Thursday, October 1, 2015

What Happens After You Blow It All Up

At the Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch last week, Jonas Persson unearthed some footage from a panel in New Orleans posted last June, sponsored by the American Federation for Children, a group associated with Betsy DeVos.

Persson's coverage zeroed in on a minute's worth of talk-noises from Rebecca Sibilia from EdBuild, in which Sibilia appears to rather gleefully celebrate just how awesome the bankruptcy of major school districts would be, allowing the new operators to dump legacy debts like building and pension costs.

Sibilia charges that the post "blatantly (and bizarrely) mischarecterizes" what EdBuild is about, and so I figured, what the hell, I'll just watch the whole thing and see if her somewhat awful comments improve with context.

The clip has not been played much (fifty times when I got there), but it's actually pretty good viewing, featuring some familiar reformy names like Andy Smarick, Mike McShane and moderator Derrell Bradford, plus some folks I didn't know, like Jaime Casap and Katie Beck. We have thirty-five minutes of discussion to get through, and much of it requires some thoughtful consideration, so if you were hoping for a short blog post, you should probably just abandon hope here. So here we go (the whole clip is at the bottom, in case you want to check my work).

Knocking It Out and Tone

The actual title of the panel is "Knocking Out Yesterday's Education Models," though Persson reports that Bradford makes a joke about the working title being "What Happens After You Blow It All Up." If you watch it, I will warn you that the most disconcerting thing about the whole discussion is the jaunty, breezy, jolly, jokey tone of the whole business. As a teacher, it is beyond disconcerting about watching people discuss blowing up the work that you've devoted your life to while they laugh and smile and yuk it up like the whole destruction of traditional public education is hi-larious.

I am trying hard not to hold it against them. I've been around enough to get it-- you're in a room where "we're all friends here" and it's a fun conference in a fun place and you're seeing a lot of friends you don't always get to see and it's easy to forget the grimmer reality of what you're talking about. However, some of the jokes that get cracked tell us a bit about where these folks are coming from.

Mostly the panelists go one at a time, so we'll take this person by person.

Andy Smarick

Bradford teases Smarick about the terrible acronym associated with his work in urban schools of the future, then notes his history of working in government. I've tweeted and written back and forth with Smarick many times, but this is the first time I've seen him in action, and he has a sort of corn-fed aw-shucks quality that suits him well.

Bradford asks a pretty direct question: "What lives and what dies in a system of choice schools? More importantly, why should anything live" in the transition to a system of "disperse governance driven by parent choice." And I think that's a good question, but I also think that the notion that a choice system would be driven by parent choice is either naive or disingenuous, like insisting that the soft drink industry or fast food biz are driven purely by customer choice. But we'll go there another day.

Smarick, after some banter, has to stop and think, saying "I've never thought of it in those terms before." So.

What should live? Democratic control. "It's something we think too little about...with systems of choice." But Smarick believes there's some way that the community at large should be able to "control the contours of the system." It probably should not look like a traditional school board (that owns and operates all the stuff), but there should be something that gives the locals control. Well said, Andy!

What should die? The notion of a school existing in perpetuity, and the right of government to tell parents where to send their kids based on where they live. Assigning low income families to neighborhood schools, even if they suck, "has got to go away." We should be agnostic about who runs schools as long as they're good.

For 100 years, we had a single provider system, and we told students where to go to school based on where they live--bzzt! This is what I think reformsters get wrong, over and over. In Smarick's narrative, one would think the federal and state government started schools. But community schools were started by communities, just as communities started their own police and fire departments. Schools had geographical boundaries for the same reason that when there's a fire in the Bronx, they don't call the fire department in Newark.

You can watch the same thing happening in homeschool co-ops. Groups of homeschoolers go in together, set up a meeting place, buy/hire resources, and use them for their kids in their community. That's how schools grow-- not by the feds saying, "We're going to open a bunch of schools and tell you which ones you have to go to." I think there's a discussion to be had about how state and federal gummint got more and more entwined in this, but the narrative of top-down school creation is fundamentally flawed.

But Smarick is still going, and saying better things. We broke the old system, he says, and now we have to buy it. And the old choice fan notion that we could just set up charters and give parents choice and let them go and everything would be awesome-- it's much more complicated than that. He rattles off some nuts and bolts issues-- who owns the building, who runs the registration, what about backfilling. It's more fun to talk about empowering parents, but the detaily tech wonky stuff matters. Which we haven't addressed enough.

Michael Q. McShane

The Q is for Quentin, because chatty buds. McShane is a research fellow at AEI, and snappily dressed. He is also, as I've always seen him, tightly wound and intense, like a guy who's had his twenty cups of coffee, but hasn't yet run his daily ten miles to take the edge off. Bradford hits him with a much vaguer question about what the outcomes of choice kind of look like.

So McShane starts on free markets and thinking about supply and demand. McShane has focusd more on supply-- how to encourage more new better schools. McShane thinks choice has three mechanisms for the ultimate goal of "getting a child a seat in a high quality school." Anyway, what can the market do-- 1) it can fill space in existing high quality schools, 2) encourage HQS to scale up, and 3) actually create new HSQ. McShane argues that 1 is going great, 2 and 3 not so much, because of "choke points" in the marketplace. I would argue maybe not so much "choke points" as "nobody in the reformy business really has any idea how to do 2 or 3." And maybe McShane sort of agrees because he says the choke points are in the "pipeline of human capital." Then blah blah something about understanding what they're doing and why.

Bradford follows up by tossing out a McShanian "bon mot"-- "institutional isomorphism" which is his phrase for the tendency of the new thing to look like the old thing, which is a really valid idea. For free, I will offer McShane the observation that movies initially just recorded staged plays and records initially captured live performances, and it took a while for them to start capturing things that could only be captured in the new medium.

So McShane talks about charter school authorizers and references one of his papers which I addressed at the time. McShane starts talking about the many weird things that charter authorizers require, which causes this exchange:

McShane: To operate a charter school in Colorado, you have to demonstrate you know what's going to happen if a child forgets his or her lunch-

Bradord: (interrupting jokily): They get hungry.

In a crowd of people who regularly deal with plenty of poor kids who "forget" lunch or lunch money all the time, this would not be particularly hilarious, and it does not get a big laugh here. But it does tell us something about the setting.

Anyway, McShane wants to observe that filling out the applications can be daunting, and that the requirements of the application can shape the school. Which is kind of the same way student applications for charter schools affect what students get in. McShane notes that authorizers have an absolute duty to make sure that charlatans don't operate schools (wake up, Ohio).

Jaime Casap

This guy is the chief "education evangelist" for Google. He gets "What's the internet's role in all this?"

Casap starts with the importance of where you were born in your academic success. He notes that he was born in Hell's Kitchen, and he wants you to know he means the scary, ugly Hell's Kitchen of the seventies and not the breezy upscale version of today, thereby driving right past the issue of gentrification and how neighborhoods "improve" themselves by chasing out poor people and bringing in not-poor people. Because when you blow that system up, you also throw away the people that inhabited it and replace them with "better" people. Could we talk about how that relates to the charter movement? Probably not. I'm not trying to pick, but there's a theme running through discussion of a strange disconnect between these swell ideas and how peoples' lives are actually connected to them.

He was a "typical urban kid" who grew up on food stamps and welfare (and non-English speaking). The Columbus library was his big source of information, cue story about how research sucked back then (preach it). But now we have the internet, but classrooms look the same. Don't use technology just to make "bad education...faster and more efficient."

Casap says there are three things happening with technology. 1) We have evidence about what learning can look like (autonomy + purpose + mastery) and technology can help us do that. Somehow? 2) Technology has wrapped itself around the core of our own lives. 3) Kids who "don't know any better." They take tech for granted and they don't know to think that tech doesn't belong in education.

Now he goes way wrong. "Nobody looks at a great work of architecture and wonders what hammer they used." Well, no-- unless they are a builder or an architect. Casap wants to focus on outcomes, which is great if you're an amateur and a consumer. But I'll bet Google pays plenty of attention to how they do what they do. Technique and tools can and probably should be invisible-- but not to the people who are trying to get the job done.

Katie Beck

COO of 4.0 Schools, Beck has a Teach for America pedigree, and went through the Harvard College. She gets "how do you turn education into a more entrepreneurial space" as a question, so I guess we're skipping over "why the hell would you want to do that?"

Her outfit likes to work with people who are "obsessed" with a problem and who want to make money from the solution. Okay, I'm paraphrasing, but I'm not loving her message, and she does that thing where every sentence ends like a question? Anyway, her term for institutional isomorphism is "the hairball" because, you know, traditional public school is just a disgusting mess. So, for instance, instead of starting with a charter that will spend $2 million and look like "an iteration of" existing schools, they help little boutique start-ups. Because anything that looks like the old way is obviously bad. I had the hardest time wading through Beck, who is so clearly focused on developing business without much interest in the education side of things. All of her ideas deal with the best way to get a business started up, with no concern expressed for the students who become the guinea pigs for these start-ups.

Bradford asks if for-profit people are any different to work with that the other altruistic folks. But she doesn't work with "bad actors" who are in it to make a buck. And being for-profit helps those people keep themselves honest because when you're obsessed with solving a problem, you have to ask "is this solving it enough that someone's willing to pay for it." Which I wouldn't call "keeping honest" so much as "missing the entire point of running a school."

Rebecca Sibilia

So here comes the lady who's quote got us interested in this panel in the first place. If we want all of her comments will it, as she suggests, make her sound better. Well, no. The whole thing is even worse than the quoted portion, which tells us a little something about how she sees herself.

Bradford asks her how we pay for all this innovation. And she opens with, "The problem is, we can't." Which is a remarkably honest answer [insert my usual complaint about trying to run charter systems without being honest about the true cost.] She will now break down the three problems that EdBuild is trying to solve.

First, the way that we're funding schools is "largely arbitrary" and "doesn't make any sense." And Sibilia seems far too smart to believe that baloney, but just in case, here goes: People set up schools in their community, for the students who live in their community, so they funded them by collecting money from everyone who lives in the community. Later on, state governments got involved in trying to even out the differences in funding inherent in a local-based system. There are lots of things to hate about how this is all playing out, but it's silly to pretend that the system just fell from the sky for no reason at all. Her criticism about uneven funding outcomes seems to be that by favoring one district over another financially, you're creating an artificial market bias. One might complain that some students are getting fewer resources than they deserve, but that doesn't seem to be her concern. It;s the savage and unwarranted abuse of the free market that's the issue.

Second, she doesn't like the borders that are created by property taxes, which seems exactly backwards. Municipal borders exist, and folks who live within them are taxed. Not the other way around. She thinks this leads to a mistake-- trying to get resources into those borders instead of "focusing on how we can break those borders" which is a less objectionable way to say "how we can get some students out." Because "breaking the borders" instead of "getting resources into the borders" has to mean that we are going to just let some areas collapse in unmitigated poverty. Which, as we'll see, is exactly her plan.

See, many states fund schools with property taxes, and in many states property taxes can't go to schools of choice. "We've had charter schools for a quarter of a century, but we're still treating them like an experiment. And so that's a problem and we have to fix it."

So, there is a ton of Wrong packed into that. First of all, the modern corporate charters these guys are talking about haven't been around for twenty-five years. Second, they are experiments, and not very successful ones, at that, having not yet figured out how to stop some charters from being Ohio-style nests of incompetence and corruption. Third, charters have used their fledgling nature as part of their excuse to avoid the same oversight and accountability that public schools enjoy. Every time a charter wants to set up a new rule for itself, its argument is, "We're a charter. We should be free to experiment and Try Stuff."

Sibilia's argument is that charters should get lots of sweet, sweet public tax money. Neither she nor other charter advocates make a convincing case for that.

But she's going on about the evils of property taxes being linked to public schools, and she and Bradford share a laugh at how it's still called millage, which apparently proves that it's just so antiquated and uncool. Har. And she goes on to try to make a point that funding is based on the teacher, and not the student and their needs, but somehow property tax locks this in, and so places where the charters are getting a new teacher corps (young? cheap? unprofessional? she doesn't explain the critical differences) are locked in. But until we can bust up the whole funding system (she also does not say what she wants to replace it with), none of the cool reforms being discussed here will be sustainable. And that much is probably true.

Bradford sets up her next bit by observing that some school districts are in trouble and he would argue most can't afford to stay open, and that would be awesome, and I say, you know what would help with that? What would help is to stop allowing charters to suck the blood out of the public system. And all that brings us to the quote that has circulated, where she envisions bankruptcy as a great way to blow up a district, specifically getting rid of all its "legacy debt" so that they no longer have to pay for like buildings and pensions, which is totally cool because having a school district go bankrupt is no problem for students, just the adults. Which is just-- I mean, I imagine that students would notice that their district is collapsing financially and cutting programs and teachers and resources with a chainsaw. "Bankruptcy is not a problem for kids," is a statement that in the best of contexts is still grossly tone-deaf and reality-impaired. In the context of Sibilia's discussion of how to blow up  public schools so we can has charters, it's even more tone-deaf and reality-impaired.

And while the tone of the whole panel is, as I said, disturbingly light and happy, Sibilia is just so thoroughly gleeful about the prospect of districts becoming bankrupt, their pensions zeroed out and their teaching staff scrubbed. I have seen people less excited about getting engaged to the eprson of their dreams.

Andy Smarick

And here's why you should watch the whole clip-- because now Andy Smarick steps in to represent, as he frequently does, the point of view of an actual conservative. What he offers next is a welcome balance to the panel's delighted contemplation of destruction and ruin. Also, you have to love an answer that works in "Burkean conservative" and "accretion of policies."

What he says is, yes, we've got an old hide-bound system, and we might want to blow it up and replace it, but when you do that you break a lot of systems and policies that are tied to it. "When you tug on that thread, you see a lot of the fabric start to warp. This is not to say we shouldn't pull on that thread--"


There is a downside to all this that should not be ignored. And he brings up Chesterton's fence. Which is an old British notion that you don't take down a fence until you understand why it was put up in the first place.

So, some of the worst changes to the revolutionary evolutionary point are when we, with great hubris, with great certainty, look at something and we think is messy, untidy, inefficient, and we don't see the wisdom, we don't see the long-standing virtue, value, that is in it that has been tested over time, that has evolved, and we technocratically with great brilliance the best and brightest among us decide we're going to change that thing.

He tells a story about forest management and mistakes made in the name of commoditized lumber. Or knocking down swamps and then discovering we'd made a mess. Or the human social capital destroyed with high rise public housing. So, he says, as we tinker with all the pieces parts of schools, "let's at least have a little humility and recognize that with that change comes a casualty." And that those casualties often are the least advantaged.

So, first time I ever wanted to give a certified reformster a round of applause. And I'll add that I've known actual conservatives my whole life, and as I have watched ed reform unfold, I don't understand why more alleged conservatives do not share Smarick's point of view.

Last Bits

Casap wants to add something about poor kids. He throws out the question of whether kids should want to go to college or not and tosses off a joke about how that question is usually brought up by people whose kids did go to college, which, no, not in my neck of the woods. But basically he says that Smarick is full of it and current systems don't need to be safeguarded- just bulldozed.

Smarick replies that he's been on this for fifteen years, paid his revolutionary dues, and he is torn on the subject. He doesn't want to be at the revolutionary commemorative picnic in thirty years as they look back on their revolutionary changes and say, "Oh my God, what did we do!"

We jump past the Q&A portion. Bradford gets in two more cents, including the notion that democratic control is a lie and people think that by having school board elections they have some control, but they don't. "They're not in control of anything" and he lands on "anything" hard, like the whole idea really pisses him off. The whole business is just a "ruse." He did not elaborate, though this sounds a little like the old line that teacher unions really control school boards. Sure. Either unions or the illuminati.

Bottom Line

There's a great deal to unpack here, and I've already gone on and on. But it's worth seeing what these folks are thinking, which in some cases is all about money and business models and conceiving of schools as bloodless systems rather than a web of relationships between live human beings. In some cases, this panel presents disaster capitalism at its most distasteful, demonstrating a real joy in the destruction of the traditional public school system. Only Smarick displays a real sense of the serious nature of what's being discussed.

For folks whose stock in trade is all about how schools should be about student concerns, there was remarkably little talk about what can be done to keep students from becoming collateral damage after traditional public are all blown up. That's unfortunate, because one of the hugest problem with charters so far is that when disaster strikes, they only save some students and leave the rest behind in the middle of a disaster that the charters themselves have made even worse.

And because it's long already, I'll avoid touring the festival of unquestioned assumptions contained. But could we please ask "should we" before we ask "how do we"?

Finally, the video left me wishing that Andy Smarick were named King of the Reformsters, because while I disagree with many of his reformy ideas, I salute his respect for tradition and history, and I really, really wish that reformsters were hearing him on the whole hubris thing. If reformsters wonder why those of us in traditional public schools don't give them more respect, here's one reason-- while they have learned some lessons here and there, every single lesson has been a thing that we already knew, but they are so steadfastly certain of their rightness, they feel no need to listen (e.g Chris Barbic leaving the Tennessee Achievement School District with the insight that teaching poor children is hard). It wouldn't hurt them a bit to pause before blowing up Chesterton's fence.


  1. Yet another post that literally has me blinking back tears as I see more of what's behind the dismantling of what I too held so dear but had to leave.

  2. In addition to espousing generally tone-deaf and mean spirited views, Rebecca Sibilia is also wrong about property taxes sucking. They are more stable than the source of state funding for education (income taxes) and state funds are often not distributed to poorer districts. See here:

    And here:

    The solution is the right mix of federal, state, and local funds. Or guaranteeing federal funds regardless of the economy. I really wish these people would talk to actual teachers, principals, people who actually work at a school district, or even experts on finance and policy. So frustrating

  3. Peter, that was a wonderful conclusion to a worthy post. As I was reading, all I could think was this: the reformers have no idea what will happen when they get the "system" they seem to crave. They don't know how or if it would work. And with rare exceptions, I don't think they really care. They are ideologues. True believers. Theory trumps reality.

    As a comparison, I think about how people should behave but I'll be damned if they aren't so illogical or unpredictable.

    I'd almost guarantee that any new system will resemble the old system given just a few years. Hell, charters around me aren't doing anything different. They just have more power to control who is in the student body. I find it interesting that they are dismissive about the student and family realities themselves. As if changing schools isn't disruptive to children and families.

  4. Well, it certainly has been thoroughly blown up in my neck of the woods. Yet IN keeps doubling down as it erases the "complexity formula" funding and moves to a flat per-capita funding model to restore "fairness." IN had been one of the more progressive states in this regard, but no longer.

  5. Let's address a few quotes from the article.

    "If you watch it, I will warn you that the most disconcerting thing about the whole discussion is the jaunty, breezy, jolly, jokey tone of the whole business."
    Says the author of a tongue-in-cheek style blog.

    " Second, they are experiments, and not very successful ones, at that, having not yet figured out how to stop some charters from being Ohio-style nests of incompetence and corruption."
    By your standard, the traditional public school sector is also a failed experiment. They have incompetence and corruption as well. So if that is the standard you want to use, current system fails too.

    "That's unfortunate, because one of the hugest problem with charters so far is that when disaster strikes, they only save some students and leave the rest behind in the middle of a disaster that the charters themselves have made even worse."
    So everyone should have gone down with the Titanic?

    And from the comments:
    "I really wish these people would talk to actual teachers, principals, people who actually work at a school district, or even experts on finance and policy."
    Have you checked all their backgrounds? Some of them do have experience. The moderator states McShane was a high school teacher. BTW, if you do look at their backgrounds, several of these people either have master's or PhD in policy.

    1. You think this blog is "tongue-in-cheek"? Guess you failed your literature class, didn't you?

      How long did McShane teach high school? How did he arrive at that position in the first place? TFA? And what does a master's or even a PhD in policy have to do with education?

    2. Wow, Mr. Peabody, you really did fail literature class.

      (1) What Peter writes is not "tongue-in-cheek". A "tongue-in-cheek" statement is one that is not meant to be taken seriously. What Peter does is use irony, analogy, and satire to shed light on serious topics. He is not making light of serious topics, which is what the panelists were doing.

      (2) Public schools are not known for corruption; they suffer from neglect. At any rate, replacing something with something that is not any better is not a solution. Any problems that exist are not allowed to be truly addressed in the current climate.

      (3 No, the Titanic should have steered away from the icebergs. We need solutions that will save everyone. And the lifeboats are taking students to other ships that are not any more seaworthy.

      (4) None of the people who are advocates of the charter system in its present guise has taught very many years in K-12.

  6. Dear Mr. Greene:

    Well, yes. The panelists have discovered what we have all known for a while: to publicly educate a child? It takes a millage. (Oh...oh...SO SORRY!)

    Seriously, you are right that Mr. Smarick is trying introduce the idea that change sometimes has unintended consequences, and we could hope this was a take-away for some of the panelists- that not everything that can be done should be done.

    Sometimes I think the whole larger reform group has never read the story of The Goose That Laid Golden Eggs. They think they have figured out how to get all the gold. They think the public will continue to pay property taxes into charter schools as it becomes more and more obvious that a lot of the money bypasses the students and any expensive needs that they have and goes right to the salaries of the CEOs and Board Members. When it is very obvious that students are getting the cheap end of the stick, and the corporation isn't responsive, won't folks be up for something different? In AZ there are retirement communities that don't have any schools or pay school taxes. Maybe the home schoolers will ally politically with the retired folks and do away with the whole school system as we now know it, charters and all, by de-funding it at every level.

    Presumably this group would argue that this was taking their "Knocking Out Yesterday's Education Models," idea way too far.


    1. Nah, once they suck education dry they'll just go looking for some other "business opportunity" to leech onto. Eventually, though, the anarcho-corporatists are going to end up with nothing left to prey on.

    2. A frequent commenter on Diane's blog, Chiara, speculates that the whole reason these tycoons are preying on education and other public sector goods is that they've already cannibalized everything in the private sector. Going after the public sector is an admission that they have no further innovation or anything new to offer. They don't create wealth for anybody; all they can do is feed off of what little bit of weath remains,

  7. @Rebecca,

    Well, yeah, I have no argument Rebecca. What is going to happen is there will be a drained -dry system of educating the next bunch of young people. I'm thinking that in my community, I could help.

    When I taught out on the Reservation, there was a teacher who taught students their Native Language. She was old, and frail. She taught as long as she could. One would frequently see her going from one class to the next. She had a walker. A student carried her materials. Slow going. Teaching the little ones their culture was her pleasure.

    I'm retired. I'm trying to save my materials. If I have to, I will undergo the pain and indignity of this teacher to home school my progeny, and maybe some neighbor children. Teaching little ones their culture will be my pleasure. Maybe in a context of Art...

    That's my plan. Every time I think about bridge, shuffleboard, or golf, I can't imagine me doing that. I'm thinking this home-school job will just fall upon me, if I'm lucky.


  8. Maybe you should do a parallel post on what the NEA will do after blowing it up. I just got an email from Lily E-G telling me how wonderful the "democratic" decision of an early endorsement of Hillary is. I'm so mad I can't see straight. I may just retire so I don't have to pay the NEA any more dues (after 26 years worth!).

  9. Dear Commentators:

    Well, in three years Miss Lilly will no longer have a job. Where will she go after being a Teacher Union President? No corporation will have her. She's probably not interested in that Cincinnatus thing, going back to her 6th grade class in Utah. Who knows? Perhaps if Hillary wins, she'll remember her pal Miss Lilly and find a place for her.

    1. Oooo, cynical. But you must be right because nothing else makes any sense.

      This sense of corruption in all things politic is what makes people pro Bernie.