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.”