Friday, May 6, 2011

It matters little that the road to ed reform is paved with good intentions.

I'm honored that Erik Kain dedicated a post to my post on how important it is to frame and present education issues honestly. One thing I really like about Erik's blog is that it often features the ideas of no-name indie bloggers such as your truly. His blog has definitely connected me to the fresh ideas of many people I wouldn't have come across otherwise.

Returning to the topic of how we frame the issues in ed reform debates, Erik says in his post that:
"Most people – even people I really disagree with – who are involved in the education reform debate really do want what they think is best."

In these conversations about ed reform, we do end up talking quite a bit about intentions. Intentions matter to me. For example, when one of my children hurts the other, how I handle it changes depending on whether it was a purposeful act or not.

Even so, with education reform, I constantly have to remind myself intentions are uncertain (though, frankly, I sometimes forget). For one, unless intentions are clearly bad, such as in the case of profiteering or corrupt practices, we can't discern intent. Furthermore what you may think is good for public education, and assume comes from good intentions, for example a free market approach that would involve privatization, I may think is harmful for public education and presume comes from bad intentions. There, we have a conflict of values or philosophy, but not of intentions. However, even assuming someone's intentions are good, if the policies they endorse are leading to bad outcomes, I will protest them.

That all being said, we do know what education reformers and organizations do: what their missions are, which reforms they push, and which policies they endorse. It's those items we should focus our energies on. We also know roughly what a democracy is supposed to be. As I explained in this past post, it doesn't really matter to me if Bill Gates is trying to help humanity, as some of my friends have argued to me, his influence and policy purchasing power is undemocratic and corrupting. And the United States is supposed to be a democracy, not a plutocracy or oligarchy.

I try to assume people have good intentions because it keeps me from thinking humanity is evil and from getting really, really depressed. If I find out someone has bad intentions, I will do what I can to publicize that. However, if people are pushing education policies that violate basic tenets of democracy, that evidence shows do not work, or that hinder quality teaching and meaningful and rich education, I don't care if they're the Second Coming, I'm going to openly disagree with and protest their ideas, intentions be damned.

As Mike Rose so thoughtfully says in this essay from Dissent magazine:
"The reformers are a varied lot, representing a wide range of ideology and motive – including free-marketeers who would like to see public education shrunk or dismantled. But overall, reformers are addressing issues of real importance. . . . But it is with the remedies, the methods of reform, that problems arise, for it is the methods, and the assumptions behind them, that directly affect what happens in the classroom."
Exactly. It's not wanting to solve the problem that matters, it's the solution provided.


  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you about the inability to discern intent. But I do think that pure selfishness cannot be ruled out, as when such advocates as the Washington Post beat the drum for Rhee-like reform while getting contracts from Rhee for their Kaplan Testing Services company. Bill Gates wasn't so concerned with humanity when he tried to monopolize the market for software and squash all competition. I do think there are many reformers who are in it for the right reasons but have chosen the wrong methods. I also think there are more than a few who see the monetary value of backing reform. Education, for many reformers, has become a multi-billion dollar business.

  2. Agreed about the selfishness & profiteering as bad intentions & flat-out wrong. The situation with the WaPo and with profiteering, refers to corruption and a violation of ethics. Read Glenn Greenwald on this:

    As for free-marketers, certainly there are those who are corrupt and surely Bill Gates' behavior while at the helm of Microsoft was in some cases ruthless & unethical.

    But, to put it extremely simply, many free-marketers honestly see the free market as a force of equalization & balance. I don't agree that the free-market is successful in this way, especially in sectors like education & healthcare, but that doesn't inherently make me more ethical than they are.

  3. Rachel - excellent post, once again. Re: free-marketeers - that's tricky. I largely am a free-marketeer, just one who believes in public options. The education public option we have is extremely valuable. I think a lot of believers in markets do mean well when it comes to edu-reform, but I think they are too Utopian. Markets are good at picking winners and losers, allocating resources, etc. Things, in other words, that our school system might be impervious to or that we might not want to attempt in the first place (at least without the proper funding - picking winners and losers is fine if there's a policy in place to then address the "losers" but this never seems to emerge - rather, the inequality gap widens...)

  4. Rachel - Early in this post you touched on two very, very important points that should not be lost - value and philosophy.

    Addressing the solutions - Americans, in our supposed democratic republic, should answer these we value public education? And do we believe that equality in opportunity should be our overriding philosophical foundation upon which to build a public education system?

  5. Great post.
    @lodesterre, I think those who see it as a big business, rather than being greedy and excited to milk the cash cow, also see it as a good thing in general, because free market forces, long hindered by the "government monopoly" on education, will now be able to improve it as free market forces always do.
    I disagree that it is a good thing, because I see the market as having a few very important limitations. This is also in reply to E.D. Kain's comment above.
    I see free market forces as working best when both the costs and the benefits are cognitively calculable by individuals. In other words, both the costs and the benefits of a transaction have to be able to "fit" into an individual's brain for market forces to work. In cases where the costs or the benefits are distributed across people, or across time, the market (as a collection of individuals) chooses the short term, individual dimensions of the problem, often leading to poor outcomes in the long term for everybody. In cases like education, the costs must be shared unless we all want individual tutors, and the benefits of an educated populace for society are great. Further, the benefits for the individual are not realized until way down the road.
    With cases like education (and healthcare) I just don't see how a free market solution could work. If we really had a free market, 8th graders would choose video games and basketball over school (and I have a feeling most of my college students would too). When the costs are being paid by different people who will realize the benefits in 10-20 years, market forces just won't work very well.
    But I am a big fan of your work in general (Kain).
    And Rachel's too, of course.


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