So here I am trying to mind my own business when I see this tweet on my feed:
This is by one of the co-CEOs of TFA, Matt Kramer, quoting something that the other CEO Elisa Villanueva-Beard said in a speech at an alumni award event in Detroit. This line surely got Villanueva-Beard a large ‘applause break’ (as indicated by the 100 retweets — that is a lot). But if I were there I certainly would not be applauding.
One thing I can definitely say about the Kramer and Villanueva-Beard is that they are certainly ‘accessible.’ They routinely respond to twitter messages from supporters and critics, alike. And as I wrote about recently, I was even invited to meet them on their TFA listens tour. They seem nice enough. Kramer reminds me of some of the guys I used to play chess with back in my days of serious chess study. But as much as I might like them as people so far, I can’t say that I really respect them yet. My sense is that they are not really ‘authorized’ to make any big sweeping decisions without approval from the old CEO, Wendy Kopp.
So when I saw this tweet I had this small exchange with Kramer:
If I seem more frustrated than usual in this post it is because I am getting somewhat tired of explaining something so fundamental to someone who should be informed enough not to have this explained to him.
At issue is the expression ‘status quo’ and it’s role in the modern education reform wars. The way the ‘reformers’ like to frame the discussion is that education in this country is horribly broken and they want to ‘fix’ it by making some changes. Unfortunately there is another group of people, they claim, who think that education in this country is perfect the way it is and do not want anything to change. This later group of people are the ‘defenders of the status quo.’ These are the people who Villanueva-Beard and Kramer are condemning in Kramer’s tweet.
So I challenged Kramer to identify someone who is in this evil group, these status quo apologists. Rather than attempt to answer my question, he challenges me back to see if I am now, or have ever been, a status quo defender. If I’m not, then that must mean that we are on the same ‘side’ and thus I should join ‘us’ which I guess means him and Villanueva-Beard, since it can’t mean TFA as the new ‘big tent’ concept should allow for all points of view, even status quo defenders.
So I will explain this very carefully with lots of analogies, but do so begrudgingly as I think that Kramer is just pretending that he doesn’t understand the implications of playing the ‘status quo card.’ Maybe he really doesn’t and this will be enlightening to him, but I forgive anybody else for not making it through this post.
Nothing in this world is perfect. The health care system, air travel, the post office, the process for buying tickets to a concert, and, yes, the U.S. education system. Over the years, in an attempt to improve the different industries, various changes are tried from time to time. Knowledgeable people, we hope, are in charge of identifying the problems inherent in the different systems and proposing changes that will fix these problems without, at the same time, creating newer even bigger problems.
Every person who has experience in education knows that we have not achieved perfection yet, so each of those people could easily make a list of what the biggest problems are and what kinds of changes might remedy these problems in the least risky way. Each person who knows about education could also easily make a list of things that they don’t think require changing, or things that they would like to change but the only changes they can think of, at the time, would make the system worse, so until a better alternative comes along, they would not choose to change that aspect.
If ‘status quo defender’ means, as Villanueva-Beard implies, someone who things we should do ‘nothing’ different in education, then I say that she is directing her frustration against an imaginary boogeyman. There is not one person in this country who is knowledgeable about education who thinks that everything is as good as it can possibly get. This is the main thing that frustrated me about the applause evoking, considerably retweeted, quote from her speech.
If I tell you that there are two people and one person thinks that ten things should be changed about education and the other person has eight things that he thinks should be changed about education, wouldn’t it be true that both people are ‘reformers’ in that they want change? But in our crazy oversimplified, easy sound bite, education debate landscape, the person who has just eight things to change can be called the ‘reformer’ while the person who has ten things to change can be called the ‘status quo defender.’
You see, the only difference between the two camps is which subset of things that could be changed does each think should be changed.
Again, NOBODY thinks nothing should be changed and NOBODY thinks everything should be changed. Imagine some new billionaire comes along and starts saying that the next big school reform is that schools will no longer meet in buildings, but instead out on the street. This will save money as the real estate can be sold and used to pay for iPads. Now the old ‘reformers’ say that this is a bad idea, that having schools indoors is a good thing and the new ‘reformers’ can now accuse the old ‘reformers’ of ‘defending the status quo’ just because the changes that the old ‘reformers’ believe will be helpful do not coincide with the changes that the new ‘reformers’ believe will be helpful.
So it is not fair to label a group of people who include me, Diane Ravitch, Anthony Cody, Katie Osgood, Jersey Jazzman, EduShyster, and so many others as ‘status quo defenders’ just because the changes that we think would improve the education system are not the exact same changes that people who know nothing about schools including Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Arne Duncan, Whitney Tilson, and many others think would improve the education system.
Every ‘status quo defender’ that I know thinks that education in this country would be improved if class sizes were capped at lower numbers. But ‘reformers’ think that reducing class size is not a good use of limited resources. Aren’t then the reformers ‘defending the status quo’ on this issue while the status quo defenders are looking to ‘reform’ things? Doesn’t everyone defend some things in the status quo and want to reform other things?
I could easily make a list of things that I’d like to change. I could bore you for hours about how I feel the math curriculum in this country and this world has evolved into something that leaves out the thing that makes math great — beauty. I could also very easily pick places where money is wasted on consultants and bad education software, and also places where not enough money is spent to do things right. But I’m called a status quo defender, still, just because I think that certain things should not be changed and that other things should not be changed, just for the sake of changing them, but until something that won’t make things worse is devised.
So I am opposed to school closings. I can understand the allure of school closings — lighting a fire under the butts of the staff of a school (the ‘adults’ as reformers like to call them) to get their best work out of them. But I’m opposed to them because I feel they cause more harm than good. Is that why I’m a status quo defender? Because of all the things that I think should not be changed (just as ‘reformers have a host of things that should not be changed) this controversial practice is a new change that I do not embrace?
I am opposed to using ‘value-added’ to judge teacher quality which, in turn, will get used to decide on pay increases and firings. I’m not convinced that a computer algorithm has been devised yet that can calculate what a group of thirty students ‘should’ get with an ‘average’ teacher on a poorly made state test. I’ve seen so many examples of a teacher getting wildly different results in consecutive years and even getting wildly different results in the same year when they teach two different grade levels to have any confidence in this golden calf of school reform.
I am not convinced that charter schools hold any secrets to educating poor minority students, except the secret of how to ban some from entering the school and how to ‘counsel out’ those who enter but aren’t a good fit.
So because I am opposed to these controversial, and unproved, reforms, despite all the changes that I think would improve the system, and despite the fact the me and ‘reformers’ agree on so much that doesn’t need to be changed (like holding class indoors, most of the time) I am lumped in with the mythical status quo defenders who Villanueva-Beard says now bear the burden of proving that it is better than to do nothing than to do something.
I don’t know of anyone in my camp who would say that we should do ‘nothing.’ And, yes, it is better to do nothing sometimes than to do something when that ‘something’ is likely to make matters worse.
An ironic twist to all this ‘status quo defender’ treatise is that for nearly twenty years I have been the one challenging TFA to stop defending their own status quo. When the institute moved from L.A. to Houston in 1994 and the new model had corps members training with classes of less than 5 students, I was the one complaining that TFA needed to ‘reform’ this. But here we are twenty years later and they still have not changed this. Why is it that they ‘preserve the status quo’ in this way? Well, maybe they’ve determined that this change, for them, will do more harm than good. Maybe they think that the CMs will only become marginally better teachers if they make this change while it could triple the cost of the institutes. I think that the good would outweigh the harm in this case, though, so at least in this issue I suppose that I’d be right to say they are defending their status quo. TFA should be able to relate to the ‘status quo defenders’ who are skeptical of changes that have a great cost and that they are not sure will even work.
And Kramer and Villanueva-Beard, unfortunately for them, I don’t think have the power to make any changes to this TFA status quo so they, ironically, will have to be the ones to bear the burden to prove that doing nothing to fix TFA is better than doing something.