For those who've clung tight to their moral superiority while defending the "reform" agenda, it's a cold slap in the face:
At her Senate confirmation hearing this week, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos failed to answer basic questions about civil rights, measuring student growth, and children with disabilities.
Her answers also validated what left-leaning education reformers have suspected for months: DeVos embraces school choice as an education panacea, while grasping little else about federal education policy. That philosophy will likely lead her to prioritize some of the least promising, and most divisive, components of the education reform agenda.
When that happens, she and Donald Trump will kill the bipartisan education reform coalition.
Having participated in that coalition for 15 years, as a nonprofit president and member of President Obama’s 2008 education policy committee, I will be disappointed, though not surprised, to see it dissolve.That's Justin C. Cohen, as reformy a centrist Democrat as you will find, telling us he will be disappointed -- that's right, disappointed -- to no longer be able to work with the conservatives who are currently moving to install DeVos into the federal Education Department.
Because, up until now, it was all working out so well:
The coalition was surprisingly durable. By the early 1990s it was attracting centrists frustrated with their political parties and enthusiastic about results. At the time, the right blamed weak school performance on things like “family values” and resisted sweeping changes on the basis of respecting local control. The left blamed poverty and was similarly resistant to change, based on an allergy to holding schools accountable for their results. For most of the years since I entered the workforce, the reform coalition was an ideal home for a technocratic public school graduate who realized that the system had worked for him, but not for kids with less privilege. [emphasis mine]Sorry, but I'm not buying this.
Because the notion that neoliberal "reform" advocates are in reality "technocrats" is completely contradicted by their record. Many of the "reformers" on both the right and the left are driven by ideology, not evidence.
Sure, there is some evidence some charter schools in some cities with special conditions (Boston and New Orleans are on that list) get marginal practical gains in test scores. But only an ideologue would ignore the large and growing body of evidence that charter proliferation has incentivized bad behavior, abrogates the rights of students and families, segregates students by special education need and other factors, and has pernicious effects on public schools. Only an ideologue would blithely claim we should just "charter better" while problematic charter chains become the norm in the sector.
Sure, there is some evidence that test-based accountability led to marginal practical gains in test scores. But only an ideologue would argue that mandating employment consequences for teachers with these tests is warranted by the evidence, or that our current testing regime hasn't had the effect of narrowing the curriculum, especially in schools serving many disadvantaged students.
Sure, there is a case to be made that we should do a better job training teachers. But only an ideologue would argue that expanding teacher prep programs to include the Relay "Graduate" "School" of "Education" or TFA, while imposing test-based accountability on university-based programs, was a serious solution.
But this is where the reformy center-left has been for a good long while now. They applauded while Arne Duncan expanded charters and threatened to punish schools whose parents opt their children out of testing, all while school funding stagnated. They cheered when John King, one of their own, took over at USED, even as they ignored the glaring problems with his own brand of educational "reform."
Duncan and King were better Secretaries of Education than DeVos will ever be -- but if we're setting the bar that low, we've got problems. Obama's SecEds were just as enamored with the "Poverty is no excuse!" arguments we now hear coming from the voucher pushers on the right. They were just as willing to sell the soft privatization of charters as DeVos is the hard privatization of vouchers. They were just as willing to gratuitously beat up on teachers unions and university-based teacher prep programs and suburban testing skeptics as the pseudo-intellectual pseudo-libertarians are now.
Once again: it is absurd to think that schools by themselves can overcome the ravages of poverty, segregation, racism, and inequality (among other woes). But no one I know of in the "reform"-skeptic camp has ever made the case that schools can't and shouldn't improve, or that teaching isn't important, or that bad teachers should be forced to get better and, if that's not possible, be removed from their jobs.
What we have said repeatedly, however -- and it's insane that we have to make these arguments as if they are at all controversial -- is that there is no way to equalize educational opportunity without:
1) Adequate and equitable funding for our schools.
2) Equalizing the lives of children outside of the K-12 system.
Funding matters. Segregation matters. Poverty matters. It's not "blaming" poverty to point this out; it's simply stating a non-alternative fact.
Which is why it's especially galling to watch Cohen and his ilk try to claim the mantle of "technocrat," because no true policy wonk would ever try to downplay the reality I'm describing -- let alone think the appropriate policy response is a few more charters, a few more tests, a few more VAMs & Danielson rubrics, a few more alt-route teacher prep programs, and a few more changes in curricular standards without the funds to enact them.
Look, I'm willing to have a good-faith argument about all this stuff with anyone. I do think there are folks out there making the case for charters and VAMs and all the rest of the "reform" agenda who make good points, even if I believe they draw the wrong conclusions.
But to characterize the "reformers," as a whole, as technocrats requires ignoring too much of the ideological babbling far too many of them have been spouting for far too long. Is anyone really going to try to convince us that Michelle Rhee and Peter Cunningham and Eva Moskowitz and Chris Cerf and Andy Smarick and Campbell Brown and Steve Perry and Rahm Emanuel and their fellow travelers are "technocrats"?
The sad truth is their rhetoric has been full of alternative facts for years. Some -- OK, many -- of their hearts may be in the right place, but their arguments have been facile and dismissive of pointed critique. In that sense, they have been no better than Betsy DeVos: they've made their cases on the same flawed premises and faulty logic.
Now someone who uses that same logic, but is willing to go several steps further, is coming into power, under the aegis of a racist, misogynist madman who agrees that public education is a "failure" -- and not that it has been failed.
You've got a choice, folks: do what Moskowitz appears to be doing and embrace all this, or disavow it and begin participating in a dialog about the future of education that eschews alternative facts and acknowledges that those of us who are skeptical of "reform" might have a point.
What's it going to be?
"Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." - Matthew, 19:24.