The Paradoxical Logic of Ed Reform Politics (Part 2)

In my last post I suggested that “In education, as in military and political strategy more generally, the most direct and definitive path to victory often lays the foundations for defeat. Instead, the indirect and less definitive solution is almost always more effective.”

The paradoxical logic of military and political strategy is a result of the fact that in the strategic world one’s opponent is able to react to your efforts with counter-moves. Technocrats seem to think that effective policy-making just consists of identifying the optimal solution and then imposing it on everybody. Strategists understand that the other side of a policy battle has interests and values that lead them to different policy preferences. Even if the technocrat can identify the optimal solution and manage to get that solution adopted as policy (and this is a huge if), the other side doesn’t go away no matter how much the technocrats just want them to shut up and disappear.

Technocrats have an authoritarian streak that makes them expect the losing side to surrender permanently in deference to what “science” and “experts” have decided is best. But in a diverse, decentralized democracy, people don’t have to accept what you claim based on your science and expertise (and they might be right in doing so). They can subvert effective implementation of your policy and bide their time until they can re-open the debate and regain control over policy.

The more completely and directly you try to prevail in a policy dispute the more you mobilize the other side to oppose you — if not at the time of adoption, then later in implementation or when the debate is re-opened. Seeking total victory often lays the foundations for defeat. In Dred Scott v. Sandford Chief Justice Taney seemed to hand supporters of slavery a total victory, but it led to their ultimate defeat. As Wikipedia summarizes it:

Although Taney believed that the decision represented a compromise that would settle the slavery question once and for all by transforming a contested political issue into a matter of settled law, it produced the opposite result. It strengthened Northern slavery opposition, divided the Democratic Party on sectional lines, encouraged secessionist elements among Southern supporters of slavery to make bolder demands, and strengthened the Republican Party.

In a diverse, decentralized democracy you can’t settle contentious issues once and for all. In policy-making there is no total and final victory, only perpetual struggle.

Technocrats are inclined to seek total and final victory. If science or the experts have shown something to be wrong, why should that wrong be allowed to continue anywhere? This produces a tendency to over-reach. Technocrats can’t tolerate the notion that a solution won’t cover everybody and improve things for everyone. If things are bad in Mississippi it just ruins their whole day.

But trying to fix everything, everywhere usually leads to fixing nothing anywhere — or sometimes to making things much worse. In the end the technocrat doesn’t seem as motivated by helping as many people as possible, as much as motivated by the unreasonable feeling of responsibility for “allowing” something bad to continue for someone. But addressing your inner angst about someone still suffering somewhere at the expense of making progress toward helping more people is egotistical. It isn’t about you. You are not the Master of the Universe who “allows” bad things to happen. You’re just a person trying to work with others to make progress.

People sometimes think that I’m a radical because of my preference for parental control over the education of their children. But I think I’m really the moderate in education debates. The extremists are the ones who are trying to devise fixes for everyone else’s problems. They’re radical because they (falsely) believe they can identify optimal solutions and successfully impose them on everyone. My approach is moderate because I accept that gradual progress toward better outcomes (even if some people might make the “wrong” choices and not experience improvement) is more realistic and productive.

Even if you are a standards and test-based accountability person, you are better off not seeking total victory as the Common Core people have. Yes, some states had lousy standards. And yes, some tests were poorly designed or had low thresholds for passing. But trying to fix all standards and tests, everywhere, all at once is the wrong approach. Seeking this total victory has more fully mobilized the opponents of all standards and testing. In response to a more heavy-handed and top-down national effort, more previously un-involved people have flocked to the anti-testing side. Not only will these folks undermine effective implementation of Common Core, but in their counter-effort to roll back national standards, they will destroy much of what was good about state standards and tests. The whole idea of standards and test-based accountability is being undermined by the imprudent over-reach of Common Core.

I apply the same cautiousness to my approach to parental choice in education. I would never recommend adopting nationwide school choice programs. The truth is we don’t know how best to design choice programs. Is it best to have vouchers, tax-credit funded scholarships, individual tax credits, ESA’s, etc…? What kind of regulatory framework should we have? Should testing be required? What test? I have my guesses about what would be good, but I don’t have the technocrat’s confidence that I can identify the right solution and impose it everywhere. Let’s let different localities try different kinds of programs and gradually learn about what seems to be working and what doesn’t.

Whether your preferred policy solution is based on standards and accountability, parental choice, instructional reform, or something else, the better approach to reform is gradual and decentralized so that everyone can learn and adapt. Your reform strategy has to be consistent with the diverse, decentralized, and democratic country in which we live. You won’t fix everything for everyone right away, but you should avoid Great Leaps Forward. Seek partial victories because with the paradoxical logic of ed reform politics total victory ultimately leads to total defeat.

—Jay Greene

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