Education “Reformers” or Reform Fundamentalists?

Someone asked me exactly who I meant when I used this term, and it’s a fair question.  I intentionally put the phrase in quotes for the purposes of my open letter because it has been used over time by dozens of different groups committed to changing the US education system from whatever happened to be the prevailing approach at the time.

Today, however, I am using it in the way that it is used as a self-identification term by a group of individuals in the education policy space who adhere to a general set of ideas about what approaches and policy levers should be used to create meaningful change in education.  It is a diverse camp that pulls together individuals and groups that often believe in the same solutions but for very different reasons.  An example would be charter schools, an idea appealing to both Democrats and Republicans for related but perhaps ultimately different goals.

When you think about the subset of people who are more politically liberal the label is increasingly claimed by a coalition of people and organizations who are committed to the contemporary slate of “reform” policies that have been promulgated since the late 1990s and codified by “No Child Left Behind”:  new common standards in English language arts and math; aligned assessments; large amounts of data collection; the replication of “high performing” college prep charter school networks; and high-stakes accountability systems that now strongly shape the future of students, teachers, leaders, schools, districts and states.

There is a somewhat distressing trend among these individuals to quickly dismiss anyone who suggests that aspects of this agenda may be problematic.  Critics are accused of not having high expectations of all students or being satisfied with the status quo – basically all of the terms and accusations I list in the “I’m tired of” section of my letter.  I’ve thought over the years that a lack of religious fundamentalism and evangelism among liberals in this country has been counterbalanced by a surge in a fundamentalism and evangelism about education and education reform.  Let’s be very clear that I am using these words here in a literal not judgmental way.  “Fundamentalism” is defined as a tendency within a group to adhere strictly to certain dogmas or ideologies and to maintain a strong sense of in-group and out-group distinctions.  This means that such groups tend to reject diversity of opinion and claim that their accepted interpretation of a set of terms or language is the only right one.  “Evangelism” is defined as zealous advocacy of a cause.

Let’s apply this lens to the education debate in this country today. Among reformers there is a definite ideology and dogma about what the “right” solutions are.  There is a very strong sense of in- and out-groups.  Many reform organizations are insular to the point that they overtly and proudly align themselves with “like-minded” individuals who exemplify certain “core values” and “dispositions” like “believing all students can learn”; “having high expectation of all students”; being “data-driven” and “doing whatever it takes to succeed” in challenging and toppling the “status quo.”  It’s not always clear what all of these terms mean but they have become key phrases tossed around by “reform” advocates from the Secretary of Education to Bill Gates to foundations like Broad that fund this agenda; to self-selected district leaders and teachers.

This is not an abstract concern.  I’ve heard funders and advocates talk about the need to “indoctrinate” job or program candidates into certain ways of thinking right from the start so that they will implement the right initiatives once they get into leadership roles.  The term “right initiatives” is tacitly understood to mean the current reform agenda.  Candidates for leadership positions, funding and program support are increasingly screened up front for particular mindsets and dispositions, presumably ones that mean that they will advocate for the cause zealously and implement initiatives with fidelity.  And screening is intentionally done by groups of people who “think like us.”

I’ve spoken with people who were once in this reform camp whose thinking has changed over time and who have taken more critical positions towards the organizations or programs they once supported.  They describe it as emerging from inside a bubble of thinking where they felt safe, admired and esteemed for believing particular things.  Most of them note that once they left the fold or critiqued ideas from within they were shunned.  They were berated for criticizing, for questioning, for suggesting that a particular approach or agenda was problematic.  In many cases they were attacked personally and professionally.  I am not making this up.  If this sort of thinking does not meet the definitions of “fundamentalism” and “evangelism” I’m not sure what does.

The scary thing is that this has become a socially acceptable, probably even a socially encouraged, form of fundamentalist and evangelical thinking.  Because it is done in the name of children and education (e.g. Wendy’s Kopp’s book One Day all Children or “No Child Left Behind”) it doesn’t seem to provoke the same type of concern among liberals that religious fundamentalism does.

I’m not sure how you point out and attempt to shift the mindset of fundamentalist reformers.  Despite all of the time, effort and money spent on “reform” efforts over the last 7-10 years we are seeing very little improvement in closing the “achievement gap” and in increasing US students’ performance on international tests, the holy grail of education reformers’ efforts. Yet, Reformers do not appear to see this as a reason to question their fundamental beliefs and approaches.

I’ve come to think that the only thing to do is to keep pointing out the problems of the current approach while articulating a different vision of what is possible.  Perhaps as more young reformers become parents who see for themselves the complexities and possibilities of children’s growth and development, they will grow into leaders who are willing to live in a world of human beings rather than standardized data.  A world that is not as simple as “us” and “them”, a world where definitions of high expectations and success are ambiguous, complex and subjective.  A world that looks, sounds and feels more like a world I want to live in.

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