Thursday, November 29, 2018

Don't Call Me A Reformer

Robin Lake doesn't want to be called an "education reformer" any more, and in a piece at The 74 she tries to make her case in a piece that's a mix of valid points and weak disingenuity. After making her plea, she gets down to the why:

This might seem odd coming from someone who leads an organization that for 25 years has studied the need for systemic reform of American public education. But I’m done talking about reformers. I want to engage with real ideas and real people, not labels and groupthink.

Don't call her a reformer
Well, yes. It seems super-odd coming who has been working for and running the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), an organization that has served as a research wing of the reform movement. And let's not just skip over the fact that members of the ed reform movement picked that name for themselves. They're the ones who worked tirelessly to brand their movement "education reform," a term that paints them as the white hats coming to save the day, and not, say, people trying to figure out how to neutralize the teachers unions, or people trying to bust open the $600 billion piggy bank of public ed, or people trying to impose their own unelected will on an important American institution. Lord knows, those of us who have opposed them have been trying to find things to call them other than reformers--privatizers, colonizers, rephormers, reformsters, reformists. We've tried hard not to cede the framing of the education debates as saviory reformifiers versus the awful rest of us.

However, buried in here, Lake has a couple of valid points.

Here’s why. I have no idea what the term means anymore. Who is not a reformer?

True that. One of the implicitly insulting parts of the "reformer" narrative has been that only they are really interested in making schools better, and the people who have actually dedicated their entire careers to working in schools somehow have no desire to make things better. So Lake asks a good question, just before she nods to the same old false dichotomy:

Are nonreformers people who believe that we can get dramatically different results by standing pat, doing things largely the same way, without any structural or policy changes in public education? If so, I have little to discuss with them.

Yes, one other part of the "reformer" narrative has always been that education is in crisis and that something radical must be done right away. They've been claiming this since at least 1983 (A Nation At Risk), to the point that they hardly bother to substantiate it any more. Are there problems that need to be addressed? Absolutely. But just as she says that she doesn't know what reformer means, in the next breath she suggests that it means, in part, someone who wants to blow up the system in order to create dramatic change.

But to imply that they are some monolithic group of reformers is ridiculous and plays into the desired stand-patter narrative that the demand for structural changes is driven by some elite, out-of-touch, anti-teacher group.

Well, she's right when she says that reformsters aren't a monolithic group, and then she immediately ruins it by suggesting that reform resisters are, in fact, a monolithic group.

It took me a couple of years to start seeing the many different threads bound together in the ed reform movement, all of whom fall across a broad range, from venal to well-meaning, from those motivated by social justice concerns to those who see reform as a way to pursue racist ed policies, from those who are sincerely interested in student education to those who are cynical liars, from those who can be taken seriously to those who can't be taken seriously at all, from those who reasonably well-informed to those who are pridefully ignorant. And as she goes on to note, different folks within the movement have different priorities.

Lake breaks reform down into standards and charter movements, and breaks those down further, and I agree with her analysis. But she is answering her own question. Why do people view the whole range of reformists as a unified whole? Because they formed a coalition in order to present themselves as a unified whole. In doing so, they linked their brand to some problematic actors, and when some of the most problematic rose to power two years ago, it blew holes in the coalition.

Lake is often on the verge of useful insights, but then she returns to whinging about that monolithic resistance:

There has never been a group of reformers with one agenda. But it helps the stand-patters to make people believe there is so they don’t seem like the minority, which I believe they are. It’s always easier to fight against change than for it, but who can look at the data, the inequities in the current education system and what’s been tried in the past, and honestly say stronger accountability, more flexibility for educators, and more options for families are not needed?

Wrong, wrong and wrong. Who created the myth of a group of reformers with one agenda? The reformers did. They stood shoulder to shoulder and said, "Look at this coalition. With this many different types of folks all on the same page, you know we are fighting in a righteous cause." The coalition's illusory unanimity gave them political strength and provided protective cover for the money-makers and opportunists. No "stand-patters" did that. You reform folks did that to yourselves.

And it should come as no surprise that resistance to reformy policies has come from a variety of sources, and not some imaginary standy-patty group. The Core resistance came from people who agree on absolutely nothing else.

And the last part of her mistaken trifecta is the same old reformy dodge. You do not justify your choice of solution by emphasizing the problem. Do we need stronger accountability? For what, to whom. I'd like to see stronger accountability for the politicians who fail to properly fund education. More flexibility for educators? Sure. More options for families? Why? How about we provide each family with an excellent free education in their own community, because I like that solution to the problem of race-driven economic-fueled inequity in this country. I'd like to see a solution to policy leaders and politicians who think public education can be half-assed on the cheap. My point (and I do have one) is that we can debate problems all day, and at the end of the day, we will have done nothing about solutions. Reformers have gotten the diagnosis wrong a lot, but when they do get ir right, they don't do the work of connecting to a solution. (It's almost as if they started with their preferred solution and worked backwards to find a problem to justify it.) Quick example: there are schools that are really struggling to serve non-wealthy non-white students. I absolutely believe that. I don't believe charters, choice, testing, or test-based teacher evaluation help solve that problem at all.

Sigh. But here we go. Lake segues into a call for the reformy flavor of the month-- Personalized [sic] Competency Proficient Mass Customized Algorithm Driven Learning Education. She does a better job than many of describing it in glowing glossy terms. Oh, and as always, change must happen right now. Staying still is not an option, just as it wasn't an option for Common Core or teacher test-based accountability or turnaround/takeovers or charters etc etc etc.&

It occurs to me that Lake could avoid the reform monolith perception by not using the same old used-car-salesman pitches. In fact, as I look around at all the reformy folks who are suddenly fans of Personalized [sic] Competency Blah Blah Blah Learning Tech Product, I'm thinking another way to avoid the perception that "reformers" operate in one unified block would be to NOT all come out in favor of the exact same Next Big Thing at the same time.

Effective change makers are both principled and pragmatic. They cross traditional boundaries and constituencies, recognize that policy ideas have to shift based on evidence, and know that communities, families, and educators need to drive lasting change.

Absolutely. Teachers already knew this; it's how they've made effective change for decades.

That is why I want nothing to do with debates that characterize reform as a set group of people with a set agenda, rather than a continually evolving set of diverse people and groups who come together around shared views of specific ideas and actions that will produce much better results.

I still can't decide how I feel about reform's tendency to "evolve."  I'm glad they move on when things fail-- on the other hand, teachers in classroom end up dealing with the detritus (eg, we're all still stuck with zombie remnants of the damned Common Core). The fact that "is this working" is too often defined in financial or political terms instead of educational ones is not great, either. Nor do I see signs that the evolution includes learning. Makes me wonder-- is this evolution away from the term "reformer" a pragmatic choice because the brand has been damaged by too many losses?

Lake's desire to seek out new types of discussion is fine, but-- Did I mention that this is published at The 74, a website established by reform supporter and teacher union hater Campbell Brown. Ms. Lake, let me invite you to cross some boundaries and publish elsewhere. Drop me a line and we can work something out here.


  1. Can we call her an "Edu-Faker"?

  2. This is extra amusing because the so-called "reformers" have ALWAYS put out new messages in unison -- presumably crafted by the highly efficient messaging operations in the right-wing propaganda shops (erroneously referred to as "think tanks"). This has been the case during the nearly 20 years I've been following their activities. (For example, in past years they all spoke up at once against charter schools that are technically structured as for-profits, which they all used to vigorously support.) I predict that this message too -- we're not all in lockstep and don't call us "reformers" -- will also go out in unison from the lot of them.

  3. Seems a generally solid analysis to me, but wish I understood better what you mean here:

    "Quick example: there are schools that are really struggling to serve non-wealthy non-white students. I absolutely believe that. I don't believe charters, choice, testing, or test-based teacher evaluation help solve that problem at all."

    Charters and choice certainly are perceived as helping solve the problem for families in this neighborhood of Boston who find the nearest school is struggling in a manner that they consider unsuccessful, but who have the option to choose a district or charter school elsewhere in the city, or in the suburbs, that they think will be a better match for the students' needs. But perhaps you're focused on the fact that the struggling school may nevertheless still struggle. Testing results and diminishing enrollments can serve as triggers for additional resources being provided to the school. Results of such processes are variable, not always as excellent as portrayed here:

    You disagree?

  4. Stephen, charters and "choice" do please some parents in that situation because they are free to pick and choose students, and kick out those they don't want, and impose hurdles in the enrollment process that ensure that only compliant, motivated students from supportive, higher-functioning get in the door. They're mostly not supposed to do those things, but they're politically untouchable and not answerable to any meaningful authority, and can do whatever they want. To people in those charter communities, that's an advantage, an attractive feature (not an illegal bug).

    But they are also free to engage in all manner of corruption, mismanagement and wrongdoing as well, so that can often be a problem.

    The problem on a larger scale is that charter schools harm public schools and the children in them. Here's a commentary on how charter schools do harm in California; most if not all of it is applicable to charter schools everywhere.

    1. Seems there's huge variety among charter schools and they should be reviewed, and praised or criticized, on a case by case basis, while keeping in mind that in some locales, for a variety of often ascertainable reasons, they may be fairly consistently better or worse than average.

      If you were to study circumstances in this area, and I would encourage you to do so, you'd find that rather more selection of students is done by district schools in Boston than is done by charter schools.

      I am relatively wary of circumstances where the schools, like Boston district exam and Pilot High Schools, exercise considerable choice, as well as the applicant families. W. Bentley MacLeod and Miguel Urquiola in their paper “Anti-Lemons: School Reputation and Educational Quality” wrote that “if the reputation model holds for a school market:
      • Parents will have a clear preference for schools with higher absolute achievement—this will not necessarily translate into a preference for schools with greater value added.
      • If schools can select students based upon ability then:
      – School choice will result in stratification, with the highest ability/income children going to the most desirable and productive schools.
      – School choice will result in lower student effort, and in lower incomes for students who do not gain admission to selective schools. (Note that if peer effects exist, then changes in the distribution of students will have additional effects on the level and distribution of achievement.)
      • If schools cannot select on ability, the introduction of school choice will unambiguously raise school performance and student outcomes.”

  5. Sorry, that should be "compliant, motivated students from supportive, high-functioning FAMILIES."

  6. No, that's not true and never is, Stephen. Specific public schools -- magnet and specialty schools -- do select students. But the public school system must educate all students. Charters are completely free to pick and choose, and they never have to give another thought to the students they reject, kick out or winnow before they get near the door, while the public school district does accept and serve those students. Charters do this dishonestly and covertly while selective public schools do it openly and honestly. Yet within the charter communities, this selectivity is viewed as a key feature of the charter -- while to the outside world, the charter sector lies about it, as demonstrated right here in this thread by your post.

    All charters (with very, very few specialized exceptions*) harm public schools by draining their resources and harm the students in those schools -- no matter how enlightened and progressive the charter pretends to be. *An exception would be San Francisco's Five Keys Charter, which serves inmates in the county jail.

  7. Could you kindly quote specifically which statements I made and/or that MacLeod and Urquiola made "that's not true and never is" and, if convenient, support your opinion with solid, research-based evidence? Thanks.

  8. This statement is not true and never is: "more selection of students is done by district schools in Boston than is done by charter schools." Obviously it's not convenient to support my observation with "solid, research-based evidence." This is a casual discussion on a blog, not an academic research paper. My point is valid on its face. Go ask 20 people who are involved in charter school communities if their schools are selective. If they're not in the know about having to lie about it, they'll eagerly and proudly tell you yes -- or they'll say things like "No, we admit anyone as long as the family commits to 50 work hours a year"... etc. I've had these discussions endless times over the years. That's what charter school communities view as their big advantage. Go read the chapter on KIPP in Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" in which he quotes a KIPP student as saying the principal tried to scare her about how much work she would have to do and she almost decided not to attend, and her friends won't attend KIPP because it's too much work. That's a book, but go check it out in the real world and please report back.

    1. "go check it out in the real world and please report back."

      I have stood in a sea of hundreds and hundreds of kids waiting to take the ISEE exam in Boston trying to get into district exam schools: Boston Latin, the John D. O'Bryant, Boston Latin Academy. By contrast the district's pilot high schools are not supposed to select on the basis of academic achievement, but are welcome to require essays, interviews and auditions to screen and select students. I've helped kids striving, with limited success, to get into those district schools, and also helped them, as recently as last weekend spend a couple of minutes swiftly submitting a name/address/contact number application to get simultaneously entered into lotteries for virtually all the grade-appropriate charter schools throughout Boston. There are a bunch of kids from several families within 50 feet of here who have attended a variety of charter schools, including one from the network you mention.

      My experience in the real world does not reconcile at all well with your assertions.

      You had said: " But the public school system must educate all students."

      As you'll probably realize, when you think about it, kids here, as is the case elsewhere, sometimes leave the public school system to attend programs operated by 501(c)3 public charities for kids with disabilities, or are sent to Department of Youth Service programs that are not operated by the school district, or to psychiatric facilities or jails where they have no contact with their previous school. I have plenty of real world experience with such circumstances.

      But I think a valid point you could be making is that there are some under-subscribed Boston district schools that serve a more challenging student population than the great majority of charter schools. I'd grant you that.