Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Central Liberal Reformster Fallacy

It crops up many places, but today it was front and center in Michael Grunwald's piece for Politico. In "Obama vs. Teacher Union: It's Still On" Grunwald lays out the ongoing beef between teachers unions and the administration, which is first in his display of lesser fallacies. Framing the conflict as one between unions and the administration isn't quite right, as the unions have been largely friendly and compliant with the administration, and most of their official squawks of disagreement have come only after considerable prodding from membership (NEA and AFT still officially think Common Core is Just Fine, Thanks).

Grunwald then goes on to posit that John King on paper looks like a great choice to bind the wounds, resorting to the John King Story, which seems to be how we're going to sell this exemplar of upward failure as a serious faux secretary of ed. Grunwald gives  a quick gloss to King's "former teacher" credential; King taught a grand total of three years, including two in a charter. The King story always includes a chapter about how his public school teachers saved him, but it never includes a thoughtful consideration of whether his favored reforms would support those kind of teachers today, or force them to stop focusing on what children need and devote more time to test scores.

Grunwald includes the story of King's charter-founding awesomeness. He skips over the secret of King's charter success-- sky high suspension rates and the push-out of countless students. And he skips over the huge disconnect in King's story-- the man who talks about how school was a safe, nurturing place for a troubled orphan went on to establish schools where children must walk in step and speak only when allowed. One wonders how many troubled orphans King's schools have suspended or pushed out. Grunwald isn't going to ask.

Grunwald's piece is laced with other little fallacies, like uncritically observing that most states have adopted "higher standards," even though there's no basis on which to say the various mutated forms of Common Core are "higher."

But running through Grunwald's article is the Central Liberal Reform Fallacy.

But Obama has always taken the reform side of the public education wars; in The Audacity of Hope, he criticized liberals who “defend an indefensible status quo, insisting that more spending alone will improve educational outcomes.”

The unions often argue that the deep problems of urban education have their roots outside the school, with impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods stripped of hope. King worries about those problems, but like Duncan and President Obama, he worries even more about using them as excuses for problems inside the schools.

“Yes, we should have better health care and housing and criminal justice reform,” King told me. “But school can save kids’ lives. It saved mine.”

This is the construction at the center of the liberal support for reformster policies:

The problem is really bad, therefor our solution will work.

Which gets us to this conversation:

Critics: Your proposed solution will not work.
Reformster: Are you saying the problem doesn't exist?

The Obama administration wants to hold teachers accountable for whether or not students learn. But it has no working instrument for measuring student learning, and it has absolutely no clue how to tell whether teachers have aided in that learning or not.

It's that simple. The administration, both under Duncan and soon under King, wants to prove its solutions work by arguing that problems are real and that education is a Good Thing. Nobody sensible is arguing about either of those points-- many, many of our students are suffering under poverty, systemic racism, and a host of other issues, and many of our public schools have failed, either by lack of will or lack of resources, to successfully fully address the needs of those students. That's the truth.

But it does not follow from that truth that Common Core (or any national standards) will help. It does not follow that making a standardized test (especially one that poorly measures a small sliver of a full education) the central point and purpose of public education will help. It does not follow that evaluating teachers with a system no more valid or reliable than a roll of dice will help. It does not follow that dismantling public education and selling the pieces to people whose primary concern is not education, but dollars-- that won't help, either.

That's the fallacy. That's the part of the equation that we need to be talking about. Or rather, that those who are so sure of their own rightness and caring and feeling need to join the ongoing conversation about.

King says at the end of the article, "Every kid deserves the kind of opportunity I had." That's a nice thought. A better thought is to explain how, exactly, you think your policies will lead to it happening. That's the great missing link of ed reform.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written and cogent, as usual, Peter. Thanks for your insightful analysis, once again.