Friday, June 17, 2016

A Reformster Manifesto

While they stump for all the usual suspects, the Center for Education Reform is not really a full on reformy group. They are first, last, foremost, and always, a group that pushes hard for charters.

Their founder, president, and chief spokesperson Jeanne Allen  graduated from Dickerson with a degree in political science, then moved on to study political philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She was the "youngest political appointee to serve at the pleasure of the president, Ronald Reagan, at the US Department of Education." She's currently working on an Educational Entrepreneurship masters at University of Pennsylvania in a program that offers what I once called "a degree in soulless profiteering." She announced her intention to step out of the president role in 2013, but no successor was named and apparently, she stayed right in place.

CER is packed with charter groups, charter operators, and investor groups from their board to the advisors to their contributors. Oddly enough, the smallest group is The Team.  On her LinkedIN page, she describes her organization thus:

With well over 100 million media impressions annually and a national base of grassroots partners and agitators in every state, CER cultivates new reformers daily and cuts the learning curve for those entering reform and sustains strong, challenging advocates for real reforms that ensure choice is paramount, that parents have power and that schools are focussed on students and not adults. 

Allen is an expert lobbyist and advocate. She knows politics and business. She bills herself as "one of the nation’s most accomplished and relentless advocates for education reform, and a recognized expert, speaker and author in the field." She has no background or experience in actual educating. But she does know how to brand herself. If you want to see her in action, you can watch this 2012 clip, but chances are that by the time she says, "You can't have parent power and have teacher union power" and says "teacher union" with the same tone of voice one would use for "rotting cockroach carcasses," you will want to say unkind things to her.

With considerable fanfare, Allen this week unveiled a Manifesto for Reform-- Innovation + Opportunity = Results. It is a big fat slice of baloney, and I almost didn't make it through. But I have read it so that you don't have to. Ready? Here we go.

Preamble: A Movement At Risk 

This is a clarion call.

That's the first sentence, and it echoes the high-dudgeon tone of the last handful of properly civilized people beset by ignorant barbarians that is Allen's hallmark. If you like your reformsters unapologetic, uninterested in compromise, and unwilling to be remotely reasonable, Allen is your woman.

From the clarion call we go straight to a block quote from A Nation At Risk (the one about unilateral disarmament), and then we're off and running:

Nearly half a century later, a wave of amnesia has taken hold of American minds. Many have forgotten, or never knew, what this report’s message was and why it was so impactful.

It is possible, I think, that people are no longer as moved by Nation at Risk because it predicted imminent national collapse-- and it predicted it thirty-three years ago. When someone screams that the sky is falling FALLING OMGZ DO SOMETHING RIGHT NOW!!!! and then for thirty years, the sky doesn't actually fall, it's possible that some people will lose their sense of urgency.

But Allen sets the Wayback Machine so that we can relive how "historic" the committee was that ginned up ANAR, and she waxes nostalgic for the good old days of the nineties when reformy impulses led to charters and standards and choice and charters. From the nineties into the early oughts, things were great in Reformsterland. Oh, but then...

By 2008, the unity and the results were both dwindling. The American people were upset about wars and political battles. It was as if the terrorist threat didn’t just change our way of life externally, but also our ability to unite over important domestic issues, indeed, the most important domestic issue of our time. 

2008 is an interesting choice, because I remember it no so much as a time of special wars and political battles as a time of banksters managing to trash the entire economy. But Allen is gifted with spectacular tunnel vision, so somehow we draw a straight line from terrorism to troubles with ed reform programs.

Allen says that education has never been more important in terms of solving domestic and international turmoil, and if you are on the edge of your seat wondering how having more charters in Detroit would help us defeat ISIS, just back that truck up, hoss, because Allen is never going to explain the connection-- just holler dramatically that it is so. And that's so she can create a proper sense of urgency in the Big Finish of this preamble:

And yet the movement to ensure educational attainment for all is at a crossroads. We are losing ground in part because we are losing the argument. And our hopes of systemic change — our progress — will be lost, and we will be a nation at even greater risk, if we do not refocus our collective energies and message to connect with the broad universe of education consumers and citizens 

Pro tip, ma'am. It will not help you win the argument if you continue to conceive of education as a commodity that has consumers.

But kudos for recognizing you're losing the argument. The big question hovering over this paper is this: Do you have any idea why you are losing the argument?

Allen declares that the reformster movement is at a crossroads. "A decision must be made. A path must be chosen." Now that we have been goaded into a proper attitude of fear and panic (what better way to consider an important choice), let's read on to see what the choice might be.

Where We Are 

It shouldn’t take a hurricane. But sometimes it takes a tragedy to help remind us what’s important — and not to take it for granted.

Sigh. Yes, Allen is going to take us to the magical land of New Orleans, where the wonderful charter operators, with the aid of the state, rescued education from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The "success" of New Orleans has been so thoroughly and repeatedly debunked at this point, one has to admire Allen's nerve here. She throws some stats around (and at this point, faux NOLA stats are their own cottage industry) and holds New Orleans up as the ultimate charter exemplar. For her it is the closest we've come "to realizing the groundbreaking vision of education innovator Ted Kolderie, who first wrote about the critical nature of breaking the exclusive franchise of traditional school districts holding parents captive based on zoned attendance." Because Allen and CER are not just pro-charter-- they are strongly and not very subtly anti-public education.

She goes on to laud the full history of charter growth, praising "the moral leadership of national advocates like Howard Fuller" which is an interesting choice, given that Fuller has far more complicated view of charters than Allen does (he described NOLA's charter revolution as "something done to us, not with us").

She feels so strongly about the NOLA miracle and its place as an exemplar that she offers this pull quote twice in the course of the entire article:

Perhaps the most troubling sign of reform’s place in the debate is the sudden unraveling of the New Orleans revolution. Instead of being feted and replicated, the path breaking and life-changing Recovery School District is being assaulted from all sides by the opponents of change.

And do you know how bad it has gotten in New Orleans?

Even worse, in the name of “local control” the fate of the charter sector is about to be put in the hands of an institution — the school board — which historically opposes giving any power to schools and autonomy to individual school leaders.  

Allen also trots out the DC voucher system as an example of awesomeness that has been greeted with unfair, unenlightened opposition from anti-charter yahoos. Okay, she does say that some opposition is "well-intentioned" but that the opponents just don't understand why policies were put in place and how they are making the world better. And then she pivots to compare all this to the fate of Common Core. It suffered a similar fate, mired in a debate that drained everyone's energies:

Opponents rarely took time to understand how the standards were adopted, why and how they were being used, and what they actually said, while proponents regularly dismissed concerns without examining their cause or intent, resulting in a more fractured community of once powerful advocates, whose alignment on issues such as opportunity and innovation is now secondary.

That's about the closest Allen comes to admitting that Core fans bear any responsibility for the fate of the Core. But in Allen's universe, all opponents of reformy ideas are uninformed and/or ill-intentioned. She is holding up the Core a a cautionary tale-- see how much damage the yahoos can do when we don't stop them? But she misses (or ignores) that actually, Core opposition grew as people came to understand better and better exactly how they were adopted, where they came from, and how they were being used. The Core was not brought down by ignorance, but by better understanding. Yes, there were some tin hat "the Core will turn your child into a gay communist" opponents out there, but they would have been lonely voices in the wilderness if the Core had not been poorly developed by a handful of educational amateurs and shoved down the throat of US education by a combination of federal extortion and philanthropic PR blitzing.

The Core didn't die because of some evil oppositional plot. It died because it is junk that doesn't work, imposed by people without any educational expertise (but lots of financial aspirations). If Allen wants her cautionary tale for charters, it's in that sentence. The best way for charters to survive would be for them to prove worthy of their huge costs.

Allen sees a movement in trouble--  "off message, losing ground at the national level, losing fights in communities across the country, and struggling to hold on even in the places where we have demonstrated the most dramatic success." She lists many places where reformsters have been pushed back (and that includes places where states have imposed regulation on charters), and then she asks what should be a critical question--

How did we get here?

This question gives Allen the chance to display some self-awareness and insight. Spoiler alert: that is not going to happen. The story of How Reformsters Lost Ground is a bit off.

The truth is, we have lost the change-forest for the choice-trees, too often pushing charters and vouchers as an end in and of themselves rather than a means to spur innovation and opportunity and ultimately deliver on the promise of a great education for all children.

Okay-- good start. Advocates did in fact get focused on implementing choice, even if the choices were crappy. It's almost as if many charteristas were more interested in cracking open the market and getting a shot at all that cash than in providing actual education (or that they thought the education part was a simple product that any shmoe could provide). But now we enter the realm of fantasy. Allen says that a decade ago, reformsters had the resistance pinned down under "incontrovertible evidence" of achievement gaps and resistance to change. But then --

But after spending millions of dollars on polling, testing, and training, the defenders of the indefensible found a way to turn the tables by turning our rhetoric against us, relentlessly portraying the reform movement as rich, separatist corporatists who want to privatize our public schools.

Millions of dollars? Exactly who did that? When? And lets remember that phrase "defenders of the indefensible." Do you suppose, Ms. Allen, that the picture of rich corporate privatizers might have been related to the actual reality of who reformsters are and what they did?

It’s an ugly, phony caricature, but sadly it’s one we have been complicit in creating.

So, yes and no. Allen says that the reform movement has been dominated by the white faces of "Walmart and Wall Street," but that grass roots reality is not that at all. The grass roots must reside in the same alternate universe as the pro-public ed people spending millions on research. Allen says it's a problem reformsters are aware of, but have "inexplicably" failed to act. I don't think it's all that inexplicable. The reform movement looks like its mostly rich white guys because it is, in fact, mostly rich white guys. We don't hear much from grass roots reformsters for the same reason we don't often see Yetis parading through mid-town Manhattan.

Now that we are on the defensive, we have been caught in a vicious cycle of concession and capitulation. We attribute much of this to the fact that full-time advocates are outnumbered.

So Allen rejects compromise. And in her alternate universe, the many many many full-time advocates, lobbyists and agitators for ed reform are outnumbered by-- who, exactly? Guys like me who run a blog for free and post in our own free time while holding down a real teaching job? Because there are many of us. Not so many (or even any) examples of, say, a blogger with a $12 million budget to run an advocacy group, like Peter Cunningham and Education Post.

I've heard this so many times that I believe that reformsters believe it-- their message is just being jammed by a huge army of enemies and if they could just get the word out, people would see. But I wish they would consider an alternate explanation-- when you keep telling people that their hair is on fire and the keep failing to react, it's possible that you're just wrong.

But she wants to go back to the day:  "Our message back then was education of all constituencies, at all levels combined with a willingness to engage directly with those who may oppose our efforts, but are not the enemy." Just a thought, but maybe if you didn't characterize opponents with phrases like "defenders of the indefensible," you might have a better basis for dialogue.

Where We Need To Be

So how, Allen wonders, do reformsters get back to being big, bold and holistic? Holistic?

She wants a return to first principles, which in her case means the writing of "founding father" Ted Kolderie. He had four basic characteristics for charters (because when Allen talks about reform, she really just means charter schools): Innovation, Accountability (outcome based, not process), Autonomy, and Choice.

Herein lies the foundation and formula for righting our reform movement, getting back on offense, and ultimately mounting a winning argument. We have to show the public that we are focused on the success of all students and all schools, and that our support for charter schools is part of a larger mission to drive systemic change and progress in public education. The best way to do that, we believe, is to ground our message and agenda in the universal and interdependent values of innovation and opportunity.

Reformsters have too small a circle and use too little of the research that is out there, particularly when it comes to outcome based adaptive stuff. Did your ears just perk up, opponents of competency based education? Good.

Allen further says (and I'm going to do some very close reading here, so other close readers might disagree) that charter operators need to stop settling in once they've gotten their own operation up and making money running smoothly, but instead should keep powering away with that creative disruption until the public ed system have been creatively disrupted into submission.

How Do We Get There? The New Opportunity Agenda

Still with me? God bless you. Get a drink of something-- we've still got a ways to go.

Allen is a big fan of purple prosey blather, and there's a bunch of this here. She thinks Paul Ryan's plan for the future opens a door for education awesomeness, and she's dreaming, but okay. She's going to try to draw a line between increased upward mobility and improved student outcomes (which still just means better test scores on a narrow badly designed standardized math and reading test) which is hard when the research says, no, not so much.

But Allen wants to usher in the New Opportunity Agenda and its four core principles. And we'll sure enough look at them, but I'm beginning to suspect that what we're doing here is finding a way to market charter schools without talking about charter schools and instead hiding them behind bigger, vaguer principles, because when your brand is in trouble, you can change your product, or you can change the marketing. Maybe that's the choice she was talking about earlier. At any rate, let's look at the four pillars of the rebranding New Opportunity Agenda.


Question  everything, from five day weeks to year-round calendars. Sure. Reconsider everything. And if you're still with me, you can now experience the horror that is this next paragraph:

We do not need a thousand flowers to bloom, as the saying goes. What we need is to have a thousand (or tens of thousands) of seeds planted. Those that are watered by parents and students and teachers, with money and time and loyalty, will succeed. The rest will become part of the fertile soil that will make more and better innovations possible in the future.

So there you have it. Some are destined for success and greatness, and some are destined to be dead, decomposed fertilizer. But don't worry fertilizer students at fertilizer schools-- you have given up your youth and education so that better people can achieve greatness.


Let's have government take off the handcuffs. For public schools, sure, but especially for charters, who face all sorts of "onerous" regulations. For instance "unlike traditional public schools, for instance, charter schools in most states must pay for their own facilities." Um, yes. Public schools get buildings for free. Nobody has to pay for them at all. What a fun dimension Allen lives in. In the meantime, she might want to check with some of her charter friends, who are calling for more regulation for some charters.

Also, Allen would like philanthropists to stop worrying so much about scaleable models. Fair enough.


She just means vouchers. She throws some words at it, but she just wants good old money-follows-the-student vouchers. And as for regulation

While we think there is an important role for accreditors in the process of opening new schools, we believe that those schools that are not performing up to parents’ expectations will close. No accrediting agency has more of an incentive to keep kids out of bad schools than mothers and fathers.

Again, she might want to take a look at the cyber charter industry, which is failing spectacularly despite the oversight of moms and dads.


Put Big Standardized Test scores and NAEP scores on line. Tell parents how much money is being spent per student. That's pretty much it. What else do parents need to know.

Bonus History Moment

Somehow she picks this moment to throw in a cheerleading sentence with a history bonus:

Our movement will never be perfectly harmonious, but it can and has been productive. Its strength comes from its uniqueness politically: Forged under Reagan, sharpened under Bush 41, boosted under Clinton, supported by Bush 43, and aided by President Obama. With a presidential election year that promises to challenge and upset even our best successes, we must succeed.

How Will We Do This?

So what's the action plan here? Looks like there are just a few simple steps:

Have conversations about EdReform I O, or Innovation + Opportunity = Education-- I don't know, I get the feeling that the branding still needs polishing. But at any rate, conversations with anyone who might care.

Leverage the media to build momentum. Hey, I'm already helping! You're welcome, Ms. Allen!

They've already launched the Innovation in Opportunity project (okay, branding definitely needs work) which has something to do with getting technology into schools.

Work "in tandem" with groups around the country to create the next generation of eduleaders. Probably non-white non-wealthy ones.

And she invites anyone who, like the group that produced A Nation At Risk, wants to put aside differences and work on Important Stuff. I suggest that step one be a visit to Dr. Phil, who might ask Allen if she wants to take ownership of any part of this troubled relationship, because if she's going to keep calling public education and the people who work there names, she might be part of the whole "putting aside differences" problem. Not that I think she can see that from the veranda in her alternate dimension.


  1. I'm not to concerned. How many people will read this? Maybe 100 or so? And for the most part, only those who already believe.

  2. Reformsters have thrown enough bovine excrement on the wall to fill the Grand Canyon. And the wall isn't even dirty.

  3. Reformers like to experiment on children. They treat children as means, not ends, as they sacrifice so many on the altar of innovation.

  4. Peter - You're out of school, right?

    I began to read this manifesto, too, but I stopped.

    Sounds like you're in withdrawal, reading and critiquing a ridiculous term paper written by a student who has only the power of a belief in their own ideas and lacks any research whatsoever to prove the smallest point.

    Jeanne Allen's cri de coeur isn't worth your time. I suggest you take a nice walk outside - you deserve it!

    Christine Langhoff

  5. "She's going to try to draw a line between increased upward mobility and improved student outcomes (which still just means better test scores on a narrow badly designed standardized math and reading test) which is hard when the research says, no, not so much."

    As discussed on Diane Ravitch's blog, the real disconnect may be between Jay Greene's analysis and the research he cites:

  6. The charter school industry sounds like the prison industry. Unfortunately, our laws and economic system allow for public tax dollars to be siphoned right into the pockets of the uberwealthy. Such is the tune that privatization of public services plays. Hopefully, we will be able to elect folks to our school boards and state houses that are for public schools and get some of the laws changed that will curtail this charter insanity.

    Love your writing style, Peter.