Education Rebranders

For the past ten years, there have been two ‘sides’ in the debate over how to best improve schools in this country.

On one side, you had people like Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Mike Bloomberg, and Rahm Emanuel.  On the other side, you had people like Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch, Deborah Meier, and Leonie Haimson.

Both groups had ideas of how to best reform education.  The first group favored things like charter schools, test based accountability for schools and teachers, and, for some of them, vouchers.  The second group favored things like increased funding and reducing class size.

Though both groups wanted to reform, only the first group claimed the name ‘reformers.’  That first group also branded the other group with various negative monikers such as ‘status quo defenders.’  The ‘reformers’ were rich and organized and they came out with the movie ‘Waiting For Superman’ and they got Michelle Rhee on Oprah and there was really no way to take the name ‘reformer’ away from them, even though the other group wanted reform too, just of a different variety.  Some rich hedge-funders started Democrats For Education Reform and suddenly people who knew absolutely nothing about education, like Whitney Tilson, were influencing politicians including former President Obama.

The ‘reformers’ had a pretty good run.  From about 2008 until just recently ‘reformers’ had their way.  With Race To The Top they got states to invent complicated, though supposedly objective, ways to measure teacher quality by analyzing standardized test scores.  Bill Gates funded many studies to show that this was working.  But after ten years, it became clear that the ‘reformers’ didn’t really know much about improving education and maybe they didn’t deserve to have the steering wheel anymore.

But people don’t give up power easily.  So they changed their strategy.  They ditched the toxic Michelle Rhee — last I heard she was working for Miracle-Gro.  They set up some propaganda websites, like The74, and got a new leader, Campbell Brown.  Then Campbell Brown was out and not really replaced by anyone.

Not all ‘reformers’ agreed on all issues.  Some liked vouchers and private schools, some didn’t.  But what all ‘reformers’ had in common was the belief that the main obstacle to education improvement in this country is people, including the majority of teachers in this country, who are defenders of the ‘Status Quo’.

But the term ‘reformer’ was still out there and, to teachers especially, it means that someone who knows little to nothing about education who is making top-down decisions that will result in students learning less.  So some ‘reformers,’ realizing that they had a tainted brand, began abandoning the term.

The first that I remember was Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel saying in 2015 “I am Not an Education Reformer”   In 2016, one of the brightest thinkers in the reform camp, Rick Hess, published a post in Education Week called “Of Big ‘R’ and  Little ‘r’ School Reform” where he made a distinction between the people still holding on the the oversimplified Michelle Rhee style reform and the new, more nuanced, type of reform that he subscribes to.  His piece got a lot of retweets from some serious Big ‘R’ reformers who now could go around saying that they too are Little ‘r’ reformers, and what is wrong with those Big ‘R’ reformers anyway.

And, most recently, there have been three pieces — one in Chalkbeat and the other two in, of all places, The74, denouncing those big ‘R’ reformers and preaching the gospel of the little ‘r’.  The reform superstar former TFA alum and former superintendent of Camden schools Paymon Rouhanifard made a speech and then wrote in Chalbeat ‘Like most superintendents, I cared a lot about test scores. Too much, it turns out‘.   In The74, Robert Pondiscio’s take on Rouhanifard’s speech was called ‘It’s Time to End the Testing Culture in America’s Schools — and Start Playing the Long Game to Produce Better Life Outcomes for At-Risk Kids‘ and just the other day Robin Lake published ‘Don’t Call Me an Education Reformer — I Don’t Know What That Means Anymore. I Do Know We Must Keep Evolving to Improve Schools’

If I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, I’d say that they are evolving in their thinking and realizing that they have not produced the results they were so confident they would a decade ago.  I’d say that they are now willing to be less suspicious of teacher’s motives and listen more to their concerns.

Of these three pieces, the most revealing one is the one by Robin Lake.  To me, this demonstrates that a reformer by any other name smells just as foul.

Here are some telling excerpts:

I have no idea what the term means anymore. Who is not a reformer? Are nonreformers people who believe that we can get dramatically different results by standing pat, doing things largely the same way, without any structural or policy changes in public education? If so, I have little to discuss with them.

By asking the seemingly rhetorical question ‘Who is not a reformer?’ it seems like Lake is acknowledging that everyone wants things to improve and we can all claim to be ‘reformers’ in that way.

But a few paragraphs later, she undermines her entire argument:

There has never been a group of reformers with one agenda. But it helps the stand-patters to make people believe there is so they don’t seem like the minority, which I believe they are. It’s always easier to fight against change than for it, but who can look at the data, the inequities in the current education system and what’s been tried in the past, and honestly say stronger accountability, more flexibility for educators, and more options for families are not needed?

So Lake doesn’t like what she considers to be an oversimplified characterization of ‘reformers’ but she is fine to continue making an oversimplified characterization of ‘reform’ (or whatever she now wants to be called) critics.  Though she doesn’t use the cliched “Defenders Of The Status Quo” she comes up with a new one “The Stand-Patters.”

There was a time when I used to spar with reformers on Twitter a lot.  I’d read their tweets and they’d read mine and we’d argue about things.  I felt I got the better of them most of the time and I’ve noticed they don’t troll me much anymore.  I can’t blame them, they really had nothing to gain.

But Robin Lake isn’t so aware of me so I had this little interchange with her about this piece:

“Have a good night” is the Twitter way of saying, “I’m not going to respond to you anymore.” so even though I tried to engage a little more, I never heard from her again.

Whether this new strategy to soften the tone and to change the language they use will work in the long run is still an open question.  Personally, I don’t think a simple dropping of the term “Reformer” and a replacing of “Defenders Of The Status Quo” with “Stand-Patters” is going to be enough to stop the decline of the influence of “The Idiots Formerly Known As Reformers.”


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13 Responses to Education Rebranders

  1. Stephen Ronan says:

    Thanks. Interestng piece. Though I don’t find your attempt to define polar opposites particularly persuasive. It misses a lot of important overlap among the views of, f’rinstance, DFER folks, Obama, Deborah Meier, Linda Darling Hammond.

    From a Washington Post article: “Here’s a model for major school reform that looks vastly different from Betsy DeVos’s vision”

    In short: To give all schools more or less the kind of authority that charters have in many states. (Particular attention should be paid to Minnesota’s legislation, which favors independent charters and prohibits for-profit schools.) That where possible such charters become members of the collective network and work alongside until they come up with a way to dissolve all distinctions between the new self-governing public schools and the self-governing charters.


    EMILY GASOI: “In other words, all schools should have the kind of freedom to innovate, to evolve, and to take responsibility for making important decisions about the things that most impact members of the school community — the kind of site-based autonomy that is generally only enjoyed by charter schools. However, while we advocate local decision-making, we also understand the need to have some external guidelines that schools follow to ensure the overall quality of the learning environment meet agreed-upon standards and every one’s rights are being honored.”

    In “The Tapestry of American Public Education” Linda Darling-Hammond sensibly discriminates between well-managed, highly effective state systems of charter schools and others that are severely defective.

    Click to access Tapestry_American_Public_Education_REPORT.pdf

    • The problem is that usually, the model of reform that “Works” for charters is restricting enrollment through both overt and covert ways in order to not educate all kids. We’ve got a large urban district that has students that are about 80% minority, 80% free and reduced lunch, 50%+ English language learners, etc. The successful “public” charters who accept “everybody” have models like classical latin academy, or Montessori, or language academy. If it was as easy as copying a model, we could theoretically all become French Immersion and our math scores would improve. When you look at the reality, the Montessori school has literally 1 ELL kid in a city of immigrants. The Latin school is almost 90% white middle class. Freedom to innovate is great. It hasn’t helped charters to fix our institutional problems though.

  2. Jack says:


    Since you brought up Paymon’s article bemoaning the mistaken use of test scores to determine policy and to make major decisions regarding schools, I’m going to re-post a little known 2015 video of a meeting between Paymon & his minions and some Camden, N.J. parents whose children attend a school he was forcibly privatizing against those parents’ will.

    His main rationale for doing so and ignoring these parents’ will is … yes, that’s right … low test scores. He then proceeded to repeat this atrocity throughout the city of Camden until a majority of those schools were/are now run by private, unaccountable charter school management:

    You MUST watch this horror show:

    • Jack says:

      This video BELOW is worthy of an article — a perfect example of corporate ed. reform “throat-jamming” (to quote Peter Greene), as in they’re just jamming charter-ization and privatization down these parents’ throats, as the decision to give the traditional public school McGraw Elementary over to a private charter operator was made without and against the will of the parents.

      It’s a done deal, but they’ll try to schmooze the parents anyway. They may be be lubing up the parents’ throats with manipulative con-man blather, but the it’s “throat-jamming” nonetheless,

      Here’s this video of Paymon and his minions try to schmooze the parents of a Camden grade school that is being closed down, all its teachers fired, and the building / multi-million-dollar budget given to a private, unaccountable charter operator— Mastery Charter, Inc.

      Paymon is the skinny guy in the baby-blue dress shirt and glasses who does most of the talking, leading the meeting.

      Mastery Charter, Inc. chose to have a rep who is African-American — heavy-set guy in a white business shirt — to schmooze these African-American parents, but that cynical, racist choice didn’t seem to work.

      Paymon & Co. are trying to convince them that this charter conversion will be just wonderful, and the parents — who have a deep, personal, multi generational attachment to the current traditional public school & its teachers — aren’t buying it.

      Paymon & Co. are quite unprepared by how well-informed and confrontational these parents are.

      ( 1:38 – )
      Here, Paymon gets caught lying early on — claiming that any current teachers who move to the Mastery charter will retain their same seniority, retirement, etc. — and the parents who know otherwise shout:

      “NOT TRUE!!!”

      This point is followed up on at around…

      (26:45 – )

      (26:45 – )
      where a parent (and also a school employee, I believe) pulls out a Mastery document — “I have the paper right here!” — that says any traditional public school teacher that opts to work at the new Master Charter incarnation of the school “will lose their tenure,” showing Paymon up to be a liar. She further asks him why any current teacher would give up something they worked 20, 30 years for.

      These parents later yell that teachers at existing Mastery charters are all TFA, and who will only be there for 2 years, and whose primary motivation — or a strong motivation — is “just to pay off their student loans!” … in contrast to teachers who’ve spend decades teaching multiple generations of students.

      Oooh snap!’

      Next, they try to win the parents over by telling them how millions of dollars are going into renovating the school …. once it’s been given to a charter. The parents ask, “Why couldn’t they do that for the current traditional public school?”

      Finally, a parent holds up a petition signed by the parents of all the current students who are asking Paymon NOT TO CLOSE THE SCHOOL, AND GIVE IT OVER TO MASTERY, telling him that they will hold him accountable if he goes through with the charter conversion:

      This is at:

      ( 34:24 – )

      ( 34:24- )

      Paymon threw that petition right in the trash, and wen ahead with the charter conversion.

    • Jack says:

      I missed a key point in the analysis of this video:

      At the beginning of Paymon’s pitch to the parents justifying the closing & charter-izing of McGraw Elementary, Paymon gives a long argement that is based on …

      … that’s right …

      … low student test scores!!!!


      ” … *kids are not at grade level based on state test scores. … Academic performance has been falling for 30 years.”
      … (“Academic performance” based on … once again … student test scores.)”*

      This was likely a boilerplate speech that he vomited up whenever he needed to — to angry, skeptical parents … to the media … to politicians.

      “I”m charter-izing, and creating a charter portfolio district all because of these terrible low test scores.”

      He then “rinses and repeats” this during five years of charter-ization. which Paymon led and was in charge of overseeing.

      After leaving after this five years, Paymon then writes this long screed decrying the misuse and over-emphasis — and negative consequences resulting from this misuse and over-emphasis — based on …

      .. that’s right …

      … low student test scores!!!!


      Using/misusing low test scores is great and useful when executing privatization … not so much when you’re done privatizing.

      I love the parent who asks,

      “If this program (charterizing, turning the school over to Mastery) is so great, then why aren’t you implementing it in affluent communities? … “the test scores are no better at the Camden charters.”

      And then later, there’s a woman talking about how her education was ruined by the over-emphasis on testing and test prep, while they had old, outdated books, and that drove her to leave school. (It took Paymon 3 years to write that this woman was right. … after Camden’s schools were privatized, conveniently enough.)

    • Jack says:

      Oh, and one more thing …

      “Regarding the Mastery Charter Schools in the above video / post:

      Mastery Charter, Inc. teachers do not need to be certified, or have any prior teaching training or experience.

      Hmmm … why am I NOT surprised?

      (Mastery. Ironic name, doncha think?

      Indeed, as its teachers are not required to have even the slightest “mastery” of anything before setting foot in a classroom.)

      From the FAQ’s for prospective Mastery teachers:
      x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

      Q: Is this a substitute teaching position?*

      A: Nope, this is a full-time teaching position – salary and benefits!

      Q: Do I need a certification?

      A: You do not need a certification to apply or be hired initially. Once you are hired, we will work with you to secure the necessary certification for your role.

      Q: What positions are available?

      A: We are currently hiring for both immediate openings (ex: high school science, 4th grade literature, literacy support teachers, etc) as well as flex teacher roles. Flex teachers are placed at a campus to gain extra support until a lead teaching role becomes available, and yes, flex teachers are full-time positions too
      x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

      Don’t you just love that charters are free form that stifling regulation requiring trained, qualified teachers? (Yeah, but look at the savings in the line item “salary”? We can use that savings to pay the Master higher-ups $500,000-plus salaries.)

      Mastery has High School Science teachers with

      — zero background (none required anyway) in Science;

      — no education or training or Bachelor’s in teaching/education;

      — no state certification— but promised assistance to obtain certification (no doubt from Relay, or a Relay-style alternate route diploma mill)

      However, Orwell lives at Mastery as down the page, it makes the claim:

      x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x
      “Excellent teachers make excellent schools. That’s why we are relentless about hiring top educators who can provide high-quality instruction AND build authentic, loving relationships with students.”
      x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

      Could you imagine hospital operators saying they we are relentless about hiring top doctors, but at the same time, not requiring those future physicians at at their hospital to have an M.D., or any prior medical training whatsoever?

  3. Jack says:

    Oh, and here are a couple of takedowns of Paymon by Jersey Jazzman.

    In the first, Jazzman recounts Paymon’s days working and shilling for Eva (among other things).

    On the eve of Paymon taking the job in Camden, Jazzman makes this pretty spot-on prediction of what Paymon will do in Camden, NJ:
    x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

    ” I get the feeling that’s why this young man rose so quickly in NYC and Newark, and why he is now getting the Camden job:

    “Rouhanifard has been trained to close local public schools over the objections of local parents to make way for charters, which, unlike public schools, do not serve every child in their neighborhoods. And if that angers parents, it doesn’t seem to phase him in the slightest.

    “I don’t know what’s worse: that Rouhanifard hasn’t interacted with teachers, or that he holds parents in such contempt. Either way, his background bodes very poorly for the public schools of Camden.
    x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

    You also get an embedded YouTube video of Leonie Haimson yelling at Paymon during a NYC (PEP) school board meeting: (go to 1:30 to see a stone-faced, couldn’t-care-less-about-what-Leonie’s-saying Paymon)

    Here’s one more takedown of Paymon from Jersey Jazzman, written five years later:

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  5. carolinesf says:

    This is extra amusing because the so-called “reformers” have ALWAYS put out new messages in unison — presumably crafted by the highly efficient messaging operations in the right-wing propaganda shops (erroneously referred to as “think tanks”). This has been the case during the nearly 20 years I’ve been following their activities. (For example, in past years they all spoke up at once against charter schools that are technically structured as for-profits, which they all used to vigorously support.) I predict that this message too — we’re not all in lockstep and don’t call us “reformers” — will also go out in unison from the lot of them.

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