Education Reform, Politics, Progressivism

Market-Based Education Reform? (Logico-Rhetorical Analysis: Randi Weingarten)

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten’s piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal was another piece of evidence showing the awkward political torsion that education reform inflicts on American political divisions.

Think about it: Weingarten’s piece was entitled “Markets Aren’t the Education Solution.” She’s a union leader. It appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Are you kidding me? This is the same rag that congratulated Governor Scott Walker and the rest of Wisconsin’s GOP for cutting apart the unions’ collective bargaining rights. Strange bedfellows for Randi-The-Union-Leader. This is only one example, of course. Consider Michelle Rhee’s sudden darlinghood with certain prominent conservatives. Heck, I’ll admit to finding myself agreeing with some very odd folks on this. Anyway, I’ve already written about this in the Huffington Post, so I’ll spare you further thoughts, and get right down to the meat. Her piece is in bold. Mine is not.

Randi Weingarten

Markets Aren’t the Education Solution

I’m not sure that there are too many people who suggest that they are, and I’m even less sure that your readers in the Wall Street Journal are going to love that title, but hey, ya know, it’s your show…

Top-performing countries revere and respect teachers. They don’t demonize them.

As you know very well, every side of the education reform wars claims that they “revere” and “respect” and NEVER “demonize” teachers. I have a hunch that you’re packing some pretty specific policy positions into those verbs in this case, but we’ll see…

A month ago, education ministers and teachers union presidents from the 16 top-performing and improving countries—including Finland, South Korea, Singapore, Brazil and Canada—came to New York to participate in an international conference on public education sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the U.S. Department of Education. The education leaders of these countries presented with impressive clarity all the methods they are using to improve student learning and strengthen teacher quality.

This is a little diffuse. They might have presented their methods with impressive clarity, but YOU aren’t doing nearly as well. I get that you were impressed, and that you agreed with them. That doesn’t mean that your readers agree with you. See, persuasion doesn’t work like this. You have to actually provide some details of what you’d like to convince others to believe.

During the conference, it became abundantly clear that market-based reforms promoted by the so-called reformers in the United States have little in common with the education policies in these leading nations. And well before the conference, it was increasingly clear that there has been little or no evidence in the last 20 years to show that market-based reforms have transformed schools and increased student learning.

Problem #1: Again, it might have become abundantly clear to you, while you were there, but that doesn’t make it clear to everyone reading, by default. It would be great if you actually provided something of substance from the conference to help make your point. The abstract rhetoric is getting you nowhere.
Problem #2: What do you mean by “market-based reforms?” Do you mean paying teachers who can demonstrate their classroom effectiveness better than their less-effective colleagues? Firing teachers that repeatedly fail to serve their students? What does either of those have to with markets? Do you mean eliminating support staff and increasing teachers’ salaries? Allowing especially ineffective teachers to declare moral bankruptcy so as to avoid any professional consequences for underserving their students? Giving students monetary bonuses when their grades improve?

Any plans to clarify what you mean by “market-based?”

With supreme certainty and blind zeal, market-based reformers are doubling down on an agenda that has failed to produce the transforming gains they promised.

Ok, so you’re not planning on giving any details. Whoever the market-based reformers are, they are BAD. Why? Because you tell us so. Because these undefined demon-types are ruining schools and teachers and children in some as-yet unspecified way. The solution is the impressively clear, but still-unstated solutions from Finland, South Korea, et al. These solutions are GOOD because you tell us so. Because they are improving and strengthening things, in also as-yet unspecified ways.

They disparage and delegitimize any gains that traditional public schools as well as their teachers (and their unions) have delivered for kids.

Huh? Who? When? Where? Is anyone, on any side of the education reform wars, unhappy when kids do well in public schools? Again, this would be a lot easier if your opponent wasn’t so amorphous. Whoever these “market-based reformers” are, they’re really bad. BAD. And this is a kind of cute trick you’re pulling, because not naming anyone makes it impossible to hold you accountable. Has someone somewhere at some point “disparaged” and “delegitimized” traditional public schools? Probably. Does this mean that everyone you disagree with is a—shudder—market-based reformer? You’re somehow simultaneously shadowboxing, straw-man destroying, and painting with a broad brush. That’s a helluva trifecta. I didn’t even know that was possible. It’s also dishonest, self-serving, cynical, disingenuous, and worse. So yes, it’s a cute trick, but it’s not doing much for your argument.

Market-based reformers advocate using student test scores to evaluate and compensate teachers, increasing the number of charter schools, firing teachers in low-performing schools, and relying on corporate executives and business practices to run school districts. This ideological approach has generated a great deal of media attention, and it has been sold aggressively by its advocates. But there is increasing evidence it doesn’t work.

Here we go! Something like a categorical definition! Problem is, none of these things have much to do with markets. A few thoughts: Sure, some tests are designed by for-profit companies. Dixon Ticonderoga is also a publicly-traded, for-profit corporation, but that doesn’t make pencil-using schools “market-based.” As for firing teachers in low-performing schools, I suppose companies do fire members of low-performing departments, but that hardly makes it a market-based thing…unless you think that prioritizing effectiveness or accountability at all is the sole province of markets. (Also, you know as well as anyone that that’s a loaded way of phrasing it. A more neutral—and accurate—version might be: “consistently low-performing teachers in consistently low-performing schools,” but that would expose a massive crack in the “foundations” of your argument thus far).

In fact, your “4 Characteristics of The Market-Based Reformers” aren’t necessarily linked by ANY principle (market efficiency, any particular theory of justice, etc). For example, it’s perfectly possible for someone to be in favor of firing teachers in low-performing schools while opposing increases in the number of charter schools. None of these four positions implies any of the others…which means that this isn’t so much a definition as a laundry list of things that you don’t like about some particular opponents of yours. Again with the broadest of brushes.

A 2009 Stanford University study found 17% of charter schools provide a superior education to that which students receive in traditional public schools, but that nearly half of charter schools have results that are no better than neighborhood schools. Over a third deliver results that are worse. A 2010 Vanderbilt University study was the third consecutive national study to show that rewarding teachers with bonus pay does not raise student test scores. And we need look no further than the recent resignation of New York City Schools Chancellor Cathie Black, after being on the job for only three months, to conclude that experience in education matters should be valued—not diminished.

There are problems with your data, given the very narrow selection of studies you chose to cite, but I’ll leave all that aside. Let’s just keep an eye on the ball for a second. Again, you’re using an imaginary category—market-based reformers—to catch all of these Very Bad Things that you don’t like. You’ve still got the same problem. None of your opponents favor bad charter schools. They support effective charter schools, and they like charter schools in general because they are easier to hold accountable to their results. Most importantly, the AFT ITSELF TAKES THE VERY SAME POSITION THAT YOU’RE DRAGGING UNDER THE BUS HERE. Check out this quote from your own website: “The American Federation of Teachers strongly supports charter schools that embody the core values of public education and a democratic society” Is the AFT part of the vast market-based reform conspiracy? Yikes! See why it’s important to pick fights with real, actual, specific opponents?

Another thing—since when were charter schools NOT neighborhood schools? Where do they hide out? Are all charter schools in abandoned warehouses in abandoned sections of urban wastelands? I taught in a charter school for several years. It was in Crown Heights (which is, believe it or not, a neighborhood). You probably mean (I’m guessing, since you didn’t make this clear) that charter schools don’t just draw from their local areas, but have students bussed in from all over the city/state/world. A few things: 1) This IS NOT the case with all charters, only some. Broad brush fault #3 (or is it #4 now?). 2) For those charters where students do come from outside their neighborhood—do you think it’s because the parents who chose these long bus rides for their children are tired of the great performance in their local traditional schools? Do you think they’re bored with their top-notch, well-run traditional schools in their neighborhoods? My buddy Kevin Huffman has something to ask you

Nor do these self-styled reformers pay much credence to what leading countries like Finland, Singapore and South Korea have done and are doing to transform their school systems.

Neither have you, up until this next line.

These countries emphasize teacher preparation, mentoring and collaboration. They revere and respect their teachers; they don’t demonize them.

Keep an eye out, buddy. Randi "Quijote" Weingarten is on the hunt.

It’s getting repetitive to point this sort of thing out to you, but NO ONE in the education reform wars is opposed to “teacher preparation, mentoring and collaboration.” You’re beyond building just a straw man…you’re building a straw village (!) of nefarious “market-based” reformers. Some reformers argue that teachers that repeatedly fail to do their job according to multiple measures ought to be fired. That’s different. A LOT different.

Virtually all of them are unionized. In fact, school leaders in these countries work very closely with their unions, and most said they would never introduce changes or legislation without union collaboration.

A number of your opponents have tried to work with America’s teachers’ unions. Often. Heck, in D.C., union leader George Parker negotiated a pretty progressive new contract with the city and got it approved by the union rank-and-file. He caught plenty of flack from union leaders who tried to hold him accountable (a “market-based” strategy, right?) for working with the city. He lost re-election to a Very Strange Character who plans to take that contract apart piece-by-piece. Meanwhile, your union spent $1 million on a campaign to unseat Mayor Adrian Fenty (whose administration worked with your union on the contract) and endorsed his opponent. He lost. The AFT can be dangerous to work with.

These countries focus on developing great teachers and giving them the autonomy to hone their craft. There is an ethos of working together to continuously improve. They de-emphasize excessive standardized tests and test prep, and each has a well-rounded curriculum that engages students in gaining knowledge by developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills—not by rote memorization. These countries provide a more equitable education for all students, and they offset the effects of poverty through on-site wraparound services such as medical and dental care and counseling.

You know, I’ve heard this somewhere before…Oh, right, just a few sentences ago! “These countries emphasize teacher preparation, mentoring and collaboration.” Now it’s “These countries focus on developing great teachers and giving them the autonomy to hone their craft, etc.” Is there anything new here? Anything specific enough to disagree with? While you don’t appear to have any details or particularly structured ideas here, you do seem to have a strong grasp of thesaurus usage. And that’s not completely worthless. Almost, but not completely…

You don’t have to look beyond our borders to find schools in which teaching and learning are producing impressive results. School districts like New Haven, Conn., Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Hillsborough County, Fla., and ABC Unified in Los Angeles County are all focused on high-quality teaching, improving student learning and registering solid gains. Like the leading nations, these districts have built a culture of collaboration and teamwork, including systems of teacher evaluation that focus on teacher quality and continuous improvement. They believe that equity in education is essential and that all children, regardless of economic circumstances, should receive an excellent education. And they share a strong belief that students succeed when everyone—teachers, parents, administrators and elected officials—takes responsibility for their education and well-being.

This is a fun game! Can I play? I’ll list charter schools that are succeeding in a bunch of places! New Haven! Baltimore/Los Angeles/dozens of other districts! Of course, this isn’t an argument, especially since neither of us bothered to provide any specifics about how either of our lists was doing anything effective. Who needs standards? Who needs evidence? Who needs data? Who needs effective models for school and district success? Those are “market-based” shams! And those are Very Bad! Why? Because they’re market-based!

Remind me to define “tautology” for you someday, Randi.

The global economy is racing ahead with ever increasing speed, and how well we address this challenge will be determined by how well we educate and prepare our children for the new world they will inherit.

See, this is just sloppy. After spending all of these words on a column about the limits of undefined “market-based” reforms in education, you end with a little paean to the economy? “Well, see, we need to keep pace with the global market by, um, well, not using markets in, erm, our education system.” I mean, heck, I’m not pro-“market-based” reforms (mostly because I have no idea what those are), but it’s a weird disjuncture in your argument. To win in a market, don’t use a market? This might be a really novel paradox for a philosophy class, but in a short op-ed column, we should never end up quite this badly pretzeled.

We must explore new and better ways to help students achieve. But evidence, not ideology, should help lead the way. And the evidence clearly shows that a heavy reliance on charter schools, performance pay, overuse of standardized tests and ignoring poverty won’t adequately prepare our children for college, career and life.

Given that you hardly discussed any of these things in your column, given that you spent most of your nearly 750 words repeating strained rhetorical inflations, given that you picked a fight with any number of nonexistent foes, I’m not sure why we ought to take you seriously. Thanks for playing! Better luck next time!

Ms. Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

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8 thoughts on “Market-Based Education Reform? (Logico-Rhetorical Analysis: Randi Weingarten)

  1. love this! :-) thanks for writing.

    Posted by Shani | April 25, 2011, 11:42 pm
  2. Hi Conor:

    I know I shouldn’t do this. Nothing I say here is an ad hominem attack. Do not read between the text, because there is nothing there. Frankly, I am fearful of your refined rhetorical jabs, crosses and uppercuts. Don’t take these points as a confrontation with your position, but as an attempt to instill a sense of empathy with your opponent. It is important to know your enemy, right?

    We agree on a number of issues. Both sides are more or less interested in providing a good education for the next generation. The educational system is in need of reform similar to a number of other domestic social institutions, like Medicare. Some parts of this system are rotten – the infamous teacher tenure is a case in point. Finally, the debate as cast right now is not very productive; it resembles two primates throwing their own feces at each other, declaring victory and calling it a day.

    So, I suppose first of all, why do you reify this debate by calling it an “educational war”? This sort of language re-creates a manichean view of us vs. them, right vs. wrong. I understand that this sort of sexy rhetorical style may galvanize those who support your view, but it sows seeds of mistrust with the opposing side.

    In general, I would just like to focus on the nuts and bolts of this “war”. I will not debate first principles, normative foundations or the like. For that, I am ill-equipped and you will surely demolish me. Nor do I desire to trade “statistical facts” with you to earn persuasion points. Like you, I am very skeptical of stats as a form of power as knowledge. I would need to read the articles you cite and then reference broader literature to confirm a wider degree of consensus within that episteme. So, what I am going to say may be a fabrication, but I think this sentiment exists for many older and experienced teachers active in the union. It may be worth taking seriously even if you do not believe it is factually true.

    The teacher’s union has fought hard for many decades to achieve a decent salary and benefits, like health insurance coverage, for public school teachers. This “educational war” seems to evoke a sentiment of fear in many union members. I take this to be the crux of what they refer to as “market-based reforms.” I guess my main question to you is what happens to the union if your side “wins”? I am genuinely interested in your response. I believe you would prefer the complete abolishment of the union, but I don’t know.

    Overall, I would assume that union members are skeptical of sugar coated promises of higher pay in return for abolishing or defanging the union and being held “accountable”. I think this skepticism and fear is pretty well-founded for citizens who want to make teaching a lifetime profession. There are two issues here that fundamentally inform the union’s characterization of the “other side” as being in favor of “market-reform strategies.”

    First, Americans, to be blunt, do not have an appreciation for educators. They idolize doctors, lawyers and athletes. People from many walks of life have an illusion that teachers have it easy. They are already overpaid (per hour they make more than some lawyers!) and they get a summer break. This is not the perception of educators in many other cultures — I am most familiar with Germany, Russia and China for idiosyncratic reasons. Perhaps this is an orientalist (or perhaps Tocquevillian) position, but I am very comfortable wearing this hat for this issue.

    Second, there is no clear mechanism to monitor and enforce promises of money for accountability. If you absolve the union, it will be incredibly difficult and probably impossible to keep the other side honest. Since society is at best indifferent and there are plenty of other interest groups, like school boards, that have an incentive to reduce budgetary costs for public schools, it seems inevitable that teachers will receive less pay and benefits. NOTE: I am not vilifying school boards.

    On a side note, there are many discreet forms of power that pressure young and motivated teachers to work above and way beyond what is required in the job description. Some people call this motivation and dedication to our children, I call it a potential form of soft exploitation. Potato, potatO, right? It may work when you are young and only teach a couple of years, but it is not exactly something many people would choose as a career. I am interested in one stat actually and I am not trying to be vindictive. How many TFA alumni remain teachers after their two year stint. How many remain teachers five years down the road? Ten years? I am sure it is pretty high, I am really just curious. I see a stat for 63% of alumni who are working or studying in education, but I don’t exactly understand what that means?

    So, what should the teacher’s union do? Americans are very comfortable with free-market arguments. In other words, it is a high salient frame for many American voters. Teachers should earn as much as society deems they are worth. In this sense, your position is not a free-market one at all. You are introducing an artificially inflated value for effective teaching, i.e. you earn $100,000 for being a good teacher. I doubt American society really values teachers that much. I have serious reservations about “your side” for other reasons than the ones stated above, but if it works like you promise then it is not so bad. My fear is that it won’t work like you promise. We may end up with a “dirty goldilocks”. We get rid of the union, but the real education free-market advocates win. No union, no check. A slippier slope indeed.

    Posted by Zacc | April 26, 2011, 10:11 pm
    • You call it monkey feces throwing, I call it a war.

      I’m going to continue to observe our agreement to avoid arguing with each other on these questions.

      Posted by CPW | April 26, 2011, 10:14 pm


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