Education Opinion

Reform vs. Anti-Reform: Quoth the Raven

By Nancy Flanagan — December 28, 2011 3 min read
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Dear Alexander Russo,

So here I am, with the final hours of bleak December ticking away, casting about for the right hook to write about Education Reform in 2011: The Big Picture.

Go with a top ten list? Ten signs of hope? Pushback against dark corporate forces? Bright and cheery? Down and dreary?

While I pondered, weak and weary, came a Google alert winging (flinging! singing!) to my inbox. Alexander Russo labeled me--and other progressive education thinkers-- Goliaths! Says we’re dominating the on-line fight against slingshot-wielding “Davids.” Two of these feisty, underfunded David exemplars sprang to mind for Russo: StudentsFirst and Stand for Children.


There are several ways to understand/respond to your recent post, Mr. Russo. I’m not sure why you’re trying, once again, to position school “reformers” as small, scrappy start-ups bravely challenging the mighty, mighty public education monolith. I’m pretty sure you’ve cast the wrong actors in starring roles in the David vs. Goliath narrative. But--some observations:

First thought: Thanks for acknowledging a handful of the swelling cadre of articulate educators and parents who are mad as hell about what’s happening to their public schools and just not going to take it anymore. We like it when our efforts are noticed and shared.

Second, a question: Does Russo seriously misunderstand the distribution patterns and naked influence of cash in education “reform?” Highly doubtful. He’s the trained professional education journalist, presumably always alert to tracking the money trails-- I’m just a retired teacher.

I have, however, been paying attention to the increasing list of ed-organizations whose survival depends on going with the (funded) reform flow. And I’m seeing Gates Foundation and a number of others--a lot. One at a time, the big-boy funders are picking off nonprofits (not to mention the federal government) and re-shaping their work toward a reformy mindset. A little anti-LIFO here, a bit of merit pay there, a heavily subsidized “innovation charter,” the repeated concept that grant funding and privatization are the only routes to genuinely raising the bar. If you want the pay, you have to play.

They may have even lured the NEA over for a quick drink with their youngest and hottest teacher recruits.

Third theory: Education entrepreneurs know how to talk to young teachers. It’s a seductive line: your youth and energy are what we need, your special smarts trump veteran teachers’ experience. You’re not a “regular” teacher--you’re a leader! All of this rhetoric is fine until you find yourself alone in an out-of-control classroom, where some of that honed-by-fiery-trial pedagogical skill and commitment to your students might come in handy. (If you don’t plan to remain in teaching, it’s not such a big deal.)

Creating magnetic sound bites is now an essential part of what used to be the reform discourse, more important than actual evidence or learning your craft over time. And nobody does that better than an organization with hundreds of millions to spend on branding and message-crafting.

Fourth question: Does Russo really believe that all genuinely progressive educators know each other, and are partnering in a grand strategy to thwart “reform?” I like a good conspiracy theory as well as the next guy, but on this one, he’s wildly off-base. There may be more on-the-ground teachers and parents blogging these days--and making more persuasive, data-based arguments. But, no, Mr. Russo. There is no secret “reform critic” handshake. There are more people speaking out against “reform” because--well, because they’re finally mad as hell and...etc.

And finally: Mr. Russo says he’s not taking sides. Just reporting. And maybe his entire blog is simply bait--throwing out some names and opinions and hoping to engage, start a conversation. But--Russo’s piece feels like projection/flipping to me: taking whatever tactic you’re using and then accusing your opponent of doing it to you first. Best defense, good offense, and so on.

This Russonian digression didn’t get my Big Picture blog written, alas.

How about: Top ten trends in market-based reform? Nevermore.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.