And what I thought you thought I thought Was actually in your head

There’s a debate about “neoliberalism” going on in the progressive blogosphere that is sort of tedious and not the kind of thing I’d normally flag [and to be clear, I have no dog in this larger fight, just quoting the various sides below]–Except that it has some pretty striking parallels with debates going on around education reform today.

Basically, the argument is that market-oriented and technocratic strategies favored by “neoliberal” policy wonks to address economic and social challenges are inherently inadequate because they fail to adequately “increase the power of labor relative to capital,” or in other words to address broader economic and political power inequalities that are the real causes of social and economic problems.

In a now much-quoted graf, political scientist and blogger Henry Farrell sums it up thus:

Neo-liberals tend to favor a combination of market mechanisms and technocratic solutions to solve social problems. But these kinds of solutions tend to discount politics – and in particular political collective action, which requires strong collective actors such as trade unions. This means that vaguely-leftish versions of neo-liberalism often have weak theories of politics, and in particular of the politics of collective action. I see Doug and others as arguing that successful political change requires large scale organized collective action, and that this in turn requires the correction of major power imbalances (e.g. between labor and capital). They’re also arguing that neo-liberal policies at best tend not to help correct these imbalances, and they seem to me to have a pretty good case.

Matt Yglesias, whose recent articles calling for looser monetary policy as a means to stimulate the economy (apparently too neoliberal a view) seem to have touched this debate off, calls bullshit:

So I really, strongly, profoundly agree with this [the idea that advancing a liberal reform agenda requires building a political infrastructure to support populist economic policies]. The moment someone comes up with aworkable idea on this front, please sign me up. But if there’s no idea to debate, then there’s no idea to debate. Debating the desirability of devising some hypothetical future good idea seems kind of pointless to me.

This all sounds to me a lot like contemporary education policy debates: Education reformers put forward a series of–yes, let’s be honest–largely technocratic and market-minded strategies to try to make our public education system work better to serve the needs of students, and to increase the supply of higher-performing schools and teachers. Critics counter that these policies can’t possibly fix the problems they’re purported to solve–mediocre overall performance and glaring student achievement gaps–because they don’t address the underlying causes of economic inequality, poverty, inadequate health care, broken families, etc. (It’s worth noting that “neoliberal” is frequently a term of derision directed at the education reform movement by its foes.) No one, to my knowledge honestly disputes that those issues are real problems that do impact the outcomes of educational systems. The problem is that critics of education reform also don’t put forward any compelling and remotely viable proposals to solve the problems they argue must be solved before we can improve school performance [even if we embarked on a massive campaign of economic redistribution–assuming that’s possible and designed in a way that doesn’t create other problems–does anyone think that fix mental health issues or ensure that all kids have “good” parents?]. Nor do they offer any alternative strategy for, in the absence of such sweeping and improbable solutions, getting the best we can out of our public schools given current realities. Essentially, they’re offering an argument for throwing up our hands and saying “tough cookies, kids,” to the tens of millions of low-income American schoolchildren who have only an 8% chance of ever earning a college diploma.

–Sara Mead

9 Replies to “And what I thought you thought I thought Was actually in your head”

  1. You’ve hit the nail on the head. There are plenty of things to debate among the neoliberals- the relative merits of various reform strategies, etc. This is a serious conversation about how to improve schools with the limited resources at hand.

    The paleo-liberals, on the other hand, are engaging in a dorm room bull session:

  2. Hot air. Sounds like a response to a writing prompt for an undergraduate poli-sci class. You’re a product of public education, aren’t you?

  3. !. When your deep in a hole. stop digging. “Reform” has failed, turn off the lights, and face reality.
    2. Read David Kirp’s KIDS Nation.
    3. Cut back on standardized testing, and make it diagnostic. It was that bubble-in-mania that kills your movement.

  4. Simply put, the child who has a literate environment in the home will do better in school than the child who watches TV all day, even when they have the same teachers. This is not rocket science. No, we can’t replace the parents but we can provide experiences that will compensate to some degree as other nations have done. Teachers have long asked for basic remedies, such as high-quality preschool and enrichment programs. Fortunately, citizens are beginning to see the reform movement for what it is: a lot of nonsense. Look for authentic reforms in the near future, especially now that teachers are being consulted (thanks to the coming election).

  5. Hi Sara,

    Putting aside the whole “neoliberalism” thing (about which I have no opinion), I find your substantive argument frustrating. You’re obviously correct that “reform” critics tend to be skeptical about how far teacher personnel policy – and perhaps education policy in general – can go toward getting us where we need to be in terms of outcomes (and I share this skepticism). And you’re also correct that there are some people who, based on an extreme form of this skepticism, argue that education policy is essentially pointless, sans some kind of massive redistributive effort.

    I agree with you that this view is misguided. I can’t tell, from your post, how prevalent you think it is, but I would argue that it’s the exception rather than the norm. Most of the “critics” to whom you refer take a more balanced approach – put crudely, that we should improve schools and address wider social and economic conditions at the same time.

    I am also sympathetic to your argument that there’s relatively little concrete discussion about how we should go about accomplishing the latter goal – improving social and economic conditions among less advantaged families. That’s a tough question – it’s kind of one of the defining issues of modern society – and unqualified, non-specific arguments that we have to “fix poverty” tend to not sit well with me either, as they belie the enormity (perhaps impossibility) of that task.

    But it’s not quite fair to say that we have no idea how to make progress on these fronts. Anti-poverty programs in the U.S. have been generally effective (this is just one paper, but see here for some recent evidence: [and there are good cites]).

    Yes, these programs are extremely costly, only succeed to a degree (sometimes not much at all) and are a political minefield with virtually no space between mines. And yes, some people are too casually non-specific, and a very few take the “education doesn’t matter while poverty exists” line. But, in my experience, most people who raise the poverty issue do so in a perfectly reasonable manner, simply pointing out that these programs are important, inside and outside of education, and that they are being decimated over the past few years. I don’t see why this should provoke a hostile reaction.

    Most importantly, your argument that “reform” critics bring nothing to the table in the education policy arena strikes me as unfair. These are not necessarily my own preferences, but critics (a huge proportion of whom are teachers) have a set of core “non-market” policies they support, such as class size reduction, a strong wide-ranging curriculum and early childhood intervention. Many also support “market-based” human capital policies, such as increasing salaries, boosting retention and voluntary transfers to hard-to-staff schools in exchange for salary increases. You might think these policies are a bad idea (and I might agree with you in a couple of cases), but it’s simply not accurate to say that “reform” critics are unable to offer any ideas for “getting the best we can” out of schools.

    That generalization also ignores the huge variation of opinions within and between “sides,” and the fact that there is far more agreement on the basics than there might appear to be. For instance, I dare say that many “anti-reform” teachers and individuals completely agree that current evaluation systems are dysfunctional, and should be redesigned, and many agree that it should be easier to dismiss persistently underperforming teachers.

    The disagreement is often on the details. For example, survey data (cited here: indicate that over a third of teachers support tying teacher “rewards” to “student performance,” but virtually none supports a plan of this sort that defines “rewards” as “salary” and “student performance” as “progress on state tests.” Opinions of general policy categories are, as you know, highly dependent on the specifics (as well as on individual characteristics and context). For my part, I am totally receptive to, among other things, more differentiated compensation systems, finding alternatives to seniority-based layoffs and using growth model estimates in teacher evaluations. I just happen to disagree with the manner in which it’s being done in most places. There are a lot of people in the so-called “critic” camp that feel the same way.

    Basically, I understand where you’re coming from on these issues, as our education debate has become a tiresome repetition of the same old overcooked talking points that often make it seem like it’s a battle between technocrats and solution-free obstructionists. But in reality, almost everyone brings something to the table, and it’s important to acknowledge each other’s ideas even if (perhaps especially if) we disagree with them. I often find that there’s a lot more agreement than is apparent, and even more disagreement within that agreement.

    Sorry this comment is so long.


  6. Sara: “The problem is that critics of education reform also don’t put forward any compelling and remotely viable proposals to solve the problems they argue must be solved before we can improve school performance. Nor do they offer any alternative strategy for, in the absence of such sweeping and improbable solutions, getting the best we can out of our public schools given current realities.”

    Linda: “Look for authentic reforms in the near future, especially now that teachers are being consulted”

    Classic. We’ll keep waiting for those authentic reform proposals. I’ll check my Valerie Strauss every day to see when they are coming. I sure hope they align closely with the recent NEA proposals to admonish Arne Duncan and Teach For America, because that kind of thinking is certain to close the achievement gap.

  7. I’m on a cruise ship off the coast of Ireland where it’s extremely expensive and difficult to go online but I’ll say this:

    Active reforms are taking place each day across the country. They are spearheaded by the people who elect to be in the classrooms with children: our teachers. These are the people who dedicate their lives to making sure every child learns as much as possible. They are the ones who are buying books, advocating for maltreated and neglected children and spending hours each night and each weekend preparing for the next day, the next week, the next year. These are the people who DO; they don’t just talk “reform.” Reform is improving the education of children in different ways and that’s what teachers do all the time.

    Those of you who put down teachers are doing the worst possible thing for American education, although I know it’s probably not intentional. You can tell by reading this blog that few people aspire to teach fourth grade in the inner city for $40,000 a year and that’s the basic problem we have.

    Are you truly interested in improving education? Support a teacher, or better yet, be one. Give up the large salary as educational consultant, testing executive or “policy wonk” and dedicate your life to the nation’s children. That’s what I did and I was richly rewarded.

  8. Linda: As always, your comments are heartfelt and insightful. Having worked as a teacher (before turning to a career in law), I truly believe that most professionals have no idea how difficult and demanding teaching is these days (especially when teaching in low-income schools with large minority and immigant populations). It’s easy to throw out solutions (“fire the teachers!” “more accountability!”) from the writer’s chair / It’s much more difficult to make real progress in the classroom.

  9. Thanks, Attorney DC. I know that many of the contributors to this blog have no idea what I’m talking about but you do. Here’s a specific example for other people:

    When I started teaching reading and writing to Spanish speakers, I did not have much success. At the end of first grade, the children could not read or write that well in English. However, after many years of study and experience, with the help of university experts in teaching English as a second language, I became quite proficient at teaching second language learners. At the end of my career most of my students were reading and writing at grade level or above. Many of the other teachers also experienced success. How very sad that these people are now experiencing such profound disprespect! But people like you know what is happening and that sustains those dedicated individuals who care enough to devote themselves to classroom teaching. Thank you from Guernsey, Channel Islands, Great Britain.

    I am convinced that the current situation is due to the economy and will be changing soon and once again, our teachers will receive the gratitude that they deserve.

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