Why Reformers Think Hard About Making Things Work – and Education Traditionalists Don’t
Certainly this can be said about many traditionalists: They will try over and over again to write revisionist versions of everything, including conclusions of research on failed policies that fit their fancy, in order to defend a failed vision of American public education. Yet in the process, they end up revealing more about the failings of their own thinking than offering compelling defenses of their positions. This is certainly the case with John Thompson, the traditionalist who appears on the pages of This Week in Education. While attempting on the pages of the Huffington Post to restate the conclusions of researchers that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Opportunity experiment didn’t work to improve student achievement among the poor kids in the program (and defend the housing-as-school-reform perspective that better fits his worldview), Thompson declared that reformers were essentially attempting “test-driven silver bullets”, promoting “one equally simplistic quick fix after another”, and had “deputized” teachers instead of engaging in what he thinks are “holistic” efforts that focus largely on ending poverty instead of on reforming failing schools.
Your editor normally ignores Thompson largely because he offers an even less interesting version of traditionalist thinking that the thoughtless, solipsistic, and intellectually dishonest tripe that Diane Ravitch offers daily. But his statement made me laugh. Not because he isn’t somewhat correct that reformers at times find themselves touting silver bullets; I’ve offered critiques of that penchant myself. But because he conveniently ignores the reality that reformers actually engage in the tough work of making education work for all children.
One thing all reformers understand in their work is this: Transforming American public education — and helping all kids get high-quality teaching, curricula, and cultures — isn’t easy. Even after one gets past the battles with traditionalists, plenty of work must be done to implement reforms – from revamping teacher training to expanding the array of high-quality school options — and make them successful in the long term. Simply put, there are no quick fixes, so you must put in the work. And you must work because platitudes and good intentions are meaningless to the futures of children, who have only one shot each day to get all they need to be happy and successful in their adulthoods.
In fact, questions of implementation are often as much a part of the conversations reformers have with everyone (and an element of the work in which they engage each day) as explaining why it is time to put an end to the educational neglect and malpractice fostered by traditionalist policies and practices. One can simply look at the arguments between Jay P. Greene, Martin West, myself, and others over the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts to push the multiple measures approach to teacher evaluation to see how implementation is part of the conversations and efforts reformers undertake each and every day.
In fact, when one looks at the efforts of Teach for America, TNTP, and the National Council on Teacher Quality in addressing how we recruit, train, evaluate, and compensate teachers, the work of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in improving how charter schools are launched and overseen, the focus of Education Pioneers and the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation in recruiting and training executives and school leaders, and the activities of outfits such as Bellwether Education in capacity-building, one can’t help but conclude that reformers are extremely focused on the nitty-gritty. This isn’t to say that reformers always get it right, or even that they focus enough on some aspects of systemic reform; your editor chastised reformers this month for not putting enough thought into training school leaders in the area of information technology infrastructure. But to say that reformers just push for quick fixes, as Thompson does, is to merely engage in sophistry.
On the other hand, it would be hard to name a traditionalist who thinks about the hard work of implementation. Thompson certainly doesn’t, and neither does Ravitch. Pedro Noguera occasionally offers some thoughts on the hard work of implementation, as does Linda Darling-Hammond. But that isn’t surprising; both are among the muddled middle in the battle over reforming education, too intelligent and morally thoughtful to fully buy into traditionalist thinking, but not intellectually or morally courageous enough to upset their traditionalist friends. In general, traditionalists would rather engage in circular logic than think through the matters of overhauling a broken system. And they would rather attempt to paint themselves as being more-concerned than reformers about the conditions of teaching and curricula for the poorest children.
Except that isn’t so. After all, if you are truly concerned about transforming education, you have to address the systemic issues — the policies and practices within American public education — that lead to poor kids getting the worst our super-clusters offer. This includes calling out university schools of education for being too willing to allow anyone with a low grade point average to enter into their programs, as well as addressing how to train teachers and school leaders. It also includes dealing with how the condescending views of many adults in education toward poor and minority kids — or as Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly noted in his 2007 testimony to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, that they tend to confuse the statistical probability that certain ethnic and gender groups may end up being diagnosed with a learning disability with the ethnic composition with ethnic composition within a disability category — leads to far too many kids being relegated to special ed ghettos when what they need is intense reading remediation. And it would also involve addressing how districts handle their human resources activities as well as addressing how state laws governing teacher quality tend to hurt both high-quality teachers and children alike.
But don’t expect that to happen. For all the harrumphing of traditionalists such as Thompson, few of them ever argue for ending the teacher transfer rules that are a culprit behind the nation’s education crisis. Few of them ever call for high-quality teachers to work in schools serving the poorest children. Even fewer demand an end to seniority bumping policies that allow for laggard veterans to push out more-successful younger counterparts regardless of the damage it may do the educational success of children. And they would almost never demand an end to the quality-blind reverse-seniority layoff policies that, as the Los Angeles Times demonstrated three years ago, ends up pulling high-quality young teachers out of schools serving the poorest children. This isn’t shocking. After all, traditionalists can’t argue against these failed policies without afflicting their own comfort, and having to rethink their own vision of what education should be. It would also involve a level of intellectualism many of them won’t engage in and a desire for productive conflict with their allies many of them don’t have. And they are too invested, both financially and especially ideologically, to do something like that.