $40 million in Teacher Incentive Fund Grants. In this grant, the MIlkens have fiscal agency over several poor, rural school systems. Here is a paragraph from their press release:

    “Introduced in 1999, the TAP system revitalizes the teaching profession through leadership opportunities, professional development, evaluation and performance-based compensation.

    NIET will serve as fiscal agent in partnership with the primarily rural Central Decatur and Saydel Community School Districts in Iowa; the Emily O. Goodridge-Grey Accelerated Charter School, Sojourner Truth Academy, Hmong College Prep Academy and the Partnership Academy in Minnesota; and Athens City Schools and Morgan County Schools in Tennessee, both rural districts.”

    Could this be any more a recipe for theft & corruption from poor school systems? Recall that convicted Wall St. felon Michael Miliken has requested several presidential pardons since his release from prison in the early 1990’s and even George Bush refused to pardon him.

  2. It's facile to paint everyone interested in reform as greedy charlatans. And it doesn't advance the discussion of what to do about problems in education.

    Does teacher character matter? If a reformer states that teachers are a bunch of self-interested pension hogs who refuse all attempts at objective evaluation, how is that different from what you are doing here?