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Ed Reformers Are Going to Discuss Their Failures

May 17, 2017

It seems that the ed reform message is once again shifting.

Years ago, around 2013, I first heard the ed reform message shift in regard to the state-run Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans. RSD was supposed to be revolutionary. In 2013, I first heard RSD “mother,” former La. state ed board member Leslie Jacobs, defend RSD as “improving.”

Improvement in and of itself is good. However, this ed reform “improvement” message followed years of damning locally-run New Orleans schools and boasting about amazing changes to come.

In short, the “improvement” narrative was face-saving, post-boast backpedaling.

The next major ed reform backpedal I heard came in 2014, and it concerned what was supposed to be the (again) revolution that was the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

The backpedal narrative in this case was one of “faulty implementation.”

Now, via the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the latest ed reform shift is for ed reformers to “fail better.” From the AEI article, written by Michael McShane:

Policy ideas like charter schools, teacher evaluation and high standards first exist in the abstract. When they are actually implemented, they look quite different from state to state or district to district. What one state calls “charter schooling” might look different from charter schooling in another state. So if charter schools struggle in one state, it isn’t necessarily an indictment on the idea as a whole….

Opponents (who were against the policy before any data were available) come out and tut-tut at advocates, telling them to “follow the data” or not to “cling to ideology.” Advocates circle the wagons. They spin the findings or pettifog the implications. They counter with personal stories or impugn the motives of critics. Rinse and repeat. (By the way, much of this is covered much more in depth than I can manage here in Rick Hess’s great new volume “Letters to a Young Education Reformer.”) …

For our part, Jay Greene, chair of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and I are co-hosting a conference in Kansas City on May 22 where top education researchers are going to talk about failure. Authors will tackle many of the major topics of education policy of the last quarter century: Test-based teacher evaluation, technology in classrooms, teacher preparation, No Child Left Behind and more. But rather than trying to make some kind of global statement about whether or not something like evaluating teachers based on performance or having the federal government intervene in low-performing schools is a “success” or “failure,” authors will dig into specific examples, what went wrong and most importantly, what we can learn from it.

Like so much about ed reform slogans upon first mention, the phrase “fail better” is catchy. Sure, the same ed reform push has stated ad nauseam that American public education is failing. However, it seems that failure connected to public education has become cool because ed reformers are now embracing it.

Or rather, some are, and these are trying to draw other ed reformers in. It is smart to publicly acknowledge failure in ed reform because that is a clever way to endeavor to diffuse blame.

Call it a learning curve in combating the “status quo.” (I know: “Status quo” is stale and overused, but it is still being tossed around by those too cowardly or lazy or ignorant to operationalize what actual ed reform success would be lest ed reform be held up to some specific, oft-repeated, observable outcome.)

As concerns corporate ed reform group therapy on their failures, there will be a one-day conference at the Kansas City Public Library on May 22, 2017, entitled, “Eye on Education: Failures to Fixes.”

Below is the posted program schedule.

9:30 a.m.
Opening and welcome

9:45 – 11 a.m.
Panel 1: The Big Picture: What Does Failure Mean? Are Experts Really Experts?

Papers presented:

  • “The Limits of Expertise” by Frederick M. Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of the popular Education Week blog Rick Hess Straight Up, and American Enterprise Institute research assistant Paige Willey.
  • “The ‘Failure’ of Technologies to Transform Traditional Teaching in the Past Century” by Larry Cuban, emeritus professor of education at Stanford University.
  • “Teacher education: Failed Reform and a Missed Opportunity” by University of Virginia cognitive psychology professor Daniel Willingham.

Discussants: Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell and Charles King, executive director of the Kansas City Teacher Residency program.

11 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
Panel 2: Go Big or Go Home: The Federal Government’s Forays in Failure

Papers presented:

  • “No Child Left Behind” by Martin West, associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and past senior education policy adviser to the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
  • “School Improvement Grants: Failures in Design and Implementation” by Ashley Jochim, research analyst at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.
  • “Test-Based Teacher Evaluation” by Matthew Di Carlo, senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit established by the American Federation of Teachers.

Discussant: Melissa Patterson-Hazley, managing partner of Hazley & Associates and University of Missouri-Kansas City education instructor.

12:15 – 12:45 p.m.

12:45 – 2 p.m.
Panel 3: The Challengers: Choice, Philanthropy, and Their Shortcomings

Papers presented:

  • “The Failure of Private School Vouchers and Tax Credit Scholarships” by Anna Egalite, assistant professor of education at North Carolina State University.
  • “No Excuses Charter Schools: The Good, the Bad, and the Overprescribed” by Matthew Ladner, senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute in Arlington, Virginia, and co-author of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s “Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress, and Reform.”
  • “Education Philanthropy” by Megan Tompkins-Stange, assistant professor of public property at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

Discussant: Awais Sufi, president and CEO of the new nonprofit SchoolSmartKC

Co-presented by the Show-Me Institute.

I notice that no session is aimed at helping ed reformers apologize to districts, schools, and even individuals for the wreckage upwardly-mobile corporate edders have made and continue to make in their efforts to fabricate a false narrative of success.

There is also no session on combating the urge for the ed reformer to save him-/herself by exiting one well-financed ed reform post for another. (There so often seems to be a soft landing available at one of the many corporate-ed-advocating think tanks, such as AEI.)

And there is no session advocating that what corporate ed reform really needs is for its true believers to actually spend an average of five to ten years in the classroom instead of perching above it as well-paid yet clueless know-it-alls.

The ed reformer disdain for prolonged classroom experience is perhaps its greatest failure of all, and it seems unwilling or unable to acknowledge as much.

Addendum 05-18-17: I have been advised that not all who are presenting at the above conference are reformers. That is true. However, let me add two observations: 1) The CCSS message about “faulty implementation” was pushed by AFT Pres Randi Weingarten, who has an established history of going “reform chameleon” on her members in the name of “having a seat at the table,” and 2) “fixing” ed reform is as effective as seeking to improve upon methods of tax evasion: the goal is misplaced to begin with.


Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. DanG permalink

    Greed and self-interest, id est. capitalism, will never be the solution to any problem in education. They might as well spend the day at the library trying to put a two-pound fart into a one-pound bag.

  2. The larger problem may be that these particular ed reformers claim a monopoly on the ed reform side of ed policy discussions. They promote each others’ careers and vigorously suppress points of view from outside their club. The behavior may stem in part from in-breeding. Greene, West, and Hess all did their political science PhDs with Paul Peterson at Harvard. McShane and Egalite did theirs with Greene and, so, might be called Peterson grand-students. Jochim has worked at AEI and Fordham; her CRPE at U. Washington is part of the extended family of Fordham, Hoover, and Harvard-PEPG, all represented in the publication Education Next and the think tank called the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. With the help of several foundations and journalists’ myopia, people in this club get to talk and others do not. Ed reform in the US would be much better informed and more representative of the citizenry with more diversity of evidence and points of view.

    • Linda permalink

      The 2013 Fordham tax form, posted at its site, showed an exchange of grant money between Fordham and the Center for American Progress-not surprising when one looks at their funders.

  3. Signed up. Still waiting to change a biopsy procedure (it’s nothing) to clear the way.

    This is put on by the “Show Me Institute” which is the “think tank” of Rex Sinquefeld, rabid rich right winger with too much money who believes Missouri should succumb to his version of reality. And with the Rethugs controlling the legislature and the governorship, he is getting his way. He had ol Eva of Success Academies in St. Louis a few months back telling her usual “woe is me”, everyone is after me lie filled story. Was shaking my head no throughout the “presentation”. I’m sure I will be doing the same on Monday. (Man do I hate having to go into the downtown areas of large cities for these conferences.)

  4. Worth repeating: “The ed reformer disdain for prolonged classroom experience is perhaps its greatest failure….”

  5. Linda permalink

    One substantial problem is media pretends that stink tanks like New America and the Center for American Progress are political opponents to the conservative AEI. It’s a fraud because both “liberal” and “conservative”-labeled philanthropic outlets, shill for Gates’ plots against K-12 and universities. They, and those “philanthropies” that claim they are independent or bi-partisan, like Hechinger Report, should be reassigned classification. They are either oligarchy forging or democracy strengthening. They can’t be both.

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