Sunday, November 18, 2018

Is This The End Of Ed Reform Policy?

From time  to time Mike Petrilli (Fordham Institute) grabs himself a big declaration and goes to town. Last week, the declaration was "We have reached the end of education policy."

He frames this up with references to Francis Fukuyama's book about the end of history, and I don't know that he really ever sticks the landing on creating parallels between Fukuyama's idea (which he acknowledges turned out to be wrong) and his thoughts about ed policy, but it establishes an idea about the scale he's shooting for-- something more sweeping and grandiose than if he'd compared ed policy to video game arcades or no-strings-attached sex.

His thesis?

We are now at the End of Education Policy, in the same way that we were at the End of History back in 1989. Our own Cold War pitted reformers against traditional education groups; we have fought each other to a draw, and reached something approaching homeostasis. Resistance to education reform has not collapsed like the Soviet Union did. Far from it. But there have been major changes that are now institutionalized and won’t be easily undone, at least for the next decade.

Okay. Well, first I'd argue that he has it backwards. It was reformsters who championed centralized top-down planning and the erasure of local governance, often accomplished with raw power and blunt force, so if somebody has to be the Soviet Union in this analogy, I think they fit the bill.

He ticks off the gains of the reformist movement. Charters are now fact of the landscape in many cities. Tax credit scholarships, a form of sideways voucher, are also established. He admits that the growth of these programs has slowed; he does not admit that these reform programs reach a tiny percentage of all US students.

One data point surprised me-- one fifth of all new teachers are coming from alternative certification programs, which is really bad news for the teaching profession and for students. We'll have to talk about this. [Check the comments for a bit more info on this.]

Testing, he says, in claiming a dubious victory, is less hated than it used to be, maybe? He makes some specious claims here about the underlying standards being stronger and the tests being more sophisticated and rigorous-- none of that is true. He says that teacher evaluation systems have been "mostly defanged," citing ESSA, but from where most teachers sit, there's still plenty of fang right where it's been. "School accountability systems," he claims, are now less about accountability and more about transparency. No-- test centered accountability continues to serve no useful purpose while warping and damaging educational programs across America.

The era of broad policy initiatives out of DC is over, says Petrilli. Hallelujah, says I. Only policy wonks would think it's a great thing if state and federal bureaucrats crank out new policy initiatives every year. Every one of them eats up time and effort to implement that could be better spent actually educating students. The teaching profession is saturated with initiative fatigue, the exhaustion and cynicism that comes when high-powered educational amateurs stop in every year or two to tell you that they now have a great new way for you to do your job that will totally Fix Everything. One does not have to spend many years in the classroom to weary of the unending waves of bullshit. It would be awesome if those waves actually stopped for a while.

Petrilli's claim is that they have, and that now is a time for tinkering with actual education practices, but his list sucks. "To implement the higher standards with fidelity" No. No no no no NO no no, and hell no. "With fidelity" is reform talk for "by squashing every ounce of individual initiative, thought, and professional judgment out of classroom teachers. "With fidelity" means "subordinating the professional judgment of trained educators to the unproven amateur-hour baloney of the Common Core writers." "Improve teacher preparation and development" is a great goal, except that I don't think that means "train teachers to do better test prep and go through their days with fidelity." Then we have "To strengthen charter school oversight and quality," which seems like a great idea, though "strengthen" assumes that there is anything there to strengthen in the first place, which in some states is simply not so (looking at you, train wreck Florida). Charters need to be reigned in-- way in-- and if that means that many operators will simply leave the charter school business, well, I can live with that. Work on the whole Career and Technical Education thing, a goal that I have a hard time getting excited about because in my corner of the world, we've been doing it well for fifty years. If you think CTE is a brand new thing, you are too ill-informed to be allowed anywhere near CTE policy.

Petrilli tries to create a sense of urgency with the same old tired stats. NAEP is stagnant. Students graduate without "academic preparation to succeed in what's next," a made-up statistic that assumes we know exactly what a student needs to know in order to succeed at any path in life, and we don't. It's like saying we don't know how to measure height, and we don't know how tall you have to be to jump over this fence, but we are certain that fifty percent of US children are too short.

But Petrilli's larger point is wrong, anyway. Ed reform has already set its sights on competency based proficiency based personalized [sic] learning education technological mass customized schooling. ESSA opened the door for it, and the same scent of money and data mining that drew reform sharks and well-meaning chum artists to Common Core and charters and the Big Standardized Test is drawing a crowd for these Next Big Things, even as they push legislatures to get rid of rules that hamper this newest market grab.

There is not so much homeostasis as the realization that many old reform initiatives have reached a dead end, a blockade of diminishing returns and unrealized promises, and the crowd is moving on to the next shiny thing.

But Petrilli gets one thing absolutely right:

The leadership for this Golden Age of Educational Practice is not coming from Washington, and it’s not coming from the states. It needs to come from each of us.

Granted, it's not clear who "us" is, but still-- in a year in which reformsters repeatedly "discover" and announce things that teachers have already know for years, this is the most teachers have already known this for years-iest.

You don't always learn it in teacher school, but you learn it soon enough in the field. You hope the students will love learning enough that they will help propel your work. You hope that parents will have the time and emotional resources and devotion to help propel their students forward. You hope that your building administration will have your back and that your district leaders will work hard to give you the tools and freedom and support that you need. You hope that state and federal political leaders will make decisions that make your job easier rather than harder. You hope that the academics and wonks who crank out Bold New Ideas will come up with ideas that are actually useful and which help you become a better teacher. You hope that publishers create materials that provide more assistance than speed bumps.

But you learn quickly that, regardless of whether your hopes are realized or dashed, if learning is going to happen in your classroom, it's on you and nobody else. If your students are going to grow in knowledge and wisdom and strength, becoming more fully themselves and grasping one more piece of what it means to be fully human in the world-- if any of that is going to happen in your classroom, it's on you. Nobody from DC or the state capitol or a thinky tank is coming to help you.

It's all on you.

That's okay. As Jose Luis Vilson often says, we got this. Even if nobody is going to help us get it, we will still get it, because we have to, and because that's why, mostly, we signed up for the gig.

Practice is where the action has always been. Education reformsters have tried to create a title of education reformers for themselves, but the real education reform, the real growth and change and experimentation and analysis of how to make things work better-- that work has been going on every single day (including summers, thank you) since public schools opened their doors. Whether bureaucrats and legislators and thinky tank wonks or rich guys with too much time on their hands have been cranking out giant plans or just twiddling idly while waiting for their next brainstorm, teachers have been honing and perfecting their practice, growing and rising and advancing every single day of their career, doing everything they can think of to insure that this year's students get a better shot than last year's. Just one more reason that the whole "schools haven't changed in 100 years" is both insulting and ignorant.

So thinky tanks and reformists and wealthy dilettantes and government bureaucrats can continue fiddling and analyzing their fiddlings as they search for the next great Big New Thing in policy. In the meantime, teachers have work to do.


  1. "We have fought each other to a draw"? "Homeostasis"? I call bull crap! Teachers left emotionally bloodied, students left without a real education, parents feeling angry and disgusted. Yet the deformers still get to keep their jobs and their big paychecks and still get to tell everyone what to do, regardless of whether they know what the hell they're talking about. No draw, no homeostasis....just a BS sort of mea culpa about how they made some mistakes and will get it better next time with the next new thing that will keep their own pockets lined in green.

  2. It never fails to boggle my mind that the same folks collecting 6-figure paychecks for their efforts to "fix" an "industry" in which they have ZERO experience are now the same ones collecting those same 6-figure paychecks to backtrack (or pretend to). (OK, I'll give at least Pondiscio half a pass for teaching part-time.)

    Meanwhile, the folks with the real practical ideas and expertise remain in the classroom, unheard and undervalued.

    Same as it ever was.

  3. I have looked up the source of data on the 20 percent figure on entries into teaching from alternative teacher preparation programs. The source in his link is old, two non-peer reviewed reports from the USDE report with data from 2009-2010. Petrelli (and two other reports) glossed over the fact that alternative teacher education programs are offered in higher education institutions along side of "traditional" programs in institutions of higher education. That distinction is made in the USDE report where "20 percent" can be found if you only look at alternative programs. Higher education is not dead yet as the context for teacher education... in spite of efforts to reduce preparation to a passing tests of a dozen or so command and control skill sets.

  4. 'With fidelity" means "subordinating the professional judgment of trained educators to the unproven amateur-hour baloney of the Common Core writers."'

    Even before CC gained traction "with fidelity" was being thrown around by the people selling education products. They did their own in-house studies and then declared their procedures must be followed "with fidelity" to produce the same results. Naturally the administrators looking for the latest panacea bought their baloney. Funny, I never had those cookie cutter children who all responded in "cookie cutter fashion" to my "cookie cutter" instruction. My failure to follow the program to the letter was used as an excuse to "not rehire" me.