James Blew has made a career out of ed reformsterism. He was director of Student Success California, part of the 50CAN reformy network, the Alliance for School Choice, and he served a stint as president of StudentsFirst, the national reform advocacy group founded by Michelle Rhee, former DC chancellor and ed reform's Kim Kardashian. He was the director of the Walton family Foundation's K-12 "reform investments" for a decade. His background is, of course, not education, but business, politics and "communications."
In July of 2018, he rounded that career in dismantling public ed by going to work for Betsy DeVos as Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, where he continued that work. As of January of this year, his LinkedIn profile lists him as a Policy Consultant for "various organizations (NGOs, institutes, businesses)--Full-time"
That work includes cranking out pieces for reliably reformy Education Next, and his latest is an attempt to provide an overview of the state of education reform. It's an interesting picture of the view from the planet where he resides, with some fairly stunning jaw droppers along the way. But buckle up--this is worth digging into to better understand where some of these folks are coming from.
Blew characterizes his USED job under DeVos as "translating her reform vision into concrete legislative proposals, budgets, and grant competitions" and says it was a "stimulating, enjoyable job--despite the constant turmoil created by the unconventional president." He'd known "and admired" DeVos for decades, so "none of her positions surprised or disappointed me," which he characterizes as a "risky" statement because "partisans on both sides have distorted her views." There's an awful lot to unpack there (Trump was "unconventional" and Josef Stalin was notoriously "cranky"), but we have far to go.
Blew was "astounded" by opposition to DeVos within the reformster community, and his thesis is that she "unmasked tensions and disagreements" within that world. Sure, healthy in some ways, but he doesn't like how this gave advantage to "defenders of the status quo" (which is of course bunk because at this point, most of the preferred reformsters policies are the status quo).
He doesn't want to stake out a reform "orthodoxy" or to "defend every aspect" of the DeVosian record. He just wants to lay out the fractures within reformsterland so they can avoid being "divided and conquered."
Defining Education Reformers
What common denominators define Blew's conception of reformsters? Well, they think the current ed system needs to be "reformed, transformed, or whatever nomenclature you choose," which is not exactly a precise piece of work. Likewise "We believe the system is failing to educate sufficiently a substantial portion of children," is--well, "sufficiently" and "substantial portion" are doing a lot of work here. But a "large number" of children do not "reach their potential as adults,"
Blew counts himself among the people committed to "equal opportunity" in this country "regardless of class, race, gender, or belief" and that civil rights have been defended "vigorously" over nearly sixty years, which I guess is why DeVos decided to hamstring USED's Office for Civil Rights. Then there's this observation.Some say that our education system is a manifestation of systemic racism. Others, like me, see evidence that our system reinforces racism and might even be a source of it.
First, I'm pretty sure that "our system reinforces racism" is pretty much the same as "our system is a manifestation of systemic racism." Blew, like many folks, doesn't like the idea of systemic racism because that requires everybody to do something about it, as opposed to asserting that racism is the result of individual choices made by some guys over there (wave hand vaguely). But in fact, our education system does manifest systemic racism in many ways--for instance, by using a funding system that is tied to the housing system that is, in many places, a systemic remnant of the systemically racist housing practices of the last century (for more, I recommend Andre Perry's excellent Know Your Price).
Suggesting that "schools are a source of racism" is, on the other hand, nuts.
Blew says that all reformsters believe the system is irretrievably broken, and he trots out the old "one size fits all from the industrial era" characterization that often makes me think that some reformsters have not actually been in a school since they graduated in 1962. He believes that instruction is aimed at the "average student," which will comes as a huge surprise to teachers actually working in the classroom, including those who spend their weekends designing differentiated lessons.
Blew here notes a fracture in reformsterdom. Some, like DeVos, simply want to blow everything up and replace it with other stuff. Some, like the folks running some urban charter schools, think the industrial model can work. Blew claims they have demonstrated "dramatically" improved outcomes by "raising expectations, attracting top teaching talent, personalizing instruction" and a bunch of other stuff. This is bunk. Few charters have shown dramatic improvement, and their main tool has been a combination of creaming, teaching to the test, and an assortment of things public school teachers already knew, such as more instructional time.
Blew says these folks would be "welcome" in the reformy big tent because they "also despise" the status quo, which is a good phrase to remember when asking why reformsters often elicit such hostility from public school educators.
Then there's this next part--and I'm going to pull the whole paragraph, because this a fairly solid attempt to articulate the lie that these guys really love public education.
If you’re a visible education reformer, you have undoubtedly been accused of wanting to destroy or defund public education. It’s worth saying: the opposite is true. Reformers believe in public education—especially the core commitment that society (taxpayers) should foot the bill for it. (Public money is, after all, what makes it public.) Education is both a private and a public good that benefits our democracy and our economy. Out of our mutual interest, we should all share in the cost of educating all children, so they can secure good jobs and become productive citizens. We can debate who delivers that education (from a government monopoly to a laissez-faire marketplace), how much money should be spent on individual children, and whether the funds should come from local, state, or federal taxpayers. But reformers believe in public education as much as our opponents. That’s why we spend our time, treasure, and talents trying to improve it.
Well, no. First, public money is not what makes it a public school. If that were true, we would have a public army and Blew would have worked in a public office and Betsy DeVos would have been defended by public secret service agents. Public ownership and accountability make a public school system. But Blew here is tipping his hand to his focus--public money. I wish he had explained what he means by education being a private good. And "we" is doing huge work here. Up till now, "we" has mostly meant "we reformsters," but I can't think of anyone in the modern reformster community who thinks actually public schools (called "government schools" by people who want to destroy them) are the best system to deliver education (see above explanations of what unites reformsters, including the "despise" part).
Blew has swiftly slid over another view that unites modern reformsters--a belief that schools should be owned and operated privately.
He takes a paragraph to characterize public ed supporters (that's never what he calls them--he prefers "reform opponents" or "status quo"). They believe that the "centuries-old" system is proven and sound and that it would serve the country well "if only Americans would fund it substantially more generously" and my wordsmithing hat off to that choice of "more generously" instead of, say, "adequately" or, in some states, "as much as their own laws say they're supposed to." He also claims that pro-public folks think public schools "should not be held accountable for reversing the impact of children growing up in poverty or imperfect homes," which on the one hand is offensive bull shit--of course teachers are struggling to counteract those influences--and on the other hand, if he means the neoliberal notion that education alone is supposed to erase the impact of poverty on the country, then yes, let's not do that.
One useful insight from Blew to finish the section. Neither group is monolithic, and the "public-facing position is usually the hardline position." Or, as the president of my school board once observed while I was the head of the local striking union, "We can't always pick our friends."
This section gets off to a better start.
Debates over K–12 education often have little or nothing to do with educating our students or preparing them for good jobs. Public schools end up being battlegrounds for America’s culture wars.
Then we lose the thread. Blew says that schools are the backdrop for policy issues like "immigration, gun control, police misconduct, gender equity, transgender rights and religious liberty;" the problem here is that those aren't really a backdrop because each issue has a direct impact on schools. But he says this kind of debate is distressing for parents who wish schools "would focus on teaching how to read, write, do math, and think."
Culture wars are, for Blew, a "frustrating distraction," and we should be able to disagree on culture war issues while still agreeing that "something must be done to fix our education system." But gosh, somehow it's impossible to get away from them. He credits DeVos with staying out of such issues, except, of course, when she didn't.
Blew here addresses the great right-left reformster schism, the end of the bargain that kept social justice and free marketeers together. In his telling, the social justice folks bailed because they couldn't stomach Trump or DeVos, and believed that DeVos was on the free market side. Well, they were absolutely correct about DeVos, but for the rest, Blew might consider an alternative theory in which the free marketeers say, "Oh, we don't need the nominal Democrats for cover any more."
Blew also blames the nomination process and the "personal vilification campaign that accompanied it," and I'm not going to go through my armchair analysis of DeVos again, but she really needed very little help to make an impression. Blew posits that "reformers have a thin path to maintain credibility against the status quo" which is a novel idea; I'd suggest the path would be wider if they had sources of credibility instead of being wealthy, well-connected amateurs with little real education expertise. And he drops this juicy tidbit:
When the DeVos team asked charter-school advocates how we might be helpful, their explicit entreaty was that we mention charter schools as little as possible.
Beyond the DeVos toxicity problem, Blew allows as how there were some major real policy differences. This paragraph is an intriguing picture of the reformster mind:
Reformers tend to be mavericks, and each of us seems to have an individual “theory of change” for the system—that is, a working hypothesis of which policy or operational changes today will eventually lead to educating all students fully. These hypotheses—I think it’s problematic to call them “theories”—are refined over years, informed by personal experience, and, too often, owned psychically. Validation of them is personally satisfying, and refutation of them is personally threatening.
This, again, strikes me as one of the things you get when people are invested in ideas that they just like, as opposed to ideas rooted in actual knowledge about the field.
Blew divides reformsters into two camps: school-choice and standards-and-accountability (kinda just threw out the two camps he described in the last section). One believes in the power of competition and the other in the power of standards tied to carrots and sticks (mostly sticks). Both have had thirty years to test their made-up theories, and both have failed. But Blew is going to blame that failure on the "status quo" crowd in the "government monopoly." He's still a true believer in the power of competition and pooh poohs the notion that you can't finance multiple systems with the money that was insufficient for one. And teachers and schools hate accountability because the bad ones will be caught and punished. Blew does mot even nod in the general direction of the notion that the standards and accountability measures that have been dreamed up were lousy, inaccurate, invalid, and unreliable. And some reformsters, like Rick Hess, figured out years ago that you don't get effective reform by treating teachers like the enemy.
But gosh, says Blew, can't we just have both? And he cites the patron saint of reform, Jeb! Bush, as an example of someone worked to completely demolish public education, and throws in the bi-partisan parade of reformsters. AFT and NEA only called DeVos unqualified because she wouldn't work with them, not, say, because she had no education background, had never set foot in the public schools that she had publicly derided, had no experience in running a large organization, and didn't appear to have done any homework about the rules and regulations and ideas that she was going to deal with.
Reformer Reactions to DeVos
DeVos focused on school choice and education freedom [sic] says Blew, which should have put her at odds with the standards-and-accountability crew, but ESSA gave power back to the states and that was just fine with DeVos. But she stirred up a hornets nest in the choice world because she didn't really care about charters and wanted to go straight to vouchers (particularly if they could be used to support Christian schools).
Blew observes that in addition to that division, there was also debate about how accountable to hold schools of choice, and states are still having that argument. But it's the charter vs. voucher (Blew doesn't use the V word) that was the real contest. Blew notes that teacher-union leaders never refer to charter schools as public schools. Neither do I, because they aren't. They are privately owned and operated, with unelected leadership accountable to nobody but the owners (voting with your feet
is not an accountability measure
But that leads him to Reed Hastings, the City Fund, and the rest of the folks who make the "good point" that democracy is a pain and we should just stop letting the peons vote for things like school boards. Autocracy is so much more stable. (I'm paraphrasing a bit.) He cites New Orleans, DC and Detroit as examples of charter ascendency really making the case for a portfolio model, which, well, no. Not at all.
He goes on to lay out other objections of charter operators to voucher programs, and they are all fancy versions of "vouchers will drain resources from us" but if they said that exactly, they would sound exactly like the public schools that they have fastened themselves to, so we have fancy arguments instead. Blew is sad that some charter operators "parroted" the "talking points" against DeVos, and I'll offer the theory that perhaps they ended up saying things because they were visibly true. As just a small sign of Blew's disconnection from this planet, he cites three folks- Eva Moskowitz, Jeanne Allen, and Nina Rees-- as people who tried to balance the negativity and I guess he means negativity about DeVos because Moskowitz and Allen certainly manage to be negative about plenty of other things, like public schools and the teachers who work there.
Reformers and Federal Power
Blew wants to explain that, first, you have to understand that teachers unions are "merely greedy for more money from federal taxpayers." Blew comes pretty close to the ultra-right-wing narrative unions push for more money so that they can use it to elect Democrats so the unions can get more power. Like much of what he says, I don't have the time and space to lay out the full absurdity of this, but let me just say, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama exemplify that, if this is an actual strategy, it's going poorly.
But Blew lays into it, suggesting that the unions want to extend "down through early childhood and up through college" so that they can benefit from the "government monopoly." But Noble Betsy DeVos worked to hold the line, and steadfastly refused to use federal leverage until she didn't (eg threatening schools that didn't open their buildings during the pandemic).
Title I? A big scam that sends all sorts of money to some schools where some of the students aren't poor at all! And Joe Biden is just going to make that worse! And his money doesn't even come with reopen-your-building strings attached! Also, California gets a bunch of money, and yet some of their students score low on the NAEP.
No word from Blew on that part where DeVos couldn't think of a single discriminatory act that would prompt her to flex federal muscle. Because federal power is bad, because it gets commandeered by the commoners. Let power stay where it belongs-- in the hands of rich people.
Blew said at the top that he wasn't here to relitigate the DeVosian secretariat, but perhaps that wasn't entirely true. But now he's back on point--the chaos of DeVos's years in office do no "need to be the undoing of the education-reform movement." Reformsters still have more to unite them than divide them.
"Education reformers are trying to address the inequities baked into the system" (though there is no such thing as systemic racism) somehow. They are a social-change movement, even though the free marketeers have pretty much abandoned the social justice side of this (including and especially those currently working hard for the "No discussion of racism should be allowed in school" crowd).
The education-reform movement should be defined by the cause and the enemy that unites it.
So I guess we could call it the anti-teachers-union movement, instead of education reform? No, "our enemy is the status quo system that harms children because it fails to deliver." Except that after decades of fiddling around, all of ed reforms best ideas have failed to deliver. Some have failed hard.
He says that reform is a diverse lot, and in that he is correct. Ed reform comes in many, many flavors, including people smart enough to recognize that working for Donald Trump was a terrible idea. Blew thinks the "bash-Betsy route" is about building credibility, but the thing is, while DeVos has been unjustly pilloried and mocked for many things, she was awful at the job. The best thing about her was how ineffective she was, but that just means that she was objectively awful at the job from the reformster point of view as well. It was not just PR or bad press or people being mean--she was bad at every single aspect of the job, from dealing with press to dealing with Congress to knowing what the hell she was talking about to making a case for any of her policy ideas.
DeVos did not have a comms problem. She had a competency problem. And even as Blew is calling for everyone to rally back around a cause that he describes in terms ripped from the headlines of 2010, the troops are off wrestling with all this critical race theory baloney and ramming voucher bills down state's throats, so I'm not sure there will be a big reformster rally any time soon. I'm not remotely an ed reform guy, and even I know that there are better, smarter people than DeVos with better, smarter ideas than what Blew is pushing.