A different kind of confusion appears in the first chapter on charter schools. In a passage starting on p. 160, Ravitch presents the involvement of New York hedge-fund managers in charter schools at the beginning of a messy discussion of colocation of charter schools in New York City, the ties between charter schools and tax credits, similar ties with investment-based visas, real-estate operations with charter-school education as a loss leader, and the ideology of profit-motivated charter-school model laws pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council. The problem is not trying to figure out what connects these issues; they all do appear sort-of related to private interests and profit perspectives. The problem lies in presenting them as connected without explaining what those connections are precisely. A key hedge-fund involved in DFER recently (and severely) criticized K12′s involvement in virtual charter schools; that would not happen if the presentation of charter-school motives in Reign of Error were really true. What is true is that hedge-fund managers such as Whitney Tilson are biased in favor of charter schools because of their trust in entrepreneurialism. Can we criticize that trust? Absolutely. But that is a different problem from the bald exploitation of charter school laws by Imagine, White Hat, and other ripoff artists.
These flaws are not Ravitch’s alone–they reflect the conversations in which she has been embedded for the past five years. In drinking from the discourse of reform critics, Ravitch has become as uncritical of these views as she once was of center-right arguments for choice and accountability. This is my greatest disappointment in Reign of Error–for the many chapters where she is articulate and clear, the broader framing is confectionary reasoning, clumping different objects together in a sticky mess. In the third chapter, Ravitch presents “corporate reformers” as a large mass of interest groups, foundations, think tanks, and ideologies. When she lumps the Center for American Progress and the Fordham Institute together with the Goldwater Institute and Heartland Institute, and there is no further analysis, my heart sinks. There are problems of putative reformers who do not hold each other accountable (witness the attempted resuscitation of Tony Bennett’s reputation), and there are important issues to raise with philanthropic foundations’ involvement in education reform. But chapter three is not a sophisticated argument, and its folk network analysis is a significant step back from the points Ravitch raised four years ago in The Death and Life of the Great American School System. I understand the attraction of pointing at the connections and saying ,”This is one giant thing that Sure Explains a Whole Lot.” I have on occasion been tempted to call Checker Finn part of a center-right Reformy Blob as a jab at the “education blob” claims he helped spread in the 1980s. But surely Diane Ravitch could have done better than type my unexpressed snark.
Where do we forge our education technology affinity politics? How do we build a movement from there? Where are we building political (and pedagogical) coalitions about learning and teaching with technology? With whom? Why?
What ed-tech alliances have we forged or have we inherited that, as painful as it might be, we should examine, that we should interrogate, that we should – perhaps – abandon? And why don’t we?
Not all of us can or would want to make a 100-slide presentation about the terrible investments (and mean this metaphorically, not just financially) that we're making in education. Not all of us are willing to pen a caustionary tale to our buddies about what happens if we don't adjust our efforts (again: this might be a metaphor). Many of us might bristle at framing education questions this way, I recognize. But I think Tilson's presentation is important and eye-opening nevertheless.
I actually thought this obliquely related post from digby was a useful counterpoint:
The truth is that it's very far from perfect here (in California). It's not as if the Democrats in Sacramento, including Jerry Brown, are free from conflict and corruption. But for the most part, they aren't insane which makes a huge difference when you're trying to drag yourself out of a hole created by greedheads and kooks in the midst of a worldwide economic crisis. Just denying lunatics the power to create chaos is enough to allow for some modest government actions to turn the ship of state a few degrees toward normal. Lord knows they could have done more. But Maher is correct that we were able to at least keep the state from completely melting down by refusing to empower this right wing freakshow.
More charitably, the real dividing line in K-12 at the present moment is between those who actually know what is going on in schools and the implementation details and those who very, very, very much don't want to know or pretend they don't, because lots of things are happening that nobody really believes in.
You can go straight back to Ravitch today:
Or for that matter, this:
Gary Rubinstein’s analysis of the charter schools founded by Congressman Jared Polis showed that the schools posted low test score growth. Congressman Polis responded in a comment (posted below) that this was understandable because his charter schools enroll very low-performing students, many of whom barely speak or read English, and many of whom are overage for their grade and far behind. It is understandable, he says, that these kids are not posting big score gains. He also notes that the teachers at his schools are not judged by value-added assessment, given the students they serve.
Congressman Polis is making my case for me but he doesn’t realize it. He should read my book.
He would discover that I support charter schools that enroll the kids who didn’t make it in public schools. They should exist to do what the public schools can’t do. They should exist to help kids who were left behind, not to skim the brightest kids from the poorest communities. Schools should not be closed because of their low scores, and their teachers should not be judged by test scores. Charter schools and public schools should collaborate, not compete. Charter schools should fill a need, as Polis’ schools seem to do, not fight public schools for market share.
Aside from bizarrely badgering Pareene to pick Dimon’s replacement, the extraordinary amount of money the company has been making was the anchors’ main explanation for why this CEO, who is the target of a billion different investigations and lawsuits, shouldn’t lose his job. Implicit in that defense is that major regulatory fines and federal investigations are nothing for banks to be ashamed of and certainly nothing to change big bank culture over. According to this reasoning, fines and investigations are just the “cost of doing business.” If the fines can be paid off without making a severe dent in the company’s bottom line, then there is absolutely nothing wrong happening here.
Or perhaps today's Common Core Watch post where Neerav Kingsland makes it perfectly clear he is completely uninterested in standards aside from if he's told they are more or less "rigorous."
Essentially, "Who the hell are these people and what the fuck do they even think they are doing?" has been the essential question driving this blog for the past eight years or so.
This post could go on forever, but let's end it with a quote from Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein via Ezra Klein which applies equally well to education reformers today:
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics — it is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.