"You will know them by their fruits"

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Here in my little corner of NY, we have been relatively unscathed by the past few years of education “reform.” Generally, the districts around me are very much what the rest of public education tries to look like. Not that things are totally fine. We’ve got a superfluous APPR process, a truly punishing financial position thanks to our Governor’s property tax-cap, a real siphoning of the public education till toward charter schools, and other such similar schemes. But generally, I haven’t had to pay all that much attention, except to sympathize with my colleagues in other places. It has been, relatively speaking, nice.

But things seem to be changing. With the recent Vergara decision in California, it seems like the “reform” crowd have NY in their sites. I know this because they have said so, in the person of Campbell Brown, a former CNN news personality. Ms. Brown’s organization, the “Partnership for Educational Justice,” is shortly to help file a lawsuit in NY state court, challenging the constitutionality of NY’s tenure laws, and its “last in, first out” excessing rule on the grounds that they hurt students, and protect bad teachers. Yippee.

I imagine I could write a long bit about how Ms. Brown’s efforts are disingenuous posturing, backed by moneyed interests who are mostly concerned with trying to maximize the profits they can make off of school children, but that’s already been done quite a bit. Also, she doesn’t really deserve the space. So instead, I thought I might spend a bit of time explaining what actual reform efforts look like, and why Ms. Brown and her ilk are not them. At the very least, I’ll feel better for having gone through the process, so indulge me.

What real educational reform looks like:

It does not propose simplistic fixes for complex problems. This one is easily the most obvious way to delineate reform from “reform”. Education is an amazingly complex system, with amazingly complex problems. Perhaps it’s my training as a scientist, but I’ve always been very suspicious of any person/party/organization that suggests there are simple solutions to complex problems. This is pretty much rule one of crap-detecting, not just in education, but in systems theory more generally. If someone is suggesting that something like “education” can be fixed by doing something like “getting rid of tenure,” they are either wildly misinformed about the complexity of the situation, or they are pandering to what they think is the ignorance of their audience. History suggests that the people who propose these simplistic fixes to complex systems will also be among the first people to profess their shock when it turns out that their thinking is wrong. Don’t take my word for this. Go look up any “reform” that has been proposed during our recent educational convulsion in this country, and see if it has turned out like proponents suggested it would. If you find one, please let me know about it. Real reform will acknowledge the complexity of the situation, and work within that framework to test a variety of approaches, rather than hewing to childishly simplistic notions of cause and effect.

It will value all stakeholders. I’ve done enough work in my life on the nature of change, and building the necessary coalitions to effect such changes to know that it doesn’t happen by demonizing one group over others (unless you take the position that scapegoating is desirable). This is another major issue with the “reform” crowd: they demonize teachers, or administrators, or politicians, or even parents and students who they disagree with. They take the fundamentalist position that people are either “for” or “against” fixing schools, and they refuse to listen to anything that runs contrary to what they insist is the one true path. They scorn the folks who disagree with them, and then get offended when that scorn is turned back on them. Real reform will involve everyone who is a part of the larger project of educating children, and it won’t make any of them feel like their voice is lesser, or that dissent equates to putting self-interest over the needs of the larger project of education.

It will not be funded by corporations. This one is pretty simple. The more public funding for education there is, and the more discretion the local level has to use that money to best address their local concerns, the better the American public school system works. If you need proof of this, look at the last little while of education in this country. As budgets have tightened, and local control has diminished, educational outcomes have suffered. As corporate interests have moved in to fill the funding vacuum, the money they have brought has come with a variety of strings. Schools have to run according to the whims of their masters. Real reform will move those whims back to the communities where those schools function, and away from those who look to maximize profit and quantify all things.

It will be honest. I think this one is the most important. Real reform won’t need to lie. It won’t need to pretend that there is an epidemic of bad teaching in this country, or that teachers don’t deserve positions of job security and respect. It won’t act like teachers unions exist for the sole purpose of protecting those who do not deserve it. It won’t provide anecdotes when asked for evidence. It won’t fail to disclose its conflicts of interest. It won’t hide its sources of funding from the light of public disclosure. It won’t need to hire former white house press secretaries to win a “public relations” campaign. It will stand on its own because it won’t need to do anything else. It is hard to look at all of the “reform” tactics, and their remarkable mendacity, and come away with any conclusion other than they are engaged in a prolonged campaign of turd-polishing.

This is, I think, a good working list of what real educational reform looks like. Keep it in mind the next time you see someone speaking about education “reform.” Hopefully, you’ll see them for what they really are.