Getting at first principles in the education debate
~by Shawn Gude
The shift in E.D. Kain’s thinking on education reform of late has been an interesting and, I think, beneficent one for reform discourse. Kain basically blanched when he began to perceive he was too strongly in the “anti-reform” camp (few are actually anti-reform, but that’s the unfortunate appellation ascribed to opponents of Duncan, et al). He recently wrote this mea culpa at Forbes:
“I took a decidedly partisan approach to school reform over the past few months. Instead of approaching the education reform debate as a skeptic, I have approached it as an advocate against the modern reform movement itself and all that entails. I largely ignored the institutional problems with the status quo, and I gave the teachers’ unions a free pass. As I wrote from a position much further to the left of my usual writing, I felt more and more like a conservative standing athwart history shouting ‘Stop!'”
He’s also had incisive things to say about powerful forces in the reform debate, including unions:
“My position is that where unions are wrong (or where I think they are wrong) I will criticize them. As a broader point, I will maintain a general skepticism toward the unions because they are so powerful. This is the same skepticism I will maintain toward the reformers because they are also so powerful. As Kevin rightly argues, every big human institution has its pathologies.”
I’m not unsympathetic, but I think Kain is slightly misguided in his characterization of unions and his optimism about some reforms. Teachers unions will absolutely fight reforms that would hurt their members or vitiate the workplace rights of educators: Unions will fight the expansion of charter schools if they are anti-union. They will fight pervasive standardized testing that debases the teaching profession and education more generally. And they will ensure teachers are given due process before being terminated (a basic democratic right that is overlooked with the trite “they protect bad teachers” argument). It’s certainly possible that unions can stand in the way of needed reforms.
Ideally, in fact,I’d support banning union and corporate political contributions. But I have seen much more good from unions–even in the public policy arena, to say nothing of the workplace gains that they’ve precipitated–than bad. And teachers unions, for all their faults, are infinitely more democratic than the Gates Foundation.
On the second point, I’m glad that Kain has retained a modicum of skepticism about reforms; he’s optimistic without moving into pollyanna territory:
Sure, we should remain skeptical of the next reform fad, but we still need to try out new ideas, give choice a chance, and and remain just as skeptical of the status quo. We aren’t going to reach enlightenment overnight. Our knowledge will always be limited. Such is the nature of something as complex as education in a diverse nation of over three hundred million people.
And so we must push forward in spite of our uncertainty.
I don’t completely disagree and, to his credit, Kain has unswervingly supported bottom-up reform schemes. I worry, I guess, that Kain is taking too much of a “kitchen sink” approach. Reforms need to be informed by empirical research (or at least a strong sense that they will achieve one’s normative goals).
Right now this is where I come down on education reform, as elucidated in a column I wrote this week:
We should significantly increase teacher entrance and hiring standards, step up attempts to attract the smartest, most capable college graduates to the profession, and raise teacher salaries. Once they’re in the profession, we should give teachers autonomy and free them of the strictures imposed by pervasive standardized testing. De-emphasizing multiple-choice testing in favor of engaging and holistic curricula, the end goal of education wouldn’t be merely training the next generation of workers for corporate employment; critical citizenship would be prioritized over docile acceptance of the status quo.Public charter schools could also be part of the mix — they contribute to educational pluralism — but they would have to allow unionization or some type of workplace representation for teachers. (This could be an interesting area for innovation, in fact: Maybe retain the current union model for traditional schools, but have individual unions at each charter school. Such a change could cut through union bureaucracy and allow for more decentralization and rank-and-file teacher participation.)
In addition, charter schools would have to be regulated to ensure quality, couldn’t be run by for-profit companies, and, ideally, would be midwifed by educators and community members.
Child poverty and resegregation also need to be addressed.
On the whole, Kain’s rhetorical shift is salutary stuff. If you follow the education reform debates, you know it has gotten super polarized — you’re either a recalcitrant mossback in the tank for teachers unions or a harebrained reactionary out to destroy public education. When blinkered dogmatism and hyperbolic rhetoric supplant reasoned rumination, impoverished debate ensues. In this type of environment, incredulity, nuance-adding, and elevating the level of discourse (as Kain has done) are all good things.
With that said, I think some reformers do want to fundamentally alter the education system in ways I find repugnant. And you have people like Jonathan Alter—who has openly said “I loathe the teacher’s unions”—calling the education reform movement “the most significant social movement of our time.” It shouldn’t come as a shock that many on the left are incensed. The lines have been drawn, and unions are seeing their biggest adversaries as an existential threat. The perception of existential threats prompts overheated rhetoric.To be fair, most reformers don’t want to deracinate the entire system. (Although some do.) But movement reformers are calling for changes like test-based accountability–not necessarily out of cupidity or malice–that I think would make our problems worse.
It’s also the way in which corporate reformers are going about changing the system. For the most part, dictates have been handed down from on high, whether in New York City, D.C., or Chicago. Similarly, with the rise of education philanthropy and The Billionaire Boys Club, as Diane Ravitch calls them, education policy is increasingly the province of the affluent, rather than community members, school boards, and educators.
Bill Gates could have all the integrity in the world, be spot-on policy wise, and I would still take umbrage at his attempts to remake public education. His outsized influence over education policy causes me consternation not solely due to my policy disagreements with him, but because his actions are an affront to political equality. Much as I respect and admire Ralph Nader, I’m not ready to give up on democracy and proclaim that “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us.”
Frankly, it’s also offensive that so many businesspeople and economists think that the rules of business are prima facie translatable to the education arena. There are few areas in which outsiders with so little knowledge arrogantly claim so much perceptiveness. This specious straddling highlights another problem with the education reform debate: Ends are often regarded as self-evident. It’s a bit more complicated than agreeing that, yes, we all want an education system where students are well-educated. Reform discourse needs to include discussions of first principles, end-games, and educational values. (Technocratic wonk-types like Ezra Klein side-step these types of inquiries all the time.)
What are the core goals of education? How do different reform proposals inadvertently (or intentionally) advance (or undermine) these goals? To what extent should we prioritize equality over individualism (or vice versa)? These kinds of questions need to be asked. Otherwise you could come to the conclusion that the only thing separating Arne Duncan from leftist education reformers is a difference of opinion on what works.
And what a silly notion that would be.