The Paradoxical Logic of Ed Reform Politics

Ed reform has been going through a bad stretch lately.  Currently dominant reform theories are the result of technocratic thinking.  They seek to identify (and impose) “optimal” topics to be taught, ways to teach those subjects, methods for training teachers, strategies for evaluating and motivating teachers, etc…  An army of economists or economist-wannabes have seized the reins of reform organizations with the hope that their next regression will tell everyone what to do to solve the mystery of improving schools.  They pay little heed to history, which might alert them to the failure of past efforts similar to their brave new undertakings.  And they are unfamiliar with basic lessons from political science on the dangers and failures of technocratic central planning.

Let me offer one political science lesson for ed reformers that I learned from reading Edward Luttwak’s book, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace.  Luttwak argues that there is a paradoxical logic to strategy.  In the realm of strategy what often seems good turns out to be bad and vice versa.  This is why strategists often say things like: “If you want peace, prepare for war;” “A buildup of offensive weapons can be purely defensive;” and “The worst road may be the best route to battle.”

Both military and political strategy have this paradoxical logic because they involve opponents who can observe your efforts and make counter-moves.  You can’t just run a regression to find the optimal solution and then expect everyone to thank you for discovering what you claim to be better methods.  Education is a political system that involves competing interests and values.  For the most part our problems are not caused by ignorance of optimal solutions, but by these clashing interests and values embedded in dysfunctional systems.

To fix these problems we need to address people’s competing interests and values and not just impose a technocratic solution from above.  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.

Before turning to education, let’s consider the paradoxical logic of strategy with respect to another policy — gay marriage.  Opponents of gay marriage pursued the most direct and definitive approach to securing the victory of their policy view.  In 1996 they managed to get a bipartisan and veto-proof majority in Congress to pass the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which became law with the signature of President Bill Clinton.  DOMA “barred same-sex married couples from being recognized as ‘spouses’ for purposes of federal laws, effectively barring them from receiving federal marriage benefits.”  Opponents then managed to get 31 states to adopt constitutional amendments forbidding those states from recognizing same-sex unions.

By banning gay marriage at the federal level and in a majority of state constitutions one might have thought that opponents of gay marriage had scored a decisive victory.  But, by seeking to impose their policy view with a direct and definitive approach, the opponents of gay marriage planted the seeds of their own defeat.  Big losses for supporters of gay marriage motivated them to organize and develop inventive strategies for reversing those defeats.  They focused heavily on influencing popular culture and the media.  They went to the courts.

Meanwhile, opponents of gay marriage failed to continue efforts aimed at influencing mass opinion and neglected the debate.  They thought they had won, so why keep debating?  In a diverse, decentralized, and democratic country, there are no permanent political victories or defeats.  Winning a legislative battle or ballot initiative does not make the other side change its mind or go away.  They’re still there, devising ways to come back and win in future rounds.

Supporters of Common Core have made some of the same political mistakes that opponents of gay marriage did.  They figured if they could get the US Department of Education, DC-based organizations, and state school chiefs on board, they would have a direct and definitive victory.  And at first blush it looked like they had achieved it, with about 45 states committing to adopt the new set of standards and federally-sponsored standardized tests aligned to those standards.  Like opponents of gay marriage, the Common Core victory seemed so overwhelming that they hardly felt the need to engage in debates to defend it.

But in the rush to a clear and total victory, supporters of Common Core failed to consider how the more than 10,000 school districts, more than 3 million teachers, and the parents of almost 50 million students would react.  For standards to actually change practice, you need a lot of these folks on board.  Otherwise Common Core, like most past standards, will just be a bunch of empty words in a document.

These millions of local officials, educators, and parents often have reasons for holding educational preferences that are different than those dictated by Common Core.  Common Core may call for things like more focus on “informational texts”  and delaying Algebra until 9th grade, but there are reasons why that is not already universal practice.  It’s not as if local officials, educators, and parents are unaware of the existence of informational texts or just waiting to be told by national elites about when they should start teaching Algebra.  They have interests and values that drove them to the arrangements that were in place prior to Common Core.

Having the Secretary of Education, state boards, and a bunch of DC advocacy groups declare a particular approach to be best and cram it into place in the middle of a financial crisis with virtually no public debate or input from educators or parents did not convince local officials, educators, and parents to change their minds.  These are the folks who need to be on board to make the implementation of Common Core real.  And these are the folks who are organizing a political backlash that will undo or neuter Common Core.  A direct path to victory by Common Core supporters sowed the seeds of  its own defeat.

The unraveling of Common Core makes this flop the most obviously ill-conceived and doomed-to-fail reform effort since the Annenberg Foundation threw $500 million away in the 1990s.  I assure you that while the money was flowing from Annenberg that effort had plenty of defenders, just as Common Core does today.  After Common Core fails, everyone will say how they knew it was flawed, just as they currently do with Annenberg.  Victory has a thousand fathers while defeat is an orphan.

But some of us have been warning of the political naivete of the Common Core effort for some time now.  Rick Hess and Mike McShane at AEI have also done an admirable job of describing the political weakness of Common Core, regardless of what one thinks of the merits of the standards themselves.

Supporters of Common Core may draw the wrong lesson from this post and increase efforts to convince the public and train educators to love the Common Core.  Not only will these re-education efforts be too little, too late, but they fail to grasp the inherent flaw in reforms like Common Core.  Trying to change the content and practice of the entire nation’s school system requires a top-down, direct, and definitive victory to get adopted.  If input and deliberation are sought, or decisions are truly decentralized, then it is too easy to block standards reforms, like Common Core.  Supporters of CC learned this much from the numerous failed efforts to adopt national standards in the past.

But the brute force and directness required for adopting national standards makes its effective implementation in a diverse, decentralized, and democratic country impossible.  This can’t be solved by more professional development and a belated marketing campaign.  Even the Chinese re-education camps couldn’t make the Cultural Revolution reailty — and they invested a whole lot more energy and resources in trying to do so than the Common Core folks ever could.

There is a better, more indirect and less definitive approach to education reform.  In the next post I’ll discuss what that looks like.

-Jay P. Greene

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