Jun 07 2012

Evil geniuses or good simpletons?

When arguing against the corporate reform movement, it is natural to try to figure out what their motivation is.  They SAY that they are doing it for ‘the children,’ but sometimes it is hard to believe.  If they really cared about the children, why would they insist on implementing reforms that have never worked, even on a small scale?  It is hard to fathom.

The education world today is separated into two camps:  1) The corporate reformers and 2) Those who think the corporate reforms will make education worse.  I, of course, belong to the second group.  The corporate reformers always like to have a unified front.  They decide that teacher evaluations should be public and they are all behind it.  Then Bill Gates suddenly says they shouldn’t be public, and then they all say that.  But within the side I’m on, we do not always agree on everything.  We are willing to explore different ideas, with hopes that a discourse will lead to the the best ideas.

One such idea that I waver on is the motives of the reformers.  A common criticism held by many of us, is that one goal of the reformers is to privatize education so they can profit off the huge amount of taxpayer money that goes toward education each year.  As this movement is funded by some of the richest people in the country, some of them ‘anti-union’, this is certainly a position worth considering.  The premise is, then, that the reformers know that the reforms are unlikely to raise achievement, but they have hatched an evil plan to profit off education and break the unions.  I think, though, that this is giving the intelligence of the reformers too much respect.

I do agree that the result of all these reforms will lead to a privatization which will profit certain people who are aligned with the reformers, but I don’t think this is consciously, at least, their ‘plan.’

There is a phenomenon in nature known as ‘emergent behavior.’  What this means, basically, is that a group can accomplish something while the individuals in the group were not aware of this.  A classic example is the way birds ‘flock.’  The birds are not trying to fly in a ‘V’ pattern with one of them as the leader.  Instead, the individual birds are operating at a very simplistic level, following a few very simple rules.

I think, and perhaps I am being too generous here, that the reformers are like this.  They are not evil, nor are they geniuses, rather they are good natured simpletons.  (Maybe you think this is more of an insult than evil geniuses, but I see it as giving them the benefit of the doubt.)  They think they know how to fix the schools.  They are influenced, however, by people who would profit from the privatization of the education system.  So while the key players really don’t need to spend their time on education — the time they spend on it, they could spend making more money doing whatever it is they do to make all their money — they do it because they believe they are ‘giving back’ to society.

I see this same kind of emergent behavior in Teach For America.  The individual staff members, all the way up to Wendy, are good people who truly want to improve the schools.  In my 20 years as a ‘member,’ I’ve had all kinds of in person or phone meetings with many of the higher ups.  They are always so positive and seem to validate my concerns.

Even the poster child of the corporate reformers, Michelle Rhee, has been pretty nice to me over the years.  We worked together in the 1996 institute.  I email her from time to time with questions and concerns and she gets back to me almost immediately.  If nothing else, you’ve got to admire her time management skills.  I think she thinks her organization is rescuing students from incompetent teachers.

Though privatization isn’t their official ‘goal,’ if it turns out to be the best way to help kids, at least in the corporate reformer’s estimation, then it would be a necessary side effect.  It isn’t their goal, but it gets accomplished anyway.  Like flocking birds or termites making a wood pile, they are just following their instincts, not realizing that they are participating in an emergent behavior that will accomplish the opposite of what they are trying to achieve.

12 Responses

  1. Arthur Goldstein

    I’d like to agree, and I suppose motivation varies among individuals. However, the monied interests of the Walton and Broad Foundations, and DFER seem to have a more insidious, more blatantly anti-union agenda. I think they’d like to wipe out the twentieth century altogether and move us as close to feudalism as possible. As for helping kids, it’s patently idiotic to assume worsening working conditions for adults will leave anything but the same conditions for our kids. It is, after all, every parent’s fondest wish to see kids grow up. And it behooves us to leave the world a little better than we found it. To do that, we must vehemently oppose these demagogues with every idea, every resource we can muster. Whatever their purported motivations, the actions of the “reformers” lead us to a place we don’t want our children to inhabit.

  2. O7 TFAer

    Interesting point. They are all really nice. And seem passionate. I also think that their hearts are in the right place, as you do. But you are right, they don’t think deeply about the kind of things they’re supporting (charter schools, privatization, the derogatory rhetoric about teachers that even the program itself embodies (you can be great at this your first year! the fuck is wrong with all these other teachers! look at us put complete noobs in the classroom and look at the kids test well!)) or where those things are leading (privatized schools, education to the lowest bidder, students whose only ability is in taking a test not becoming a citizen of a democracy or thinking critically). There is also a complete dearth of people at the top that come from the background our kids come from, that come from the background that we (a little bit) came from. For the most part, these are people who went to the best schools, are firmly middle or upper middle class, and are giving back to the little people because their lives have been privileged. That’s great. But that’s not where the ideas should come from. The ruling class should not get to make the decisions that make a gigantic impact on the lower class, especially when there is absolutely no voice for the students, parents, and communities we serve (Michelle Rhee is a stunning example of this – she did NOT care what parents thought and was very explicit that she – an upper middle class woman – knew what was best for their kids – African American, Latino, and poor).

  3. Judith Kafka

    Gary Rubinstein – I think this is right on. I went to a workshop you conducted at the Institute in 96 on classroom management and remember it fondly. Now as a prof of ed policy I have really been enjoying your blog

  4. Suz

    You’re right. For many — not all, but many — of the reformers, the goal is disruption. Beyond that, there’s not a lot of clear thinking. It is based in a simplistic value that they all share: status quo = bad. That’s something that many of us with you in camp #2 can agree upon too.

    But do not underestimate those who stand to profit from the disruption. The naive are funded by those interests, me thinks.

  5. But they do talk about “disrupting,” with implications that we must destroy public education in order to save it. So it’s not really such sweetness and light.

  6. I don’t think you can overstate the importance of arrogance to corporate reformers’ mindsets. Even if I assume their intentions are good, even noble, I can’t get over the fact that they are radically uninformed about the reality of public education today – and don’t care to become informed. They just know they’re right because they’re right.

    Michelle Rhee taught for three years. That should be enough that she knows how much she doesn’t know, not enough that she presumes to tell me why Kindergartners don’t need to develop collaborative problem solving skills or finger paint. Nor does she herself have a long record of success to point to: she just assumes she knows better than teachers do.

    The DFER supporters don’t appear able to read a simple study, but in their work lives they are corporate titans. They assume their success in finance and the like means they are smarter than educators and that field experience is unnecessary given their brain power.

    TFA’s insistence that CMs are “the best and the brightest” doesn’t help any, either. Intentional or not, a number of CMs come to their school sites convinced they know better than the veterans. They either flail helplessly while reinventing the wheel or curb their arrogance quickly. Those in the former group seem more likely to go into education reform, I have to say.

  7. MV

    Why is it important to know their motivation? While I agree it would be nice to know on an intellectual level, any sufficiently advanced incompetence is not distinguishable from malice.

    I would invoke the concept of “intent is not magic.” If bad things happen even when the motivation is good, it’s still bad. The action and outcome is what matters.

  8. I think these so-called corporate reformers are merely exploiting our institutional weaknesses. This doesn’t justify their actions, but it does mean it takes two to tango.

    I also think we’ve been in bed with private interests for a long time now. Textbook publishers on down are making bank on public ed, which is why I applaud you writing your self-help books. I appreciate seeing people with skin in the game being the ones making a few bucks, even if some publishing company is still taking a cut.

  9. I completely agree with the “emergent behavior” characterization, whether the outcome is for good or bad. Public education continues to be the recipient of a multitude of unintended consequences mostly based on the well intentioned, but misguided efforts of reformers. At the same time, as mentioned, there are those who conspire to influence the efforts of reformers for selfish, greedy reasons.

    Notwithstanding the presumed righteousness of their efforts, I disagree with much of the education reformers’ plank(s), especially the obsessive use of standardized tests to classify and label students, teachers, administrators, schools, districts, states, and yes, our country. Yet, as a new entrant to education, recently transitioning from a quarter century in corporate America to teaching high school mathematics, I continue to be stunned at how arcane our public education system is today. While there have been a variety of disparate architectures, processes, and roles employed over time, none have coalesced to serve as an effective best practice to emulate, in part or in whole. I do not know why that continues to be the case. Is it due to inadequate funding? Outdated assumptions? Intransigent unions? Increasing poverty? Confounding variables? Mixing all of the above?

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