Political scientist Patrick McGuinn wrote a sympathetic account of education reform advocacy organizations (ERAOs) that gather in Washington, D.C. The ERAOs, "compare notes and plot strategy in what is (half in jest) referred to as 'fight club.'" I wonder if they would be so enthusiastic about political bloodletting if more of their members had been covered in the blood of actual students.
Viewing schools from 30,000 feet, it is easy for "reformers" to simply blame the teachers unions that they "derisively called the 'blob.'" Glorying in rhetorical violence, accountability hawks seek to destroy the members of the educational "status quo," under the assumption that disruptive innovation will somehow create better alternatives. It is easier to kick down a barn, however, than to build one. And anyone who has labored to turnaround a school that accepts every child who walks through the door knows that it is harder to improve the toughest neighborhood schools than it is to start a charter that can kick out the most challenging kids.
McGuinn is one of many political scientists who are intrigued by the "brass knuckle" school of reform that has been funded by corporate reformers and edu-philanthropists. He identifies two strands of reform, "system refiners," who embrace accountability, and "system disrupters." He then documents how "it is clear that a new club of reform organizations is itching for a fight and that politicians in both parties are increasingly willing to join them in the ring."
What McGuinn does not mention, however, is evidence that this political combat can benefit kids. McGuinn cites another political scientist, E. E. Schattschneider, who observed that "new policies create new politics." He does not mention the large body of social and cognitive science which explains why test-driven policies have largely failed. Neither does he cite the educational research which explains why it is unlikely that such testing will improve schools that serve intense concentrations of trauma and generational poverty.
For non-educators and non-students, a coalition that unites (former?) Democrats like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee with Republicans like Jeb Bush and Mitch Daniels is an object of fascination. In a man-bites-dog twist, the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), for instance, has taken the lead in attacking teachers unions and firing teachers based on primitive metrics that may or may not say anything about their actual performance. For scholars who do not have any skin in the schooling game, it must be fun to listen to the ERAO's trash talk, and how they want a "Republican counterpart to DFER--mdash;which insiders jokingly refer to as ReeFER."
This social engineering experiment known as "reform" took off in the early 1990s, as "New Democrats" sought replacements for the old New Deal/Fair Deal safety nets. Presumably these bright and good-hearted reformers would have been equally happy to fix welfare or health care for the old fogies in those fields, but they ended up setting education practitioners straight. The era's reform de jour was the "instructional triangle" where "teachers engage with students on subject matter." So, "reformers" leaped to a quick and cheap solution. Teachers were "deputized" as the point of the spear in a battle against poverty.
Nearly a generation of new research, however, has confirmed decades of previous social science which explains why the instructional triangle is inherently incapable of turning around our toughest schools, and why socio-emotional interventions and trusting relationships are needed. We now have even more evidence how and why test-driven accountability leads to gimmicks that encourage educational malpractice, while undermining the trust and the teamwork necessary for overcoming the legacy of poverty. In fact, many or most reformers who teach in charter schools could explain the same thing. Something tells me, though, that few classroom teachers of any type make their soirees.
When I was an academic, I loved to study grand and dramatic concepts like "creative destruction." So, I see the allure of big ideas like "disruptive innovation," and I see why new activists want to show that the scholarly canon is wrong. Political tsunamis are much more thrilling to witness, even if failed cataclysms are not so enjoyable for those on the ground.
My views changed as I came to know and love students. So, I wonder about the total number of hospital visits that have been made by the attendees of ERAO get-togethers, or how many students' funerals they have attended. I wonder how many unconscious kids they have held after students were assaulted at school or succumbed to an untreated chronic condition. Similarly, if "reformers" believe that their primitive bubble-in tests are a valid measure of students' learning, I doubt they have had much experience sharing the joys of teaching and learning. Had ERAO members shared enough deep relationships with students, they would show more respect to poor kids' minds. If they are still willing to use standardized testing to defeat their adult enemies, I question whether they grasp the insults their metrics are imposing on the children who they want to help.
I suspect that most of these "reformers" are oblivious to out-of-school factors that hinder classroom performance because they have little concrete understanding of communities suffering from extreme poverty. They would have to be supermen to expend so much effort defeating their adult enemies and to still be able to produce good for schools. I also find it hard to believe that the ERAOs would revel in the "Fight Club" imagery if they had spent much time in the ring fighting the real fight.
Dr. John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighborhood. He blogs at thisweekineducation.com, and huffingtonpost.com, and is writing a book on 18 years of idealistic politics in the classroom and realistic politics outside.