When someone sends you an e-mail declaring that a piece they wrote will “make you squirm”, it had better deliver the goods. Mike Petrilli, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, usually does. But the results of his latest polemic didn’t exactly match the promise. In fact, it merely made me wonder what he was thinking when he wrote it.

In his latest piece on Fordham’s Flypaper site, Petrilli took aim at fellow reformers complaining about Diane Ravitch’s latest claptrap (and the modestly successful response from Bloomberg’s Jonathan Alter), essentially embracing her argument that the school reform movement unrealistically expects poor children to be fully proficient in reading, math and science. Attempting to set himself as some sort of George Schultz of school reform (and, in the process, touting that Kissinger-esque blob for weakening accountability that Fordham calls “Reform Realism”), Petrilli declares that reformers should set out for lesser, more, umm, realistic goals for improving student achievement (and, by the way, ditch the No Child Left Behind Act’s goal of full proficiency among all students).

Your editor won’t spend much time dissecting Petrilli’s policymaking scenario (which, given how politicians actually craft laws and regulations on a day-to-day basis, is somewhat unrealistic) because that’s not the issue in and of itself. Actually, the fact that I’m thinking about anything related to one of Ravitch’s thinly-researched rants that deserve no serious consideration actually annoys me. In fact, I’m a tad ashamed that the woman is once again mentioned on these pages (even if a mere mention does guarantee at least an additional 2,000 unique readers). There are far more serious foes of school reform — even the integration one-note that is Richard Kahlenberg and Pedro Noguera — who are more deserving of consideration, who actually try to appeal in some way to the best instincts among those who work within American public education (even if their approaches essentially defend the indefensible).

The real issue is the disconnect in thinking between some Beltway reformers engaged in the policy and think tank arena, and those who work on the ground who actually make things happen. (By the way, I don’t mean to slight the policy players; policy and action are both critical to overhauling American public education.) Among some policy players, there is an over-dependence on playing the equivalent of what is known in baseball as small ball, aiming for incremental, modest improvements instead of swinging for the fences. From where they sit, such strategies play to the Bismarckian view that politics is merely the art of the possible.

But such thinking ignores the reality it is grand aspirations and goals, not small-ball percentages, which inspire people to work toward making the world around them better. And it actually works in achieving what would seem to be the insurmountable. It is the grand ideal that all men, no matter their race, creed or color, should be treated equally, that inspired both the great experiment that is America, and the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King and others this past century. And this is particularly true when it comes to addressing the abysmal conditions of American public education. In fact, those grand aspirations are the reasons why the school reform movement has succeeded in winning the day so far.

So school reformers should aspire to 100 percent proficiency. So should every teacher, principal and superintendent. Anything less than that ultimate goal should be in the mind unacceptable, and drive all of us to develop a wide variety of solutions that will get us inches and miles towards giving every child the education they deserve. This doesn’t mean ditching full proficiency; it does mean achieving the ultimate goal using measurable benchmarks and constantly adjusting tactics and strategy in the process.

This isn’t to say Petrilli’s piece isn’t somewhat worthwhile. The school reform movement does suffer from occasional overabundance of exuberance. Far too many reformers tout their one silver bullet when they need to accept the reality that it will take numerous solutions to address the nation’s education crisis. There are far too many instances of touting moderate successes as the one answer, without actually being willing to accept that the solution isn’t perfect and should be made better. This is why reformers must continually call each other out and moderate those worst tendencies, demand measurable evidence of short- and long-term success, and expect course corrections when needed. For that part, Petrilli does deserve praise.

At the same time, this exuberance is far preferable to the useless pessimism and  stubborn desire to keep the status quo that Ravitch now embodies. One can already surmise that Ravitch has low expectations for other people’s children; her entire act is as much about her own subscription to the Poverty Myth of Education and the belief that poor children can’t succeed in school or life, as it is as about trying to be the Camille Paglia of education. One wishes that she would just say that poor kids aren’t worth the trouble and be done with it; it would  be short, sweet and actually, readable. Amoral, wrong and damning of the lives of children, clearly, but still more readable than the screeds she writes these days.

And the occasionally irrational exuberance among some reformers is also preferable to the low ambitions that seem to be expressed by Petrilli in this piece and by some of his fellow Beltway players. Our children deserve far more than small thinking.