Sunday, May 4, 2014

The allies you have vs. the allies you want

John Spencer got an earful from the twitterverse yesterday.  His blog post on the Louis CK twitter rant got picked up by Alec Couros and folks (led by ed tech writers Anya Kamenetz and Audrey Watters) started piling on.  I feel for John Spencer, who likes look a pretty good science teacher.  But the discussion quickly spiraled out of the narrow claim he thought he was making into much larger issues he left open in what was supposed to be a quickie blog post.  Always, looking for  a good fight, I piled on last night and I want to clarify my thinking here because Spencer's post deserves more than just a fisk.

Spencer's post argued that Louis CK getting up in arms over four inter-related issues obscured rather than clarified the various problems he and his child were facing.  Those issues are factory schooling, Common Core, homework, and testing.  Now, Spencer is of course, right about that.  Twitter is not a tool suited to reasoned debates over education policy.  The problem is that this isn't the time for reasoned debates over education policy.  You can point out until you are blue in the face(book) that Common Core and testing culture have nothing to do with each other.  There simply isn't a constituency for that at this moment and it's pointless to try to make one.  We are past the point of no return in terms of rhetoric and social policy, and media.  Common Core and testing are linked in people's minds.  If you are against testing culture, it makes political sense to align with people who are against Common Core.  After you beat back testing culture, you can take another stab at creating newer and better standards and do a better job selling them politically.

What Spencer doesn't realize is that policy isn't made by experts.  It's made by politicians and bureaucrats, and teachers, and parents and local school boards, and state elected officials and a dozen other constituencies.  It's a political process.  Attempts to depoliticize it aren't gong to work for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which is that a reliance on "experts" to make policy leads to both administrative capture on the one hand, and calls for centralization and bureaucratization that dismiss the local and particular.  It's the type of high modernist approach that James C. Scott described in Seeing Like a State:  How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Fail

Quite frankly, we shouldn't have expected Common Core to have been so widely adopted as it first was.  And it's rollback should be expected.  It took at least four tries to pass an interstate highway bill that contained a funding mechanism (finally passed in 1956) and people, for the most part, like roads and highways and they especially liked them and needed them in the immediate post-War era.

The task now is to stop the privatization of public education, restore funding, clamp down on charter schools and the shifting of public moneys to private interests, and take another stab at raising standards without the baggage attached to Common Core.  You are not going to accomplish any of that by whining that Louis CK and Matt Damon make a big splash.  You do it by inviting them into the movement and then educating the hell out of them as to what the issues are and how the can help.

You don't go to war with the allies you wish you had, you go with the allies you do have.  And if along the way, you can turn them into the allies you want, so much the better. 


  1. "What Spencer doesn't realize is that policy isn't made by experts."

    Actually, no, I do realize that. I really do. I've written about policy often in the past and I've blasted folks like Bill Gates and Arne Duncan for their lack of experience and expertise.

    What I'm critical of is the uncritical acceptance of the words of a celebrity simply because he is a celebrity while at the same time ignoring the professional voice of teachers. We are the last ones permitted to speak up. We are the last ones to be heard.

  2. But John, it's pretty obvious you wish policy were made by experts. As for that, I stand by assessment that experts left to themselves are as likely to do damage as create good. Second, there's a certain idealism that pervaded your tweets and blog that's charming but naive. There's a moment in Rick Perlstein's Nixonland when in the 1966 elections, a Democratic candidate releases a policy report that is hundreds of pages and and then can't understand how he gets beat by a Nixon supported Republican. He had the best policies, why did he lose? As Perlstein (and countless others) point out, elections aren't won on policy proposals (except in the vaguest of terms). The future of ed isn't going to be settled by experts, it's going to be settled in elections. CC is one issue among many. Are you really willing to defend CC at the expense of taking all the associated baggage that comes with it, a ton of rhetorical and cultural work that comes with disassociating CC from the rest of the package. Or do you ditch the package (Pearson, Gates, privatization, NCLB, RTTT) and then bring back a rebranded and improved CC2. It seems a lot more politically feasible to do that then separate CC from it's allies in testing etc. There is not going to be an Emancipation Proclamation moment where the CC is magically divorced from it's allies from the last 5 years.

  3. Political support in our society is gathered by those able to collect the most money that can then be used to hire pollsters and consultants who will create compelling propaganda. That is why we battle so over money in politics, and why those who want to find a way to minimize it always lose over time. Political, increasingly policy, decisions are made by those with the best propaganda, not those with the best

  4. ... not those with the best (or most reasonable) arguments. For more than a century, we've been successfully trained by our media, government & business institutions to respond to propaganda, not to think critically. The few who are able to do the latter are only able to do so in very limited arenas, and are pretty much ignored by most, most of the time. Before we'll be able to have a citizenry capable of making reasonable decisions on public policy, we'll first have to train ourselves to recognize and defang the propaganda to which we've proven so susceptible.

  5. @Bill Connecting reasonable policies to emotional/cultural appeals has been part of politics since the earliest elections

  6. You are correct, David. Reasonable men have sold reasonable policies in propagandistic ways for centuries. What has developed (1st in the US, later spreading around the world) over the century or so is the psycho sell that has pretty much come to be an end in itself. Hence we now have nearly endless campaigns with rarely any substantive (much less reasonable) in sight. Perhaps the best exploration of this phenom is Adam Curtis' great 4 part documentary series (from the BBC) The Century of the Self.

  7. Incidentally, over at National Review, Ramesh Ponnoru and Avik Roy are having a debate about whether the proper response to ObamaCare is 'Reform' or 'Repeal and Replace'. The debate about political tactics and strategy strikes me as broadly parallel to your discussion here.

    This contributes absolutely nothing to the substance of your debate, but perhaps you might find their discussion of tactics useful.