John Thompson, historian and teachers, wrote a guest column on Anthony Cody’s blog in which he calls out the “reformers” for their arrogance and reckless disregard for collateral damage: children, teachers, and public schools. Thompson said that from the outset of Obama’s first term, he hoped that Arne Duncan and his team of advisers from the Gates Foundation “would not create a mess.” He recognized that every element of their Race to the Top program ignored a large body of social science and the professional judgments of teachers. But he kept hoping. He hoped that Duncan would be willing to obtain objective evaluations of his experiments. “At the time, I couldn’t have known that Arne Duncan and his team of former Gates Foundation administrators would be so allergic to facing up to facts.”
He lays much of the blame for the administration’s failed education policies not only on Duncan but at Joanne Weiss (former CEO of the charter-promoting NewSchools Venture Fund), who directed the Race to the Top, then became Duncan’s chief of staff. Duncan saw his job not as someone seeking unbiased evaluations of his initiatives, but as a cheerleader for his programs, regardless of their results. Intent on claiming victory after victory, he never listened. Since Duncan was unwilling to obtain objective evaluations or listen to professional educators, it was left to others to appraise his prized RTTT and SIG (School Improvement Grants).
Now, we are getting the next best thing as conservative reformers, as well as educators, are calling them to task. One of the most recent examples of the pushback is conservative reformer Andy Smarick’s challenge to Joanne Weiss’s defense of the RttT. Weiss personified the administration’s overreach. As director of the RttT, she set out to impose corporate school reform on states and localities across the nation.
Weiss ignored the need for checks and balances of authority, and then she seemed to blame states and localities for the failures of her federal micromanaging of school policies. Smarick concludes, “even when federal education officials are pure of heart, their plans reliably underperform, as in the case of SIG, the backlash to NCLB and Common Core, the disappointing results of educator evaluation reform, and the disintegration of the federally funded testing consortia.” (I don’t agree that federal policies always under-perform, but it is a safe bet that grandiose federal social engineering always will.)
Some of the best critiques of Weiss’s spin can be found in the comments prompted by her article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Almost all of the fifty-plus comments were negative, and many were especially eloquent in criticizing Weiss and her innovations. My favorite commenters were Leonie Haimson and Christopher Chase. Chase fact-checked Weiss and in doing so he cited the pro-Obama spin by the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). DFER displayed an openness that contrasted sharply with Weiss’s current claims. It bragged, “President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan added the role of ‘venture philanthropist’ to the federal education policy wheelhouse.” The RttT and SIG, as well as Duncan’s NCLB Waivers were said to be transformative because previously:
[DFER wrote:] There was a confederacy of education reform-focused groups and most were narrowly focused (often with frustrating discipline) in their own directions. President Obama, primarily through the launch of the Race to the Top competition, got this crazy constellation of reform groups united and pointed in the same direction for the first time.
DFER not only gloated about the way that value-added added teacher evaluations were imposed through the process, but it also cheered the rise of the charter management organizations that facilitated the mass closures of schools. According to DFER, it “wasn’t accidental” that “charter schools flourished more under three years of Obama than under eight years of George W. Bush.”
Thompson wondered how smart people could make so many miscalculations and errors:
As conservatives and liberals finally come together to hold the Duncan/Obama/Gates reign of error accountable, we will often be able to grin at the language with which the administration’s social engineering is described. Rick Hess, as usual, is especially quotable; he describes their overreach as a “product of executive branch whimsy.” A commenter referred to Joanne Weiss as “a dilettante.” But, the policy wonk in me seeks a narrower explanation. How did the smart people – who imposed the full corporate reform agenda – do so while mandating policies that were so different than the principles they espoused?
Weiss’s micromanaging, for instance, imposed the full laundry list of the corporate reformers’ simplistic “silver bullets.” Her answer for the complex and interconnected problems in our low-income schools was an impossibly long and contradictory list of quick fixes: test-driven teacher evaluations, the undermining of teachers’ due process, Common Core, mass closures of urban schools, the mass dismissal of teachers, and subsidies for charter management systems.
In the context of mass closures, Weiss should have known, the abrogation of seniority rights would encourage districts to dump the salaries and benefits of veteran teachers, replacing them with often-ineffective novices. Her value-added mandates and need to meet extreme and immediate test score targets would incentivize bubble-in malpractice. One would think she would understand that her RttT would treat teachers as disposable, and thus kill the chances to build trusting and collaborative relationships. But, did Weiss not also realize that she was inviting a mass pushout of struggling students? It seems inconceivable that she wouldn’t recognize the opportunity costs of her RttT, undermining the capacity to build the student supports that readiness-to-learn requires in high-challenge schools.
Weiss later claimed that her RTTT wanted to get education out of “discrete silos.” But, she did so because the administration “wanted to mold entire systems.” It supposedly sought to help states implement “interconnected policies and work streams” and make them “move forward in tandem.”
And, that suggests an answer. Duncan staffed the USDOE with smart people who knew little or nothing about the inner city or high-challenge schools. What they knew was theories about incentives and disincentives. They were experts at the big “C,” control. They understood paperwork. They understood profits and privatization. Duncan, Weiss, et. al may have been clueless about real world schools, but they understood grant-making, rule-making, drafting criteria, subcriteria, memorandums of understanding, and regulations. They did what they knew how to do – creating work streams of interconnected policies that were disconnected from actual reality.
Thompson’s charitable explanation of how smart people do dumb things is that they were “disconnected from actual reality.” Meaning, they knew so little about schools and teaching that they created programs that were doomed to fail.
And now, as their failure becomes obvious to the world, they shift the blame to others, or in the case of Duncan, advise the nation to keep doing the same things over and over for at least another decade, when we will finally see the “results” he promised and never achieved. The question is whether the parents of millions of children want them to be subjected to Duncan’s failed policies for the next ten years.