The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform

A while back*, Rick Hess told education leaders to get over their “allergy” to policy. It took me a while to figure out what he was talking about, since education leaders are, for the most part, all about policy. (Teachers are another matter; they could give three nickels for policy.)

But a closer reading reveals that Hess is chastising education leaders—who do, despite his post, involve themselves in educational policy—for not agreeing with politicians on their current policy mandates. Hess says the politicians are the heart of reason:

Let me put it this way. If you were an elected official and were responsible for elementary schools where only half of kids are reading at grade level and high schools where only fifty percent of students are graduating, it’d be pretty understandable (and laudable, even) to think you can’t simply trust the educators to do the right thing.

Gosh. Those poor elected officials, trudging along, minding their own business, forced—yea, I say forced!–into the educational arena by the sheer incompetence of schools that can’t get their kids to read at grade level. Let us all bleed for them.

But while we are slitting our veins for a few ounces, some questions: what is this “grade level” he speaks of? And what are the academic expectations of a high school graduate? In fact, when did we declare that everyone should graduate high school, and why? When did we establish guidelines of what appropriate standards are? And aren’t those….you know, it kills me to bring it up, but aren’t those state responsibilities?

Yes, yes, I can hear the reply now. Of course it’s a state responsibility, constitution, blah blah blah. In fact the high school movement, the uniquely American push to increase access to a high school education, was a local movement. But the states want federal money, so naturally the federal government has an oversight role.

But when did the feds start giving the states money for education? Well, that would be when the states started incurring costs imposed upon public schools either by federal law or federal court fiat.

First up, of course, was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s Title I, designed to improve educational outcomes for the poor. More money would help the poor and close the achievement gap, so the thinking went–and still goes, although the Coleman Report, issued a year later, established that school spending had far less to do with student outcomes than student SES and background. But the expectation was set into law—all outcomes should be equal. No research, no science, no school has ever proven this out. It was just the sort of blithe expectation we had during the civil rights era that certainly seemed to be true. Unfortunately, when that expectation didn’t prove out, no one seemed to recall that we had no proof that it could ever be true. They just looked for someone else to blame. So the federal dollars came with more and more expectations, demanding an outcome that hadn’t ever been established as realistic to start with.

But Title I was just the start. In 1974, the Supreme Court, in Lau vs. Nichols, required the schools to educate kids in their native languages (ironically, this demand originated from the Asian community; bet they’re happy about that one now!). Then the Court told the schools that they have to educate illegal immigrants in Plyler vs. Doe, denying that there might be a “compelling state interest” in educating only those here legally. Don’t forget busing, disparate impact, free and appropriate education, inclusion….they cover all these court cases in ed school, did you know?

Meanwhile, Congress is busy declaring that children with mental and physical disabilities are guaranteed a free and appropriate public education, regardless of the cost, with a guaranteed Individualized Education Plan following when IDEA is passed in 1990.

So the feds are placing increasing burdens on the local school systems, often in the form of unfunded mandates, other times adding dollars with strings of steel.

These reforms were almost exclusively driven by progressives—liberals who believe that educational inequality is caused by unequal spending, white privilege, racism, prejudice, discrimination….you know that drill, too. Progressives were intent on improving access. While it’s likely that they, too, thought that access would end the achievement gap, they adjusted quickly when that expectation didn’t prove out. By the 80s, progressives in educational policy almost entirely anti-testing. They pooh-poohed SAT scores as racist and culturally biased. They instituted the multi-culti curricum, softened analytical requirements as much as possible whilst giving lip service to that all important “critical thinking”, declared tracking or other forms of ability grouping by demonstrated ability as another means of whites maintaining their institutional privilege, and declared that academic achievement could be demonstrated in many ways. To the extent possible, they ignored or downplayed demonstrated achievement in favor of a student’s effort, community service, and dedication to social justice.

So the original federal mandates were all initiated by progressives.

In contrast, the people we now call “reformers” (that I often refer to as “eduformers”) were largely conservatives. Checker Finn, Mike Petrilli, the Thernstroms, and Diane Ravitch before her switch—all policy wonks in Republican administrations or organizations (except Rotherham worked in a Democrat administration.)

The original reform movement originated as anti-progressive reform. Bill Bennett, in many ways the ur-Reformer, began his stint in the public eye by opposing or castigating many of the progressive mandates. He did his best to end native language instruction when he was Ed Sec, was pro-tracking, against affirmative action, and often castigated teacher unions as instruments of political indoctrination. Back in the 80s and 90s, Checker Finn lambasted the anti-tracking push and derided racial or economic integration as an end to itself, arguing that the important outcome was safe schools with effective teachers, not an obsession with numerical balance. Rare were the reformers who weren’t adamantly in favor of tracking, skeptical of mainstreaming special education kids, and opposed to bilingual education in native language. Educating illegal immigrants is possibly the only area in which reformers might have originally agreed with progressives (and consequently stand in stark disagreement with many parents).

They’ve softened this approach in recent years. For example, Mike Petrilli now writes about differentiation, and can be seen here telling a clearly skeptical, but not oppositional, Checker Finn about the way that differentiation avoids the bad old days of racially segregated approach of tracking. While many reformers used to openly oppose affirmative action, now they’re just really quiet about it, or promote charters for suburban families or selective public schools, both of which are just tracking in a different form (or reform, hyuk). No reformer has ever dared take on the special education mandates and the parental torrents of rage that would turn in his direction were he to be so foolish; instead, they’ll just talk up the charters that get to skate those mandates.

So, for the first twenty to thirty years, progressives dramatically reformed public education through federal interventions. Conservatives opposed many of the initiatives. Progressives denounced opposition as racist and elitist. Conservatives tried to hold progressives responsible for these initiatives through accountability, and declared that parents needed more choice in schools, to get away from the forced control imposed by the progressive viewpoint. Progressives continued to denounce opposition as racist and elitist.

Finally, in the late 90s, conservatives figured out an effective strategy to gain support for their reforms. They took a card from the progressive deck, and demanded that the schools live up to the educational objectives the progressives had set for them. It wasn’t enough just to desegregate classes by race, income, language and learning status. The schools needed to demonstrate that they were teaching everyone equally, that there were “no excuses” for failure. Excuses were—wait for it—racist and elitist. Accountability became the club through which they could achieve choice, and choice would weaken public schools, thus weakening progressives and—not to put too fine a point on it—unions, whose political power the reformers saw as the primary opponent of their political objectives. By demanding equal performance and softening or eliminating their opposition to tracking, bi-lingual education, and all the other progressive hot spots, they could beat the progressives on their head with their own club.

They’d finally figured out the unassailable rhetorical approach. Who could oppose setting mandates requiring everyone—of all races, incomes, and abilities—achieve proficiency? Only racists and elitists. Who could oppose punishing such failure with consequences? Only racists and elitists. Who could oppose giving parents and their students a way to escape from these horrible schools that fail to educate their students to proficiency? Yes, progressives with their excuses of poverty and culture and isolation—they’re the racists. The same people who gave lip service to equality are now fighting the reformers’ efforts to achieve the reality—so not only are progressives elitist and racist, they’re hypocrites, too!

And so, the current reform movement set new federal mandates, which takes those original mandates of the 70s and 80s and shoves them down schools’ throats, hoisting any progressive opposition on its own petard. Unions who opposed accountability on behalf of the teachers, who know full well that equal outcomes are utterly impossible, could now be castigated as anti-education, fat, entitled organizations who protected all the terrible teachers preventing the nation from reaching the dream that progressives started, the dream that progressives have now abandoned, that reformers are finally helping the nation reach. Over time, this approach picked up some new democrats, who aren’t overly fond of unions and tend to sneer at the reputedly low educational achievement of teachers, and the billionaires who Diane Ravitch, now on the other side, excoriates regularly for finding a new hobby.

I’m no fan of progressives, so it’s pretty amusing watching them sputter. They can’t say, “WTF? We never thought everyone would actually achieve at the same level, dammit! We wanted everything to look equal, so that we could browbeat employers and colleges! Tests are racist!” Besides, it’s their idiotic mandates we’re all being forced to live up to now, and they had no more basis for demanding them than reformers do in enforcing them.

So here we are. Schools are stuck with the outcome of two different waves of political reform—first, the progressive mandates designed to enforce surface “equality” of their dreams, then the reforms mandated by conservatives to make the surface equality a reality, which they knew was impossible but would give them a tool to break progressives and, more importantly, unions.

From the schools’ point of view, all these mandates, progressive or “reform” are alike in one key sense: they are bent on imposing political and ideological mandates that haven’t the slightest link to educational validity.

No one has ever made an effective case that non-native speakers can be educated as well as native speakers, regardless of the method used. No one has ever established that integration, racial or economic, improves educational outcomes. No one has ever demonstrated that blacks or Hispanics can achieve at the same average level as whites (or that whites can achieve at the same level as Asians, although no one gets worked up about that gap), nor has anyone ever demonstrated that poor students can achieve equally with their higher-income peers. No one has ever established that kids with IQs below 90 can achieve at the same level as kids with IQs above 100, or examined the difference in outcomes of educating kids with high vs. low motivation. And the only thing that has changed in forty years is that anyone who points this out will now be labelled elitist and racist by both sides of the educational debate, instead of just one.

So back to Hess. Hess’s rationale for political interference starts with the premise that low test scores means failing schools. When Hess says that a politician whose district schools show half or more kids reading below grade level can’t trust educators to do the right thing, he is assuming that half or more kids reading below grade level is a bad result.

Hess is using exactly the same rationale that progressives did when they labelled schools racist/elitist/pick your ist for enrolling fewer blacks, Hispanics, poor kids or dyslexics in advanced classes. It’s the fallacy at the heart of all reform: that all kids can achieve equally.

We don’t know that this is true. In order to call test scores “low”, we assume that all populations can achieve to the same average ability. We don’t know that they can. All available evidence says that they can not, that race, special education status, and poverty are not excuses but genuine, reliable predictors of lower achievement.

But thanks to the combined efforts of progressives and eduformers and their blithe lack of interest in the validity of their expectations, schools are now stuck with mandates that force them to pretend that all students can achieve equally to the same average ability, even though no research supports this. When Virginia bit the bullet to acknowledge that race is in some way related to achievement (note: I don’t think race is a direct factor, just an unsettling proxy), they were browbeaten and hammered into backing down, although I was cheered to see they still used race for achievement goals.

Rick Hess is wrong in saying that education leaders are “allergic” to policy. They are “allergic” to mandates with no relationship to reality. And his sympathy for political leaders who are dragged in reluctantly, poor folks, to spare the kids from uncaring, dysfunctional schools is also misplaced. The problem isn’t the schools. The problem is the mandates—both progressive and reform. The problem is the imposition of political and ideological objectives into the educational world, screaming and howling and suing for five impossible things before breakfast.

*Yeah, I started writing this a month ago and got distracted.

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29 responses to “The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform

  • Pincher Martin

    This is as well written and informative an encapsulation of U.S. educational policy over the last forty years as anything I’ve ever read. But what it doesn’t explain is the blogger’s predisposition to tilt towards the progressives over the reformers. That the progressives might be more direct and sincere than the reformers in their aims for education seems neither here nor there. What ought to matter are results, not intentions.*

    Perhaps the culture or the political elite aren’t currently as receptive to arguments by the reformers. Unable to implement most of their policies directly, the reformers seek to poison the ideological well progressives draw upon to implement their policies. I don’t see anything wrong with that political strategy, as it is essentially what progressives originally did to dominate the political discussion on education in the first place.

    Yes, it would be wonderful if everyone was amenable to the best arguments and most robust empirical evidence about educational policy. But they aren’t. As such, political arguments that seek to weaken the growing centralization in education and the industrial-age labor force should be judged for their likely results, not whether the advocates are sincere in belief that their policies will boost student achievements.

    *(Similarly, while I have few doubts as to the sincerity of George W. Bush’s foreign policy aims, it doesn’t prevent me from recognizing they utterly failed. His directness and sincerity were admirable as both personal and leadership traits. But they only highlighted the enormous gulf between what he sought to do and what he actually did do.)

  • Florida resident

    Very informative post.
    Additional references:

    http://www.johnderbyshire.com/Opinions/Straggler/073.html

    http://www.johnderbyshire.com/Opinions/HumanSciences/dreampalaceofedtheorists.html

    (” The Dream Palace of Education Theorists “)

    http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-298.html

    (” Money And School Performance:
    Lessons from the Kansas City Desegregation Experiment (1985) by Paul Ciotti “)

    (” Bad Students, Not Bad Schools, by Roberrt Weissberg “)

    Respectfully submitted by F.r.

  • educationrealist

    Pincher, I edited this after I wrote it for clarity, and one of the things I decided was irrelevant was my sympathy for the progressives. I’m not backing away from it; I just wanted you to know why it’s no longer there.

    The reason I feel sympathetic to progressives in education, even though I think they are both wrong *and* annoying at worst, is a reason that wouldn’t have worked for me five years ago and thus probably won’t work for you: progressive educators *are* educators. It is clear in everything they do. I noticed this when I was in ed school; the professors were often appallingly, openly left of center, but when you pointed out the reality of the classroom, they got it. They knew what it was like teaching low ability kids, even if they desperately wanted to pretend it could be fixed.

    Reformers aren’t teachers. It comes through in everything they do. Reformers might become teachers after they are committed to reform, but in that case, they select schools that will allow them to teach in a reform model. Progressive educators have walked the walk.

    None of this changes anything, but when I read a lot of reformers, their ignorance comes shining through. Thus, my sympathies tilt with the progressives. (Recall that I’m voting Republican).

    You’re making the utilitarian argument, and I’m never in favor of that.

    I wrote a bit more about my weird sympathy for progressive educators here:

    http://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/developing-curriculum/

    if you are interested in the very best progressive educator’s writing and thoughts, I’d go with Larry Cuban: http://larrycuban.wordpress.com/ but you have to promise me you won’t go commenting there in your hostile manner; it’s a civilized place without a lot of fulminating. (g)

    If you want a place for a fun argument that has both progressives and reformers, I’d check out Joanne Jacobs http://www.joannejacobs.com Jacobs is the best pure education blogger there is; she just puts the stories out there and the commenters argue.

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  • Pincher Martin

    Thanks for the links, ER. I appreciate you giving me the heads-up as to which places might be more accepting of my full contact debate style. I also want you to know that my recent engagement here is temporary. I will not be a permanent habitué of this blog’s comment section. So there is no need to worry that my dissonant remarks will become a long term distraction to the elevated discourse you wish to encourage here.

    Nevertheless, I think the questions I’ve asked here over the last week are important, and they haven’t been answered. Describing the sociology of the teaching profession, as you do below, is not an effective counterargument:

    “Reformers aren’t teachers. It comes through in everything they do. Reformers might become teachers after they are committed to reform, but in that case, they select schools that will allow them to teach in a reform model. Progressive educators have walked the walk.”

    Walking the walk? This assumes that only teachers’ arguments about education matter, and since most teachers are progressives…. well, I get the point.

    I’m sure this assumption is very flattering to most teachers, and certainly it ought to be to the many progressives who influence education policy. But I’m not sure why anyone else should accept it. Do only corporations get to decide the regulations affecting their businesses? Do only soldiers get to tell the rest of us when we go to war? Do only economists have the wherewithal to decide what income tax rates should be? I would have thought that the last ten years in this country would have done in the Cult of the Expert. Why should teachers be the ones setting the agenda of the debate?

    Many people who are not teachers — parents, taxpayers, etc. — are concerned about the quality of education. They want to get their money’s worth out of it. They are disturbed by the general tone of the educational content they see in the curriculum their kids are required to take. It often degrades their religious, cultural, and patriotic views in service of a progressive agenda that they don’t see as necessary to their children’s education. Whatever their negligible experience as teachers, the reformers try to speak for them. Some of them see education as more than an internal debate among teachers about the marginal effectiveness of pedagogical techniques.

    Coming to the teaching profession rather late in your life, I would have thought you would be more sensitive to this point. One of the intellectual benefits of having experienced a great deal in life is that you should be less enamored of the professional verities in a field that younger people, who often have done nothing other than teach and go to school, just accept as they try to move up in their careers. A broad horizon often sharpens the critical instinct that the narrow perspective misses. One doesn’t only look at education from the perspective of a teacher – even though you are a teacher and are capable of shifting your critical lens to that perspective when need be.

    But once in the club, I suppose the temptation to identify as a member, and take on the privileges and rights thereof, is pretty overwhelming. And so the debate becomes one of hardcore progressive versus progressive lite, which is a bit disappointing if you believe that such debates are likely to be stale and not lead to the kind of incremental and economical reform in education that would benefit society as a whole.

    • educationrealist

      Pincher,

      I wasn’t warning you at all from my blog. I’m pleased to have any comments at all! I was a bit worried about setting you loose on Larry Cuban’s blog.

      “since most teachers are progressives…. well, I get the point. ”

      No. Most teachers aren’t progressives. About a third are Republicans, and many of the rest are simply Democrats, not progressives. Unfortunately a lot of them are English or history teachers.

      As for the rest of your comments, as always, you misconstrue the purpose. I’m not trying to convince you or anyone else. I’m explaining why, despite everything, I’m slightly sympathetic to progressive educators, even though I think they have done tremendous damage and have relatively absurd political beliefs.

      Your long argument would make more sense if I’d argued that reformers shouldn’t get involved in schools, that progresssives were the only ones who knew what they were doing. I’ve argued nothing of the sort and indeed, don’t believe it. It’s a bit pointless to rebut everything you said point by point, except with a simple “You’ve invented an argument to have something to squabble about.”

      • Tort

        Exactly, E.R.!

        “…something to squabble about.”

        Also, a reaction against a slight tilt toward the progressives for their involvement in the game. I’m typically conservative politically, but having invested three decades into public and private teaching, I agree with you: progressive mandates are unrealistic liberal social schemes, and not really about education; reform mandates are all about sticking it to teachers by using a meat cleaver instead of a scalpel. I enjoy how you identify the insidious truth that comes from politics, and in this case the idea that the mandates themselves are based on anything but the truth about real equality.

        To me, this is your best article, and I will read it over and over. Why so?

        It helps me to cut the strings held by the puppeteers. Lord, how they’ve jacked up education–and worse, how they’ve hurt kids by politicizing it.

        You have fairly called out both sides. Bravo, a thousand times!

  • Bostonian

    How do we get out of this mess? As the proportion of the population that is black and Hispanic rises, two things happen:
    (1) The cost of “gap-closing” policies such as affirmative action increase. In California or Texas, proportional representation will eventually mean that the majority of college students be black or Hispanic.
    (2) The political cost of discussing group differences in intelligence becomes even higher, because you are considered to be insulting an ever-larger portion of the electorate.

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  • malcolmthecynic

    Two serious questions, since now that I’ve brought you up on my own blog more I’ve been asked this a few times. I have my own answers that I give, but I’d love to know what you’d say:

    1) How do you define “race”?

    2) Why should it matter to us how, specifically, each race does? As in, who really cares if blacks and Hispanics consistently score lower than whites and Asians? Shouldn’t it be enough that we know that not all kids have the same cognitive ability?

    • malcolmthecynic

      Bonus question: Do I have permission to quote your answers on my blog about as part of a longer post?

    • educationrealist

      1) self-defined.

      2) Who is “us”? Progressives care because of their ingrained belief that the deficit is caused by racism. But generally, I think the concern is that we can’t have institutional integrity without equal racial opportunity. I mention that here; https://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/what-causes-the-achievement-gap-the-voldemort-view/

      • malcolmthecynic

        Okay, you lost me a little bit at the second part. Are you saying the reason we should care (“we” meaning anybody concerned with doing the best for our children and schools) is simply because it’s true?

        But what I’m asking (and I really think the answer is just making a whooshing noise above my head) is, who cares if it has to do with race? Progressives care, yes. So we should care simply to prove progressives wrong?

      • educationrealist

        Why are you asking me? I don’t hold that opinion.

        However, I’ve answered this on several occasions. In my view, you have to be either ignorant or dishonest to ignore the cognitive ability gap between races. Progressives are stupid. Reformers are dishonest. I don’t know if that’s true, mind you, it’s just the only way I can make sense of their beliefs. I write about this in the essay Not Why This. Just Why Not That.

      • malcolmthecynic

        Would you broadly agree with this, then:

        The reason it is important to recognize cognitive differences between races is because by not acknowledging them we set up the school system in such a way that students who simply can’t handle higher level work are forced into those classes because people refuse to admit that the reason there are so many blacks in remedial Algebra might, in fact, not be due to white privilege.

        (I want to point out that this comment came after somebody claimed that the only reason I cared about cognitive ability differences between races was so I could claim I was superior to people or something.)

      • educationrealist

        Sure. I think I’ve said something similar more than once. But I would say it’s better to just say that cognitive differences, full stop, explain differences in academic outcomes. Race is an unfortunate correlation.

      • malcolmthecynic

        So:

        Liberals want to base policy off of some assumed oppression against people of color. My response is that people are just different, and we’re not going to change that. So we should base policy around this acceptance rather than some absurd belief that everybody is the same.

        (Part of the reason I’m badgering you so much is because I want to make sure I haven’t been misrepresenting you either).

      • malcolmthecynic

        No, that’s me. I’m just making sure that, since I’ve been quoting you fairly profusely in my last couple of posts on this subject, I’m not acting like you hold a view that you don’t actually hold.

      • educationrealist

        It’s probably best to quote my posts. That’s usually something I’ve focused on and haven’t done off the cuff.

      • malcolmthecynic

        Okay, sounds good! Thanks for the dialogue, much appreciated. I’ll keep reading around on your site for sure, I’m a fan.

      • educationrealist

        I didn’t mean to be short. It’s just that my comments are often within the context of a conversation, and I end up confusing people.

      • malcolmthecynic

        On the contrary, I’ve found you to be quite helpful rather than short. I don’t remember if I’ve ever just quoted one of your out-of-post comments, but I’ll be sure to quote only your posts from now on regardless.

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