Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Left and Right of Ed Reform

Robert Pondiscio triggered a reformy tempest almost two weeks ago when he wrote that the Left was in danger of pushing conservatives out of the ed reform movement. The reformy blogoverse and twitterverse have not shut up about it since, with responses ranging from the sympathetic to... well, less so (Best title: "Audacity of Nope"). A large portion of the education post stable has taken a shot at the issue, and so have many of standard-bearers on the right-leaning side of the ed reform tracks. I had a response of my own (written before I realized this was going to be A Thing), but I am not going to try to digest the whole sprawling conversation here. You can read your way around the internet if you've missed this.

But I'm writing about it today, because reading all of these responses has revived one of the questions that has puzzled me about ed reform for quite a while.

When we look at the ed reform coalition of the Left and the Right, how are we supposed to tell the two sides apart?

Exactly what policies or principles are different when one compares lefty reformsters to righty reformsters?

There was never any real difference on Common Core support, other than folks on the right abandoned it a little faster than folks on the left, and both have been stalwart in supporting the Big Standardized Test. Even the differences one might have expected to find are not there. One might expect that conservatives might be more inclined to defend the traditional institutions of public education or to stick up for local control instead of state-level or mayoral take-overs, that didn't happen. It's happening now (here's Rick Hess just today), but it sure wasn't happening when reformsters were railing about defenders of the status quo. One might expect that lefties would hew close to traditional lefty allies like teacher unions, but we find nominal Democrats like Whitney Tilson (DFER) and Andy Cuomo ranting about how the evil unions must be crushed.

If we look at reformy politicians, are there real policy differences between the education policies of Rahm Emmanuel and Chris Christie, between Marty Walsh and Nathan Deal? Certainly, when it comes to education policy, there were no substantial difference between the goals of the Bush and Obama administrations.

Pondiscio's original piece distinguished between the practicality of righties and the social justice concerns of lefties, but I'm not sure that really holds up-- at least not in terms of how both groups present themselves. Both left and right reformsters have advocated for charters as a means to correct inequity and reduce poverty, with those goals tied back to standards and testing. So maybe the distinction can be expressed by these two different visions:

Righties: Using tests to identify which schools are not meeting standards, we will have government provide better education in those areas by sending education tax dollars to competitive, privately operated charters that are free from regulation and tasked to close the achievement gap.

Lefties: Using tests to identify which schools are not meeting standards, we will have government provide better education in those areas by sending education tax dollars to competitive, privately operated charters that are free from regulation and tasked to close the achievement gap.

There may be some actual differences about the role of the US Department of Education in all of this-- do we get to charter school heaven with more government involvement, or less? But if the destination in mind is pretty much the same, how much do the disagreements about how to get there matter?

Is there an article or opinion piece that could run on Education Post (the advocacy outfit run by Obama administration alum Peter Cunningham) that could not also run on Education Next (run by the right-tilting Fordham Institute)? If Jeb Bush had miraculously become President, is there any reason that Arne Duncan or John King could not have been his Secretary of Education? Has Bill Gates spent his ed reformy billions exclusively on left- or right-tilted groups?

To read some of the reactions to Pondiscio's piece, one might conclude that the major difference between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives are exclusively white guys and liberals are exclusively everyone else-- in other words, to tell conservatives and liberals apart, we just have to see them to check for breasts and melanin. That seems far too reductive and unfair to both groups.

Some disagreement seems to center around issues of racism and economic inequity and whether government should fix these things by instituting programs or just, well, dying. It has seemed all along like left and right reformsters agreed on these things ("If you don't support charters, it's because you're a racist who doesn't believe that black kids can achieve great things," came pretty easily out of reformster mouths all across the spectrum). So maybe there was a list of things that people on the reformy left and right were pretending to believe, and we're about to see more space open up between them as they stop being polite and start getting real. In fact, this exchange just happened:

That could make for interesting times. As I suggested before, I think a fair number of reformsters have no educational or political convictions at all-- they'll just lean whatever way the wind is blowing the money. There's also a good sized chunk of reformsterdom that are neo-liberals, who aren't really left or right.

So perhaps we're about to see a big fat game of musical chairs at the Legendary Table and a continuing, ever-louder discussion of who, exactly, deserves a seat at that table. And to all the people who are afraid that they might end up under-represented or barred from the table or sitting near the table but not at it, or that the table might end up crowded with a bunch of people who neither understand nor represent their point of view, I think I can speak for most US public school teachers when I say, "Welcome to the last decade of our lives."


  1. Yep, it's not left or eight, it's just establishment neoliberals.

  2. Based on my experiences in TFA and in Newark, I pretty much take it as a given that a major purpose of today's brand of education reform is to divert the energies of youthful (left-wing) idealists so that they serve the interests of a wealthy (right-wing) elite without even realizing it.

    Of course, the older one gets, the harder it is not to realize it.

    However, if one graduates after only a few years to earning a six-figure salary, the continued receipt of which depends upon never realizing it, that's quite an incentive not to.