Thursday, October 11, 2018

John White Remains Confused

Last week the Policy Innovators in Education (PIE) network held its annual meeting, this time in New Orleans. It's a jolly gathering of all our reform friends, and this year it featured a speech from Louisiana school chief John White, the test of which was run by Fordham's Flypaper blog. I'll warn you-- this starts out just sort of ill-formed, and ends up pretty awful. But it is a window, once again, on how fully lost some reformsters are.

White has a hefty reform pedigree-- Teach for America, TFA director, Joel Klein's team in NYC, Broad Academy of Faux Superintendency). The headline that gave this piece some legs and attention was White's observation that education is no longer a political winner, which is only slightly more insightful than suggesting that Barack Obama will probably win the Democratic nomination over Hilary Clinton. Or as I've commented elsewhere, 2018-- the year I run out of new ways to say "And you just figured this out now..."

White does note that the 2016 election put paid to the notion that education would be an important political issue. Jeb! Bush tried to make education a chunk of his campaign foundation, and Campbell Brown tried to set up a website that would position her as arbiter of the education discussion (remember when she staged education summits and nobody came). In 2016, people who banked on education as an issue were like folks who speculated in real estate, but the railroad went through some other town.

But White believes this lack of political interest in education is a serious problem. I don't disagree with that basic point-- it sucks that politicians, leaders, media outlets, and strangers on the street aren't more interested in what goes on in the world of education. But beyond that-- well, I find White's analysis suspect at best.

Education reform has made positive gains in this country for the people whom it’s set out to serve without question.

Yes, "without question" probably belongs somewhere else in that sentence, but it's a sentence that should be stricken, anyway, without question. Unless he means that the people ed reform set out to serve were profiteers and privatizers, in which case he may have a point. If he meant actual children, I don't think he does.

Nor does he offer much to back it up:

And whereas, when I started out my career in the 1990s and people ask you, “Point me to a set of schools where large groups of students are beating the odds, and are achieving some semblance of hope in the American dream in spite of challenging conditions as a child,” you could count on your hand how many schools met those criteria. Today, there are hundreds of them.

How many times do miracle schools have to be debunked? Roughly a zillion, I guess. What are miracles based one? Extra resources. Careful attention to which students they let in the door. Depending on a lousy measure of students achievement to make pretty numbers. None of that is particularly miraculous. Where are the thousands upon thousands of students who, by now, should have swelled the college ranks with success and gone on to richer, happier lives? And what do we know about the cost of those "miracles"? How many students had to be left behind in schools with even fewer resources so that some charter operator could stage a "miracle"?

And yet for some reason, today we have a political climate in which—whatever side of the Common Core issue you are on, whatever your take on school vouchers, wherever you come out on standardized testing or what have you—you cannot question the fact that politicians are running from education and not toward it. They are running from our elementary schools, our middle schools, and our high schools. And where they are even remotely interested in our education, it is in thin solutions for our postsecondary education and thin solutions for early childhood education. Somehow it’s the thirteen years, the thirteen deeply formative years, of school that they seem to want nothing to do with.

This is a great paragraph, capturing both the current state of politics vs. reformsterism and also capturing the confusion and cluelessness of some Reformsters. It's as important, in its own way, as Arne Duncan's sweetly oblivious memoir.

Politicians have decided to shy away from those thirteen years because virtually everything reformsters have talked them into in the last couple of decades has been a mess. Common Core turned out to be a nightmare, a disaster. Test-centered schools-- disaster. Charters-- looked like they might not be a disaster, but now stalled out. To the extent that White is correct, politicians have learned that many policy wonks are not very wise about schools, and that their ideas are often laced with kryptonite.

Of course, they have also learned to keep a lower profile. They've learned that you can get away with Common Core if you just call it something else. And they've learned that the next round of privatizing profiteering (personalized learning, competency based education, techno-data-everything, etc) can be better played close to the vest.

I'd also like to think that they've learned that education does not boil down very effectively to a sound bite on the stump. And that many people are very invested in education, so when you say something stupid, they will make a fuss.

White is missing one other puzzle piece. I'd argue that a huge reason that education wasn't a big deal in 2016 is because everyone, from corporate GOP candidates to corporate Democrats, agreed on one basic education policy-- "those smart guys with all that money should get to call the shots." You can't have much of a debate between people who are all on the same side.

Having missed that, White has also missed that something is changing right now. Teachers are running for office. And in several major races, education is actually a big issue. The problem for White and his PIE cronies is that the political noise about education is coming in opposition to reformsters and their legacy of educational vandalism. And with the election of Trump, reformsters had to learn another lesson that is coming back to haunt them this cycle-- when people are your allies only because it's politically and financially expedient to be so, then when it's no longer expedient, they will no longer be your allies.

White's confusion is as great as ever. When trying to explain "the brilliance represented in this room and in your organizations" is not about their ideas, but  instead

it has to do with the fact that over two or three decades, some of the nations most committed, invigorated, finest people, rich and poor, from west and east, from all racial backgrounds, have actually come together to focus on public education, or publicly-funded education. They have brought tremendous and uncommon energy to this issue, Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike. And we have achieved the gains we have, not because we are smarter than everybody else, but because we have great people who saw this as an issue to which they wanted to dedicate their life.

It occurs to me at this point that among his problems, White is a policy guy, defining "the spectrum" as a bunch of policy and political operatives (but not any actual teachers or people who work in the field), and that "success" in this context means issued some position papers and schmoozed some statehouse allies and got some laws passed here and there, and that John White neither knows nor cares how any of that played out for actual children in actual classrooms.

Sure enough. He defines the biggest crisis facing education reform and it has nothing to do with the lack of perceptible positive life effects for students or the state of actual learning or the problems of poverty and racism as they affect students' ability to be their most excellent selves-- no, the "crisis" is "the relevance of our issue, and therefore the attractiveness of our issue, for the next generation of activists, advocates, philanthropists, and politicians." John White isn't even worried about a teacher shortage-- it's the politician shortage that he thinks is the biggest crisis.

And as he outlines the problem and possible solutions, he talks about how he used to think that the solution was better PR (I'm paraphrasing here) as in a set of issues that would play better, or some billionaire who could kick them loose from a tired message or, well, "finding value in things that offer more value to a more diverse audience." He's just not so sure any more.

But here comes the big finish-- if reformsters are going to grow more reformsters like Bill Haslam or Mike Bloomberg, who can "create newness" or invent, they will have to reinvent, "be new." He wants the PIE folks to appreciate how rare and precious it is for folks to join across party lines. So think about how to "remain relevant" and "remain on the front page." Because PR.

Just when I think he will manage to discuss education without mentioning a single human being who's actually involved in doing it, as if the whole "do it for the children" mantra is only for the public and not something reformsters say to each other when they're the only ones in the room, he busts out the children-- and it's even worse.

I believe it’s possible because the good news is, whether you are in New Orleans or New York or anywhere in this country, there is one force that we can harness, that no other issue can harness, and that is the love of Americans for their children. Everyone knows that children are our most precious assets, and therefore we have a tremendous platform from which to get advocates. 

So don't forget-- people love their damn children and we should be able to leverage that love into political capital. Think I'm being harsh? Here's the very next, and final, two sentences:

But for some reason we are not converting that into attention, into political capital, and into new ideas. And that has to change.

Well, something has to change. Perhaps the cluelessness of reformsters like White could change. I would recommend less time schmoozing with the members of PIE and more time in an actual classroom, because this is a stunning display of reform disconnect, of a focus on policy winning (at whatever policy, as he seems none too attached to any particular policy-- just one that could get them winning again) at the complete neglect, ignorance, dismissal and obliviating of the children. It's a world in which education policy looms large, but actual schools and classrooms and teachers and children are virtually invisible.

And, yeah-- that has to change.


  1. I just ran White's word salad through Google's new Sarah Palin-speak translator program. Here is the result: "Help! I've dug a hole so deep I can't get out."

  2. Any time politicians or political operative-types start talking about "joining across party lines", you should check your wallet and count your limbs because it's costing you something - most likely an arm and a leg.

  3. How the hell is this fraud still even in place? The only 'miracle' that useless, lying, excuse for a human being has accomplished is keeping his job.