Thursday, December 11, 2014

Homeostasis, Tourists, Stability and the Feds

Over at the Fordham, Andy Smarick is expressing concern over three converging threads that signal to him an impending triumph of homeostasis, nature's tendency to snap back to its original position. Or, more specifically, the tendency of large institutions to shake off disruptive influences and return to their original state.

The three trends that concern Smarick are

1) The exodus of many reformster chiefs.

2) The replacing of those chiefs with less-reformy-minded individuals

3) Reform backlash leading to an ESEA rewrite that fails to hold the reformy line

Put them all together, and Smarick fears a return to the bad old pre-NCLB days:

Prior to this period of reform, the K–12 equilibrium was marked by establishment-oriented chiefs, an insufficient focus on student outcomes, state-level insularity, and no federal accountability. Homeostasis may be bringing this heady era of reform disequilibrium to an end.

I'm going to set aside the question of how bad the bad old days actually were. I'm pretty sure I don't believe they were at all the vast disaster that reformsters claim they were, but I am not going to argue it was a land of milk and honey where unicorns danced and played, either. The question of history is a whole other conversation, and an only marginally useful one at that.

Instead, I'm going to argue that what Smarick is noticing is not so much homeostasis as tourism.

The reformsters, from state chiefs and federal bureaucrats all the way down through TFA temp staff, have always been tourists. They've be praised as investors and criticized as colonialists, but they were never really either. With few exceptions, they were just passing through, grabbing and going.

You can see it even in their signature product-- the Common Core. The creators of the Core did not invest time and effort in launching it, nor did they stick around to nurture it, oversee it, and guide it through the early stages of adoption. Before the ink had even dried, they were in the limo being whisked off to their next job opportunity.

The architects of the Common Core simply did not behave like people whose hopes and dreams were that the Core would survive to change the face of education.

Charter operators? More of the same. Charter groups have not committed to bring quality education to communities for the long haul, and in just a couple of years, charters have been evaporating like gasoline. Government bureaucrats like the chiefs? Many of them got their start with TFA, and they have continued to follow that model-- come in, make a mark, rewrite your resume, move on to the next job prospect. We can see their future in the food industries and the military-industrial complex, where folks make a bundle moving back and forth between government offices and corporate boardrooms, back and forth, collecting another pile of money with each spin of the revolving door.

The reformsters did not do the heavy lifting of building careful stable sustainable structures built to last. "I pledge to you-- we are going to create a system that will stand the test of time, I will be right here side by side with you to see it through over the decades ahead," said no reformster ever. This is one of the great frustrations of teachers in this reformy climate-- these guys swoop in, declaim about being agents of change, and make a mess, but in five years they'll be gone and we'll still be here.

If reformsters want to resist homeostasis, the solution is simple. Stay. Create new structures that are built around stability, sustainability, sense, instead of reforms built on flash, impact, and speedy ROI. Build structures that are built to last. Commit to staying and seeing the building all the way through. It's as simple as that.

I asked Smarick on twitter what benefit there could be in federal oversight, and he replied "Accountability for federal funds and focus on the most disadvantaged kids." Those are tricky goals-- "accountability" isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it can mean everything from "make sure states don't spend ed money on beer and pretzels" to "make sure that states spend no more than $1.95 per child per correct answer bubbled in on standardized test of federal choosing."

But what federal and state education leaders can provide, whether infected with reformsterism, or not, is stability. But that quality has been completely lacking from reformsters every step of the way. They did not come to stay, or make a difference, or build a new system that would stand the test of time, or commit to staying in place to really see things through. They just pitched a quick tent and barely pegged it down because they knew they weren't going to be living in it; they cannot be surprised that those of us who do choose to live in it decide to take it back down as soon as they leave.

This has always been the story of education reform. Teachers are out plowing the fields, and some Bright Person will show up and start ordering everyone around and explaining how the fields can best be plowed. They don't ask the people who have been plowing for years, and their "help" takes the form of everything from suggestions to order at gun point. Do they tell teachers, "I am going to put my shoulder to the plow with you, and work beside you until together, we have brought this field to years and years of bounty'? Almost never. Instead, we teachers just bite our lips and keep plowing, knowing that as sure as the sun rises, the Bright Person will soon move on to some other field, and we'll still be here, shoulders still to the plow.

Homeostasis can be viewed as resistance to change, I suppose, but I think of it as simply a clear, natural sign of how much effort it takes to really make a change. Think of it as a free market mechanism. Offering you a penny is not enough to change to homeostatic state of you owning your hat. Nature and the free market demand that I offer enough investment to disturb your hat's homeostatic state. Complaining that your are just too resistant to change because you won't sell me your hat for a penny is dopey.

Reformsters want to change education, but they only want to invest a penny's worth of their lives in doing it. Do not be surprised that those of us who are all in remain unimpressed. And don't try to fix it by using the government to tilt the market in favor of your one-penny buy offer.


  1. I wish the tourists would go back home already. They're overstaying their welcome. :-(

  2. This is *exactly* right. This is also a style of management, perhaps harking back to the romantic figure of the Mysterious Stranger who arrives in town one evening, sorts out the bad guys, then leaves ("who was that masked reformer? We just wanted to thank him....")
    In business, I'm told there's a name for this style: seagull management - you swoop in, screech a lot, move things around, shit all over everything and leave.