Friday, September 16, 2016

Petrilli: Mission Accomplished

Remember when we had a terrible, terrible crisis in the number of terribly bad awful really no good schools (filled with stinky, disastrous teachers) and we had to put the reform pedal to the scholastic metal toot de suite! Common Core, teacher evaluations, choice-flavored systems-- we had to have them RIGHT NOW and couldn't afford to wait another second because crisis crisis CRISIS! Remember all that?

Well, good news. Crisis over. All fixed. Mission accomplished. At least that's the word from Mike Petrilli (Fordham) over at the Flypaper blog. 

School failure is no longer the United States’ most pressing educational problem—mediocrity is.

 For sure, we’re used to hearing that, and some of us are used to saying it. Indeed, many schools serving African Americans (and Latinos and low-income students) haven’t been very good. Some are still failing. But the truth is that they have gotten better over the past two decades—a lot better.

What Petrilli is arguing for here is a shift of focus, from focusing on creating excellent schools rather than eliminating bad ones.

Now as always we need to remember that Petrilli is not always in lockstep with his reformy brethren (he's still pretty much alone in pushing out loud the idea that not only should charters be allowed to  cream, but that creaming is really their actual purpose). Nevertheless, cancelling the Terrible Schools Crisis represents a bit of a rhetorical shift.

So what's going on here? Let me offer a couple of possible interpretations of the shift.

It's politics.

Petrilli invokes Trump's special message to black voters-- "Your lives suck terribly"-- and backs away from it. Right now reformsters have a Trump problem; specifically, their problem is that Trump is on their side. Regardless of where you stand on education reforminess, I think we can agree on one thing-- your most beloved ideas sound so much worse coming out of Trump's mouth. I figure we can expect many reformsters to attempt the Trump dance that the GOP has been wiggling its way through for the past several months. In the meantime, Petrilli seems interested in shifting the focus of Presidential discussions of education. Good luck with that.

Admission and redefinition of failure.

You may recall that the reformster goal with those terrible, terrible schools was not just to make them better. Many states bought into the magical 5%-- we were going to just keep grabbing the bottom 5% of schools and transform them into super-awesome schools. Tennessee's Achievement School District was going to take the bottom 5% of schools and put them in the top 25%, and Chris Barbic generated some headlines by discovering that it's actually pretty hard to pull that magic trick off.

Reformsters were often critical of incrementalists who wanted to just make schools better-- we were going to see schools transformed into Gardens of Learning, miracles of free-market educationized awesomeness. Now after at least a decade, no such amazing results have been produced.

In other words, when Petrilli says the conversation should shift to the production of excellent schools, he is doing an nifty reverse assume-the-sake slight-of-hand, because for a long time, the conversation was totally about excellent schools, and how reform was going to transform terrible schools into the most very excellent ones. Instead, results have ranged from nothing special to outright failure. Petrilli's "well, now that we've made terrible schools a little better..." is basically a guy picking himself up off a slippery sidewalk while saying, "I totally meant to do that."

Mission creep and market expansion

Privatizing, charterizing, and generally reformifying was always going to be an easier sell for poor, non-white schools. Desperate for help, and lacking in most cases any effective powers of political resistance, those schools could be taken over, closed, charterfied, etc etc etc with little resistance. The problem was always going to be finding a way to expand the reformy market to wealthier, whiter schools, where parents could more effectively resist having their schools taken and their local control stripped away.

There were hopes that testing would provide a sales pitch base, like when all those suburban moms discovered their schools sucked and their children weren't so bright because of the common core Big Standardized Tests. That didn't pan out-- when those moms were confronted with BS Test evidence that what they thought they knew about their own flesh and blood was wrong, they determined that it was the test that was wrong, while reformsters impotently argued, "What are you going to believe? Me, or your own eyes?"

Having failed to convince suburban communities that their schools were in crisis, reformsters are going to need a new crowbar with which to open that market. So perhaps an all-around betterness argument may work.

Petrilli's love of high achievers

We know that Petrilli has a love of the high-striving achieveniks (see article linked above), and when we're looking at that population, he has a valid point. High Stakes Testing has encouraged schools to separate their students into three groups:

1) Achievement levels so low that there's no hope of getting them to "proficient"
2) Close enough to the line that many, many resources will be focused on dragging them across it
3) Achievement levels so high that there's no need to worry about them

In a test-centered school, groups 1 and 2 get the most attention. Group 3 gets little.

The next president should make it clear that our advanced students deserve our attention too, and states should send clear signals that they matter by holding schools accountable for their progress.

I don't disagree in principle, but there are a couple of problems here. One is that we have no reliable or valid method for measuring that progress. This is further complicated because "high flyers" are not always interested in staying in the little boxes set up to measure their achievement. One of the foundational elements of being a high achiever is that you are guided by your own ideas about what achievement should mean.

Final thought 

This is one of those pieces that reminds me of the huge gap between policy wonks and actual classroom teachers. Because while the focus on excellence does frequently suffer at the policy level, it's pretty much our bread and butter in the classroom. "I want you guys to be super-mediocre," said no decent teacher ever.


  1. America's "most pressing educational problem" is Mike Petrilli and people like him "solving" US public ed anew every few years (or months) and using their power (which remains uninformed by the realities of the classroom) to influence lawmakers. We saw it with Arne, we see it DAILY from Fordham. The utter hubris of wealthy mostly-White mostly-males dictating education policy especially for lower-income students of color is staggering.

    Petrilli never knew the right question(s) to ask in the first place, so of COURSE he and his ilk will come up with the wrong answers.