Is A Revolt Against Education Elitism Brewing? And What Maverick Can Teach Schools

You’re starting to hear a real debate right now about whether the movement for transgender inclusion made a strategic error in emphasizing things like trying to get everyone to say that trans women are the same as biological women or elite sports participation rather than focusing on more immediate material concerns like formal discrimination.

This sort of argument about goals and means is typical of most social movements. And often there is a tension between goals with symbolic value and things that change material conditions for a lot of people and just friction between different goals people think are important.

Here in education you’re hearing more and more grumbling that people are fixated on “reinventing” or “reimagining” or “redesigning” education rather than focusing laser-like on improving conditions for kids who were being left behind before the pandemic and really are now. There are a lot of people excited about, for example, local groups demanding more adherence to the research around reading and think that’s more important than cooking up some new model of learning. Rebecca Birch recently had an interesting take on all this.

While people tend to reduce education conversations to obvious lines of difference such as race, wokeness, or political affiliation this tension appears to be emerging along different lines. To overgeneralize a bit, it seems like there is an elite cadre of folks resistant to these, let’s call them ‘blocking and tackling’ changes, and a group of, often not white, education leaders increasingly focused on those pretty immediate issues.

It’s a definite evolution from the DEI conversations of the middle of the last decade. You saw glimmers of this in the early days of the pandemic when it was difficult to get funding for basic blocking and tackling work school districts needed around pivoting to remote and ideas like summer school were pooh poohed in favor of elaborate online “platforms” and schemes. You see more of it now as everyone is contemplating ‘what now?’

I don’t have an exact typology but it is sort of the normies versus an education elite who claim to know what’s best for them. When parents in Oakland said enough on reading, or parents in San Francisco said enough on the school board it was a manifestation of this. And yes, it also fuels some of the backlash to clumsy approaches to DEI in school, which doesn’t break as cleanly along racial and ethnic lines as is commonly assumed.

In politics more generally you’re starting to see this same trend emerge – it’s part of what did Chesa Boudin and, again, three members of the San Fransisco school board in there. And it’s a political opportunity. When Glenn Youngkin, Virginia’s governor, puts out a report on achievement and achievement gaps that could have been written by the Education Trust and everyone loses their mind, people notice. It’s clear there is a whole cohort of people from whom it’s more important to signal that they’re not on board with Glenn Youngkin than it is to get anything done on education. It might be a good way to do partisan politics, it’s a lousy way to do education.

Here’s Freddie deBoer on one aspect the issue more generally:

What underlies all this is the phlogiston of contemporary progressive politics: the immense condescension with which racial politics are treated. To the extent that America’s racial politics have become more emotional and linguistically radical, they’ve also become wrapped in a layer of pandering and head-patting on the part of benevolent white liberals who have little need for material change (as they’re already affluent themselves) and much to lose from appearing not to kowtow to social justice norms (as their lives are unusually dependent on reputation). An outcome of this situation is that you have a lot of people who ostensibly support a social justice agenda and yet are totally indifferent to whether anything actually gets done.

Last year we talked about how the divides in this sector are often not what they seem. I tend to think eliteness is the real divide and suspect some of that is going to come more into focus as some new alignments sift out.

Two real caveats:

First, we do need a better R&D function in the sector. Existing technology and practice is not sufficient to deliver the goals we have for our education system in a broad or equitable manner.  We do need to “re” something. We don’t talk honestly about that because of the “even KIPP” problem. Basically, K-12 education doesn’t have an improvement oriented politics. I’m for more skunk, others have different ideas. Saying we need to focus on the here and now in this moment doesn’t doesn’t mean someone thinks the here and now is sufficient.

Second, I don’t want to in any way imply that everyone in this debate is insincere or posturing. There is certainly too much elite signaling for professional advancement or whatever and too much advocacy for things that revealed preference indicates people don’t want for their own kids. However, the modal value here, I’d suggest, is sincere belief. Joel Rose (BW client on multiple occasions, disclosure), for instance, is deeply committed to the idea that how we teach math and do/did accountability is flawed and at odds with the best interests of students.The sector has a substantial elite faddishness problem, but I think this particular issue of what to focus on is mostly a clash of theories of action and beliefs about context and conditions.

Still, at the end of the day, people send their kids to school to learn, not to be reinvented and redesigned. And in general they care a lot more about that than your latest crusade. Part of a genuine politics of improvement will be engaging with this reality while building something better.

Sorta random aside – with an education point. I saw Top Gun: Maverick this weekend. At one level it’s a terrible movie. The storyline is completely improbable, even more than the first one, as are many plot devices. On the other hand, it’s a fantastic movie with delightful callbacks to the first film, truly incredible and unique flying scenes, and it’s just a couple of hours of brain candy. Recommend if you want a night out. I’m all in for any film that makes aging Xers feel like kids again. But that’s not my point here.

Those flying scenes are the result of a lot of cooperation from the United States military, specifically the U.S. Navy. The flying scenes were the actors in actual military aircraft pulling real g’s. The facial distortions and grimaces were real. The first Top Gun was a recruiting and PR boon so it’s not surprising the Navy was willing to lean into a second one. What’s interesting though is the military’s intuitive sense that you can talk up the positive aspects of a job and it’s good for recruiting. The Marines are pretty good at this, for instance. Here in the K-12 education sector, by contrast, we try to make even the good news bad.

An interesting, though really unhealthy, aspect of K-12 education is that it’s often the people who self-style as public education defenders who are at the forefront of running the job of teachers down and describing schools in unattractive terms. This is weird because while teaching is challenging, especially these past several years, it’s also a great job. Education is fun. It’s important. I feel the need, the need for…people to talk about those elements more.

Penny for your thoughts: I Drove All Night.