Education Reform, Politics, Progressivism

How to Blog Irresponsibly (About Education)

First of all, let’s get a few things straight:

  • I really, really, REALLY like Freddie DeBoer’s work. He writes eloquently about the ideas undergirding progressivism, which is pretty rare (in the blogosphere or on Capitol Hill). Concern about this is what pulled me to start writing outside of academia.
  • Special note to trolls: The “Irresponsible Blogger” referred to in the title is ME, not DeBoer, not Yglesias. Save your angry emails for Andrew Breitbart.
  • My biases and credentials: I’m a former first grade teacher who served as a Teach For America corps member (Crown Heights, Brooklyn). I have a Masters in Early Childhood Education. I’m nearly finished with a PhD in Government.

Clear? Great. So here’s something irresponsible that bloggers do all the time: we read Blogger B’s post that’s a response to Blogger C, and then respond to B outside of the context of C. Can this be productive? Sure, but it’s not a great way to foster the blogosphere’s supposedly open dialogue.* Unless it’s done carefully, it takes the form of peanut gallery sniping or outright conversational hijacking.

All of that said, I’m (q.v. bullet point 2 above) going to do precisely that. Sorry, Freddie. No offense intended.

Yesterday DeBoer posted an indictment of Matthew Yglesias’ (and others’) recent writings on education and education reform. In essence, DeBoer argues that too many education reformers are obsessed with novel and radical policy solutions that are largely devoid of empirical viability (or any relevant real-world content).

I am incredibly skeptical about the efficacy of constantly banded-about educational reform efforts. I am, for obvious reasons, deeply suspicious of the motivations of many involved in education reform, whether conservatives who hate unions, Democratic constituencies, and government efforts like public schooling, or corporate interests who seek to make money by destroying public education and replacing it with their own, accountability-free private surrogates. I do believe that poverty matters, that race matters, that the presence of a stable home life matters, that parent’s education level matters, and that community matters. I believe these things for the sensible reason that I am empirically justified in believing them. But do I believe that school quality means nothing? That teacher quality means nothing? That there is no room for positive impacts on education because uncontrollable variables are too powerfully determinative? I do not. Nobody I know in the academy does. Nobody I know of, at all, does.

This is probably right. Go to an education policy roundtable in DC, and you’ll hear huge policy prescriptions that are both vague and (at-best) loosely-tied to the situation on the ground. The disposition cuts across education policy battle lines. Michelle Rhee’s devotees proclaim the end of tenure of all kinds at all times for all teachers, while Diane Ravitch’s foot soldiers argue that education reform should be frozen until we pass a slate of Great Society II programs. His point (the thing that I’m mostly ignoring while blogging irresponsibly): saying big and snazzy things about What We Need To Do To Save Our Schools does not equate to real and powerful improvement in education policy. It’s just self-serving rhetoric by pundits tilting in the wind on an important issue to get attention. Insofar as he’s talking about some particular pundits, this is 100% true.**

That said, there are a few things bothering me about his post.

First, DeBoer’s wrong that “Nobody” takes poverty or teacher/school quality completely out of the education policy equation. Both sides go straight to absolutes. All the time (“What do you do about bad teachers? We help them. What if you help them and they are still bad teachers? We help them more,” and what if they still stink? We help them even more! etc). That’s how rhetoric goes right now. Ravitch’s team argues that any upticks in accountability are attacks on teachers and their profession. They defend the status quo without compunction. In response, education reformers double and triple down on the horrifying experience of the “relatively small subset of our public school populations” that happens to consist overwhelmingly of students of color. Throwaway lines like “Of course, everyone knows that teachers in underserved communities are overworked” or “We all agree that all students deserve great teachers” simply don’t count. Real thoughtfulness on education takes more than one sentence.

Second of all, beyond clarifying just how unproductive most education debates are, though, there’s something far more worrisome about the balance that DeBoer strikes between defending what is good about American public education and how badly it underserves the nation’s most vulnerable students. As I’ve written elsewhere (also here), progressives should think hard about the recent teachers’ unions fights. We need to appreciate the critical importance of unions in protecting workers’ rights against unfair employer treatment, and we also need to remember that the establishment of a separate and unequal public education system for our nation’s poor—who are disproportionally students of color. We should defend unions as a core protection for the American middle-class, and we should attack educational inequity as a shameful perjuring of the American Dream. This doesn’t mean that all accountability measures are good—only that this shouldn’t be an ethical slam dunk. We should find this hard. We should struggle with it. These children should matter to us. A LOT. Sure, we can’t wish away their struggles with our magic Green Lantern, but we should be furious that they’re condemned to inadequate schools simply because of their address.

This brings me to a third concern: the post is shot through with references to the empirical fantasies of education reform types, but it’s pretty blasé about the massive injustice of American educational inequity. The empirics showing this are legion. For DeBoer, an eloquent defender of political equality, this should be a screaming injustice. Our nation’s lowest-income communities get our (by far) worst teachers (Cf. this CAP report). These teachers repeatedly underperform, to the extent that Teach For America first-year teachers blow them away without any formal educational training. If you’re not outraged about how we abandon our neediest students, read The Widget Effect. Plenty of empirical data there. If you’re not still outraged, visit your local failing elementary school. If you’re in a community where there aren’t any failing schools, if you don’t have any experience with how these run, perhaps you should heed DeBoer’s warning in his post—and do some research beyond watching Waiting for Superman or reading op-ed screeds from the AFT.

Of course, DeBoer isn’t really claiming that there’s no evidence of educational injustice (even if he underemphasizes how pissed off it should make us). He’s claiming that education reform isn’t tethered to empirical fact. This isn’t really true. The studies cited above are just a few examples. While it’s true that some education reforms get off the ground with wings built mostly from rhetorical fluff, it’s NOT true that this is the rule. The Center for American Progress backs its (moderate) reform agenda with massive data analysis. We’re not flying as empirically blind on education as DeBoer seems to think.

Fourthly, then, there’s nothing more aggravating than hearing “Ok, sure, we probably need to do something about poverty/teacher accountability/administrator autonomy/etc, but we need to do some more studies first.” Please stop for a second, though, before you sprint to the comments box to accuse me of falling into exactly the mold DeBoer’s complaining about. The facts matter, they REALLY do. I’m not saying that we abandon them entirely. I’m saying that progressives should be highly suspicious of education reform opponents who have been using this rhetoric for decades. This is something that you hear at the aforementioned policy roundtables all the time: “This is great research, thanks for this! We agree that we need to work to develop accountability measures for teachers!” While we should be cautious of screwing up schools and districts by reforming too quickly, we should be even more cautious of waiting to do anything to improve education in low-income communities because the NEA won’t play ball. Progressives need to be skeptical whenever concentrated power (political and/or economic) repeatedly insists that “nothing can be done until we do some more research.”

In short: at some point, progressives need to be prepared to risk action. Given that the educational lives of vulnerable American students are at stake, we should be even more suspicious of those who would dismiss action on grounds of uncertainty.†† For example, If a politician who depends upon oil money for reelection tells us that we need more debate to settle the climate change question, we laugh him out of serious conversation. The same should be true in education.

Let me close with a few things that are often lost in the shuffle: almost every leader/pillar/etc of the education reform movement is an advocate for dramatic pay raises for teachers. Cf. Michelle Rhee, The Equity Project, the New Teacher Project, etc. This is common knowledge (it’s an empirical fact!), but it’s almost NEVER brought up when these same people and organizations are getting trashed for blaming and hating teachers.

In addition, many education reformers come to their positions—pass the hand mirror, darling—by direct experience. These aren’t DeBoer’s “minimally-involved liberal strivers.” While it may be true that the Reihan Salam and Matt Yglesias are seizing upon the newest of new policy responses to the education crisis, this isn’t the case for many, many education reformers. Rhee and her DCPS successor, Kaya Henderson, both have classroom experience in urban schools, as does Tennessee’s State Board of Education chief Kevin Huffman. The KIPP schools were founded by former urban teachers, as were any number of other charter schools. Across the country, the people driving education reform in practice—not on the internet—have a ton of hands-on pedagogical and educational experience.

This is why the “But they leave after just two years!” critique of Teach For America misses the program’s point. While over 60% of corps members stay in education beyond their two-year commitment, those who go on to other fields are at least inoculated against easy radicalism or the intuitive progressive defense of portions of the status quo (the current teacher tenure system, progressive orthodoxy on charter schools, etc). Teach For America alums learn first-hand that solutions are never as easy as either of these paths. It makes their advocacy that much stronger and better-informed. It protects them from their most naïve good intentions…but it also (usually) proves to them that real improvement is possible.

UPDATE: A friend sent this along—more empirics backing the importance of teacher quality.

*Regular readers know that I’m deeply skeptical that the Internet really improves our public debates, even if it does make them louder.
**It’s also a familiar sort of argument from DeBoer. Cf. his indictment of Yglesias’ lack of standing when it comes to arguments about suffering and poverty.
††If you’re a total (TOTAL) dork, you’ll perhaps be interested in knowing that there’s progressive intellectual history behind this position. One of John Dewey’s most astounding philosophical moves was to argue that the truth was what survived the test of “warranted assertability.” For Dewey, true things weren’t true by virtue of corresponding with a world of ideal types or ideal forms. They were true by virtue of cohering with the other beliefs that we used to live our lives. Would we be warranted in asserting a particular belief? Could we give plausible reasons and evidence? If yes, go to town with that belief. It’s true enough to live by.


7 thoughts on “How to Blog Irresponsibly (About Education)

  1. I read the deBoer post and I think you are being unfair when you say he underemphasizes the problem of educational injustice. He acknowledges the seriousness of the problem. He takes it as a given, but that isn’t the main point of his post so he doens’t dwell on it as much as you seem to want him to.

    I wonder what would be your answer to the question (maybe hypothetical, maybe not), how would you feel about education reform that improve education for the most underserved students but worsen education for all the other students? Can we take it for granted that those reforms would be worthwhile?

    Posted by Erik Isaiah | June 8, 2011, 10:29 pm
  2. Don’t think I would call the New Teacher Project review of teacher evaluation empirics. The NTP proceeds from the bias that teachers are the problem with student performance and that has not yet been shown. Also they confuse student achievement with standardized test results which, by all accounts, is not the measure of achievement. There is far more evidence that outside factors are the primary factors concerning student achievement. It is not clear yet that teacher evaluation has any connection to student performance.

    By the same study methods one would say a teacher is performing poorly if all of her students get A’s and B’s. The goal of teacher evaluation should be that 98% or better are quality teachers. If it is not, why do it?

    Posted by Michael E | June 9, 2011, 1:45 pm


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