Monday, August 8, 2011

Viable ed policy? Yes. But let's design it for people, not outcomes.

During the recent SOS March & National Call to Action event in DC, Mike Klonsky presented the idea of an SOS think/do tank. This is a fantastic idea--we need to present both policy critiques and alternatives, in addition to taking political action.

This was also very timely in light of a discussion that has had the blogosphere aflutter for the past few weeks. I am not qualified to comment too extensively on it with my limited background in political theory (I could barely follow it, save Kevin Drum’s contribution and I only have but so much patience for theoretical bullshitting even if it's really smart bullshitting), but it seems that it’s essentially an argument about theory versus action, and policy versus politics. Some seem to be saying, as much as they might wish otherwise, that given our current political system, there’s no real political solution for achieving progressive goals. Others counter that this amounts to an abdication of truly progressive ideals. If you're interested in reading more about this, posts (with great links!) by Erik Kain and his thoughtful and well-read co-bloggers at The League Ordinary Gentlemen are a great place to start, in part because they're politically unaffiliated.

I had been heretofore staunchly anti-neo-liberal, as I dismissed it as conservatism in progressive packaging, but I've come to realize that: a) it's not that simple, b) their stance on education reform is ideological, not a power grab--they are true believers c) there's generally more common ground than I had realized, for example on matters such as gay rights and tax policy. That being said, I am still not in the camp of let’s do neoliberalism even though it sucks because it’s the best thing around.

In this context, wonky Education Week blogger and DFER board member Sarah Mead endorses the same technocratic, neo-liberal solution for education reform that Matt Yglesias offers those searching for the next best progressive hope, charging with a similar version of edu-nihilism that Yglesias often does anyone who might disagree with her. She says:
"This all sounds to me a lot like contemporary education policy debates: Education reformers put forward a series of-yes, let's be honest-largely technocratic and market-minded strategies to try to make our public education system work better to serve the needs of students, and to increase the supply of higher-performing schools and teachers. Critics counter that these policies can't possibly fix the problems they're purported to solve-mediocre overall performance and glaring student achievement gaps-because they don't address the underlying causes of economic inequality, poverty, inadequate health care, broken families, etc. (It's worth noting that 'neoliberal' is frequently a term of derision directed at the education reform movement by its foes.) No one, to my knowledge honestly disputes that those issues are real problems that do impact the outcomes of educational systems. The problem is that critics of education reform also don't put forward any compelling and remotely viable proposals to solve the problems they argue must be solved before we can improve school performance [even if we embarked on a massive campaign of economic redistribution--assuming that's possible and designed in a way that doesn't create other problems--does anyone think that fix mental health issues or ensure that all kids have 'good' parents?]. Nor do they offer any alternative strategy for, in the absence of such sweeping and improbable solutions, getting the best we can out of our public schools given current realities. Essentially, they're offering an argument for throwing up our hands and saying 'tough cookies, kids,' to the tens of millions of low-income American schoolchildren who have only an 8% chance of ever earning a college diploma."

Later she offered a similar, if more jarringly catty, critique that was specifically aimed at the SOS March & National Call to Action where she accuses its participants of demanding a "pony."

Besides assuring Ms. Mead that we have no interest in taking her pony, to these sentiments, I'd say that yes, there are certainly a few lefties who say that we can’t fix education until we fix poverty. When people retort, well then go work to remedy poverty and get out of education, they have a point. Poverty exists, learning disabilities exist, English Language Learners exist, trauma exists, and aliteracy and illiteracy exists; yet, we must still work to best educate our nation's children. Once we are all honest about our exaggerations (and really, we should either abandon them or get out of the conversation), then we can sit down and talk about the in-school and systemic solutions.

At the same time, education policies and practices don't exist in a vacuum--economic, housing, and social policies all affect educational outcomes and affect how education policy works. Though many of the neo-reformers have come around to admitting that poverty affects how students do in school, some do continue, indeed, to say poverty doesn't affect student performance. Furthermore, plenty of us who are sympathetic to the SOS movement acknowledge the role education can play in alleviating poverty, but we want reformers to recognize the deep and profound effects of the income gap on the achievement gaps. Teachers and education alone can not end poverty.

There is a place for technocratic and policy-oriented actors and solutions, but just because the neo-liberal ed policies are "viable," i.e., they can be implemented, doesn't mean they work to improve the quality of education in our schools. In fact, many of those policies, including high-stakes testing, higher pay for higher test scores, and an unrelenting focus on practices of public education systems' human resources departments haven't worked. Among other flawed initiatives, the accountability structures they push undermine the basic tenets of quality education: solid pedagogy and rich and meaningful curriculum. You can't expect a three- or even two-star meal if you're using a McDonald's model.

Furthermore, no matter how nicely and wonkishly you say it, saying, there’s my solution and there’s non-viable ones is just another way of saying, my way or the highway. Just because people like Mead are convinced of the efficacy of the policies that they endorse, doesn't mean that there aren't, in fact, other "remotely viable" policy alternatives. True, most teachers want to have a conversation about best practices and pedagogy (how to teach) and about curriculum (what to teach). Beyond that, to say that people like me or like any of the Accomplished California Teachers or like Diane Ravitch or like John Thompson or like Nancy Flanagan or like Jose Vilson or like Linda Darling Hammond or like Mike Rose or like Sabrina Stevens Shupe or like any number of education experts and practitioners have proposed no viable solutions and are:
throwing up our hands and saying 'tough cookies, kids,' to the tens of millions of low-income American schoolchildren who have only an 8% chance of ever earning a college diploma" 
is insulting and it's lazy. If you pay any attention at all, you know that most of us are asking for policy that encourages good practice or at least doesn’t harm it. And there are policy-oriented organizations out there that most of us endorse. To name a few there's the Economic Policy Institute, NEPC (National Education Policy Center), The Albert Shanker Institute, and The Century Foundation. (UPDATE: I can't believe I forgot   School Finance 101!)

But as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in series of posts ("Our Technocratic Overlords") about gentrification in DC, there are actual human beings behind all of those charts and numbers with actual thoughts, feelings, and knowledge of their own. Coates says here
"The bugbear of reformers has long been an inability to see humanity in the actual humans they would have reformed." 
In the next post on the topic he reminds us that, 
"Policy without politics is an abstraction. This is a feature of democracy, not a bug." 
Finally, here he talks about how his experiences as a journalist have shaped him as a writer to consider the human beings behind the numbers:
"Looking back on this, the thing that strikes is the importance of journalism. I think it's really easy to become the sort of writer who reads reports from Brookings and analyzes charts and graphs, without ever having to talk to the people captured in the numbers. People are scary in a way that think tanks are not."
TNC put words to exactly what I find so problematic with a strictly technocratic approach: The technocrats and policy analysts such as Mead and Ygelsias refuse to consider what the policies they endorse actually do in schools and how they affect the practices of educators and the experiences of the students. The poor practices those policies cause is what motivated many of the practitioners and parents (the very people Mead denigrates and mocks) to get involved in the SOS March. The technocrats have become too hung up on being technically right, on being right according to some set of data or another; if only they were a a bit more hung up on being human.

Neo-liberals like Mead accuse their critics of "magical" thinking. So I say, agreed, we need to bring more policy critiques and alternatives to the forefront. But if they think that paying teachers extra for higher student test scores, getting rid of due process rights for teachers, flooding the system with charter schools, offering vouchers, and believing blindly in the free market is going to somehow lift "tens of millions of low-income American school children" into college and out of poverty, then I'd say they've got a magical wand problem of their own to consider. Lastly, no policy solution can work without consideration of the perspectives of those on the ground, of the very people those policies affect. Otherwise we are left with wonks insisting that their graphs and charts and clipboards represent a deeper truth than the actual experience of thousands of teachers, administrators, parents and students. 


  1. I love how your argument flows. I hope your assumption of innocence is correct but for myself I'd hold a thick stick behind my back for as long as i talk to most of them. I lost my trust in too many of these edreformers' good intentions. Anyone facing such convincing research and such horrific results can't be seriously well intended in supporting this testing and privatizing mania. I hope I am wrong and I'll keep following your blog n twitter.

  2. I am always irked by this notion that you're not a plausible/serious critic of any "policy" unless you can offer some alternative "policy" - because this requires you to accept the framing of the matter as a policy debate at all, as if it's just a choice between more or less "effective" approaches. As you note, education is about people, and I would go even farther -- education is a site at which the state coerces children and parents, and in a democracy there need to be limits to that coercion, arrived at through democratic deliberation. A completely "effective" way to teach kids to add might not be a just one; we shouldn't substitute the injustice of allowing children to grow up ill equipped for their society because they can't read or add with a different kind of injustice that allows children to grow up ill equipped for their society because they have a completely warped relationship with learning, state power, their community, etc.

    So leaving to one side the fact that, again as you note, plenty of people *do* advocate policy solutions to poverty and alternative education policies - isn't there also a place in a democracy for pure critique? I can imagine a critic who says, "I don't care about 'policy,' I care about justice, and forcing 6-year-olds to sit in chairs all day and bubble in bubbles, or having the police inside schools arresting 16-year-olds for minor misbehavior, is unjust" - from that perspective, there is no "alternative strategy" to propose other than "stop doing these things." From that perspective, the problem is not these desiccated abstractions like "mediocre performance" or "achievement gaps" or even, really, "poverty" but rather children being tyrannized by state power in a place that the state requires them to go. So whatever we make of this critique, do we label it "unserious" or "magical thinking" just because it doesn't come with some bullet points of "viable proposals"? It sounds like a pretty serious critique to me, one worth listening to, especially if it's coming from a parent or teacher or child who's experiencing the practice in question.

    This is something you also occasionally run into in the criminal justice field as well - where the more radical critiques of the prison system or of policing are asked "well what would you propose instead?" - which misses the point, because the point of the critique is "stop doing these things," not, "do them in a different way." I would rather that people not be told they need to come up with some comprehensive set of "policy proposals" just to buy entrance into the discussion about some issue they care passionately about, especially if they have not yet fully imagined the alternative they'd rather see - the intuitions of our fellow citizens that something the state is doing is wrong or unjust are often, themselves, the most valuable contributions to democratic deliberation because they force us to talk with each other and try to figure out, well, is this wrong or unjust? and if so, why? and if not technically violative of some law or norm, how can we rework this democratic institution so that people don't *feel* marginalized by it and so it works better for them? etc. [I don't know the blogosphere debate you referenced, so this is mainly a response to your post and the quote from the education blogger, whose work I don't know beyond your link/quote, so apologies if I'm misrepresenting something or someone here.]

  3. Here's the money quote:

    "There is a place for technocratic and policy-oriented actors and solutions, but just because the neo-liberal ed policies are "viable," i.e., they can be implemented, doesn't mean they work to improve the quality of education in our schools."

    There are WAY too many policies implemented simply because they can be implemented, not because they work. The theory that some things are intractable--childhood poverty, for example--so we need to try something else--test-based merit pay, say-- is the triumph of form over substance. But it keeps a lot of the education cognoscenti in business, and feeling important.

    Great piece. By the way, you spelled my name wrong (which is probably why I didn't pick this piece up in my Google alerts and respond earlier).

  4. Great post and fantastic comments.

    One thing we do well here in the US is send all our kids to school. Not too long ago few children went to school and those who did left by about 6th grade. At the turn of the 20th century only about 10% of students graduated from high school... almost all of them white and wealthy.

    How did school attendance go from near zero to today's historically high rate? There were no technocratic fixes or legislation passed to use carrots and sticks on schools, districts, parents or teachers.

    What changed was demographic and economic as well as political. Rural Americans move to cities as job opportunities shifted. Factory work expanded and workers fought for decent conditions and pay sufficient to support a family. Child labor was outlawed.

    Once children were not needed on the farm and their income was less necessary to support their families in the city school attendance skyrocketed.

    One reason I see students at my school drop out has little to do with our school. They drop out to work and support their families - often at very low wage, dead-end jobs.

    The dominant neoliberal framing that "there is no alternative" to their narrow view of accountability and their mistaken notions of how to motivate teachers is toxic and paralyzes those of us who know from our own experience that there are alternatives.

    I'm glad the activists who worked to end child labor and who fought for a living wage making universal compulsory education possible knew there were alternatives to the way things were always done.