Still, the lede of the story jumped out,
The bipartisan education reform movement sweeping the nation calls for opening up public schools to free-market competition. That has meant sending billions of tax dollars to private, for-profit companies to educate kids.
I must have been absent the day that was agreed on as the call of the education reform “movement.” That’s a political talking point, it’s not an analytic one. Sure, there are people who think education would be a higher-quality sector if it were entirely privatized but they’re a marginal presence even in the reform world and by extension more generally. The more common sentiment is that it makes sense to look for good ideas wherever they exist – and regardless of how the IRS classifies an entity – but there is a lot of skepticism about how many of today’s gaps the private sector could effectively fill at any scale. And it’s quite a leap to say that people who argue that we need more choice among public schools – and more new public schools via mechanisms like charter schools, 85 percent of which are non-profits – just want to bring the free-market in a la Milton Friedman.
That said, Politico is staffed with plenty of smart and current affairs aware editors, that none of them caught such ridiculous sensationalism in the first line of a major story should worry reformers in terms of the public narrative. People, myself included, have dismissed this caricature because it’s so unserious. That’s obviously a mistake.
Perhaps one reason such misconceptions abound is that reformers themselves are often clumsy with their language. The other day Education Secretary Arne Duncan told The New York Times that,
What I think the reform movement got wrong fundamentally is it was very loose on goals but very tight on how to get there.
I just fundamentally believe in a different theory of change. I believe in being tight on goals – having a very high bar – and loose on how to get there. We should give people a lot more room and flexibility to create and to be innovative.
I think that the reform movement got that wrong in a big way. Not from lack of good intent. And I think that was big. It hurt the country in a way that we’re working hard to correct.
Isn’t that exactly backwards? The reform movement was pretty clear on its goal – better schools, in particular more that propel low-income students into and through college – from its earliest days. But in terms of educational strategies you have people all over the place on how to get there – choice, teacher quality, standards, curriculum, funding equity, or some combination of all of those. In fact, the for-profit concern that Politco looked at is an extension of how agnostic many reformers have been about means. And the very fact that you can pick or choose this or that example shows how discrepant the means that live under the reform banner are in practice.
I think what Duncan was doing was grafting his favorite No Child Left Behind talking point onto a different and more conceptual question – the reform movement overall. That’s sloppy and coming from such an influential figure hardly helps with all the confusion out there.
Duncan’s theory of action, put into place most notably with the No Child Left Behind waivers is to create a high-bar and then let states do their own thing to get there. Tight-loose. Yet it’s too soon to tell how that will play out, is debatable how high or uniform the current bar is for states under the waivers, and is unclear how much closer the new Common Core standards and ensuing assessments will get us when they are fully implemented.
In other words, it’s a confusing and fluid time and one that doesn’t lend itself to many sweeping – and also accurate – generalizations.