A few weeks ago I wrote a post called ‘TFA co-CEOs vs. The Boogeyman’ in which I challenged Elisa Villanueva-Beard’s frequent use of the term ‘status quo’ to define people who are opposed to unproven theories of the corporate reformers, many of them TFA alumni. I wrote that this was an unfair, and untrue, phrase since there really isn’t anyone who doesn’t want anything in education to change. If ‘status quo defender’ is someone who doesn’t want the students of this nation to be experimented on by a bunch of people who know nothing about education, then I guess that’s what I am, but I’d still rather not be called one. My post got a lot of attention and it seems to have prompted a response from Villanueva-Beard on the TFA Pass The Chalk in a recent post called ‘How I Define the Status Quo.’
The first thing I noticed about this post is that she doesn’t seem to want to mention me by name. She writes, “I made reference to defenders of the “status quo,” prompting a number of people to ask me to clarify exactly what I meant. I will gladly elaborate.” Now it is true, surely, that I wasn’t the only one to challenge this, but surely my several thousand word post made me the most ambitious challenger. Considering that the speech was made at an alumni event, it would have been nice for her to write that a distinguished alum was offended by the term, and even included a link to my post so people could put the arguments into context.
In the second paragraph she writes:
I define the status quo as the current educational system in which students’ socioeconomic backgrounds predict their educational outcomes and opportunities in life.
This is a variation on the famous reformer catch phrases like ‘Poverty is not destiny,’ ‘Zip code is not destiny,’ or ‘Poverty is not Zip code.’ I don’t think anyone is thrilled that socioeconomic backgrounds generally correlate with educational outcomes and opportunities in life. But I think the question is whether this is a problem with ‘the current education system’ or if the issue is much bigger than that. Of course ‘poverty is not destiny’ as there are some kids that grow up in poverty and escape it. The question is whether we can improve the education system, particularly without increasing the cost of it substantially, to greatly increase the chance of kids escaping poverty. As much as I think that schools do make some difference, I’m in agreement with The Coleman report that the out of school factors greatly outweigh the in school factors in determining educational outcomes. I don’t think schools are currently ‘that bad’ or that even the best, well funded charters, are ‘that good,’ so I don’t think I am a defender of this definition of ‘status quo.’
Near the end of her piece, Villanueva-Beard gives a more detailed definition of ‘defenders of the status quo’ which I really take issue with and will tackle point-by-point after directly quoting.
Defenders of the status quo include those who aren’t outraged by the fact that low-income children lag far behind their more affluent peers, even though we know something else is possible. It also includes those who dismiss the real and measurable progress we’re seeing in good traditional public and charter schools simply because of ideological opposition to a particular model of school reform. Defenders of the status quo include those who spend more time criticizing those who are working to tackle this deeply entrenched problem than they do working for positive change.
Here Villanueava-Beard identifies three ways that people, like me, are defenders of the status quo. The first is we are not “outraged by the fact that low-income children lag far behind their more affluent peers, even though we know something else is possible.” Well I wouldn’t say that I ‘know’ that something else is possible. I mean, I do know that with enough resources — early childhood education, tiny class sizes, private tutors, mental health facilities for kids and their families — ‘something else’ is possible. I’m not so sure that our country is willing to dedicate that much money to the problem. The leaders seem like doing this on a budget based on teacher evaluations and charter schools. Secondly, I guess she is right that I am not ‘outraged.’ I don’t know if this is a necessary prerequisite. Am I unhappy if my very competent doctor isn’t ‘outraged’ when I get tuberculosis? I don’t know if the outrage really helps. I’d rather someone who isn’t outraged but knows what he is doing rather than someone else who is outraged but completely reckless and uninformed of how to improve my condition.
Currently, life expectancy in this country is under 80 years old. I’m not really outraged by this although is pretty much stinks that I’m not going to be around to see the next Transit of Venus (and I missed the last one, by accident). So ‘outrage’ is an unusual word to use here as a characteristic of status quo defenders. But I suppose she is right that ‘outraged’ wouldn’t be the best adjective to describe me.
Reformers, like Michelle Rhee, are very outraged and I feel like her outrage is genuine. But what I can’t understand is why if she is so outraged is she unwilling to acknowledge all the evidence that her reforms are not making things any better, and, in my opinion, are making things worse? This is something I am outraged about. How a small group of very rich people have been given the power to make huge changes to education in this country without knowing the negative side effects those changes could have.
As far as whether I “dismiss the real and measurable progress we’re seeing in good traditional public and charter schools simply because of ideological opposition to a particular model of school reform,” well, I don’t agree that much of the progress is ‘real’ or measured accurately. And to say that I am dismissing this so-called ‘progress’ just because I’m opposed to corporate reform rather than on all the real evidence I’ve uncovered painstakingly poring over school report cards and teacher data reports for two and a half years, is something I take offense to.
Finally “Defenders of the status quo include those who spend more time criticizing those who are working to tackle this deeply entrenched problem than they do working for positive change,” is something that really hits me in the gut. Yes, right now I spend more time criticizing corporate reformers than I do working for positive change. But that’s because if I don’t fight off what I consider to be an evil, I won’t have any opportunity to work on improving things.
I guess right now I’m like a fireman. There’s a building on fire and my skill is sliding down a pole, getting in a fire truck and then risking my (professional) life by going into that building and saving people. And it is true that a fireman is not the same thing as an architect, but that doesn’t mean that a fireman is a bad or unnecessary thing. One day, when the whole corporate reform thing collapses (I predict it will happen within 2 years, but I’ve always been an extreme optimist), I would like to get involved in making improvements. There are so many things that can be improved in education. There are a lot of things that are in the ‘status quo’ which, though they aren’t big causes of the achievement gap, are things that should be changed.
Here are two, somewhat trivial — but important to me, examples: My daughter is starting kindergarten next year and I just learned that at her school the kindergarteners have lunch at 10:30 AM. Now this is something I’m angry about. This seems to be a policy that was probably started ten years ago, way before the current principal took over, and it is still there as a policy. Now I know my daughter and when she gets hungry she tends to get cranky, which will make it tougher for her to learn. So I have some ideas. Maybe if they have different lunch shifts, the different grades can ‘rotate’ where for six weeks kindergarteners and first graders eat at 10:30 AM, and then the next six weeks, the second and third graders get the early shift. That is a minor improvement, but something that I’d like to see changed. There are surely thousands of small things like this going on at schools and districts around the country.
Here’s another: My department head wanted to use some money to buy some new technology for our department and asked me what she thought we could buy which would not just sit in a closet but would actually be used. I came up with a plan for a mounted projector and a tablet which we could write on and which would go on the screen. But iPads aren’t good for the type of math that we write, where we need good precision. Also, the iPads don’t have the windows software we need for some of our applications. So I researched and found the perfect solution, the Lenovo ThinkPad Twist tablet. It was light, it had Windows, and it was designed for high detail writing. But then I learned that we couldn’t get the ThinkPad Twist tablet. The closest thing we could get was the Lenovo ThinkPad x230t, which did not meet our needs. It was just too heavy and bulky and I knew that nobody would use it unless it was small and light. So why can’t we get the one that suits our purpose? “Because the Twist is not on FAMIS,” whatever the Hell that means! So there is another ‘status quo’ thing that I’d like to see changed.
But Villanueva-Beard is correct that I’m a lot better about challenging other people’s costly ‘silver bullet’ ideas than coming up with my own. It is not really my job right now to come up with all the ways of fixing TFA and all the ways of fixing education in general. If it were my job, and maybe someday it will be — assuming I’m not blacklisted in the future, then, yes, I’ll come up with ideas that make things incrementally better. But to say that there is not a place for ‘skeptics’ and people to play ‘Devil’s advocate’ in debates about something as tricky as education and to label such skeptics as ‘status quo defenders’ is, again, unfair.
As far as this recent Villanueva-Beard blog post goes, I think she would have been better off saying that ‘status quo defender’ probably wasn’t the most accurate description. Maybe ‘skeptic,’ ‘naysayer,’ or even ‘doubting Thomas’ those I could accept since that’s what I am, and proud of it.