The Spectrum Disorder of Education Reform: A Little Behavioral Therapy

Let’s get one thing straight: almost everyone is an education reformer. The only exception is if you live in a high-performing school district and believe that your responsibility for public education stops in your backyard.

Diane Ravitch, Mother Superior of Unionists (Pope reference!) and reborn anti-accountability zealot, is a reformer.  Post-Katrina Louisiana Superintendent John White, who recently cited a peer-reviewed Tulane study that says of NOLA’s educational resurgence, “We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time,” is a reformer too. New York school choice and social justice phenom Eva Moskowitz is a reformer. So are NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and his school chief Carmen Farina, both floundering to improve a system where only 30% of third-graders read proficiently. Newark’s Superintendent Chris Cerf , of course, is a reformer and so is Mayor Ras Baraka.

Reformers share the tenet that our current system needs to change but differ on degree and direction. The most confounding disputes emerge between those who think we change for the better by moving  backwards and those who think we change for the better by moving forwards.

The “go backwards” part of the education reform spectrum believes that the best route to systemic improvement is canning Common Core, eliminating “high-stakes” accountability tests, and abandoning federal oversight in a new ESEA.  This cluster includes major unions, the Badass Teachers Association (currently rebelling against their leaders’ premature endorsement of Hillary Clinton and unapologetically focusing on job security, student achievement be damned) [props to TFA women for appropriating the “Badass” label!]), Save Our Schools, opt-out proponents, and Tea Partiers like Rand Paul.

The “go forwards” part of the education reform spectrum believes that we need to move beyond an obsolete system where one in five impoverished students earn a college degree by age 24.  It believes that zip-code enrollment systems that bundle granite countertops with top-notch school districts are unethical and inequitable;  that non-profit charter schools offer vital options to children and that challenging the monopoly of traditional schools strengthens all players;  that neighborhood schools are bedrocks of communities;  that we should pay our teachers more, much more if they’re willing to teach in low-income neighborhoods, but we need to weed out underperformers; that children benefit from common standards and accountability metrics.  For these reformers, the federal government has an important role to play in ensuring state compliance and protecting underserved students so they urge that a new ESEA should include federal oversight.

The extremes of this spectrum were on full display on Tuesday in Camden. A group called NJSCERA held a conference at Camden County College on its new “white paper” called “The Future of the Camden City School District: Worst to First—Can it Happen?”  (Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard’s response: “Nobody wants to be spoken of as if they are the subject of a white paper, least of all the tens of thousands of members of the Camden community.” Also, “I had some reservations” about the title of the paper because “I wouldn’t dare label our resilient children, incredible parents and grandparents and dedicated teachers as ‘the worst.’”)

Meanwhile, a small group of protesters rallied outside on Cooper St. organized by a union-funded group called New Jersey Communities United, the same group that organized eight Newark students to hold a sit-in at Cami Anderson’s office. These reformers demanded Rouhanifard’s resignation, a return to local control, and a shut-down of the new hybrid charter/district “renaissance” schools that are so popular among Camden parents that demand outpaces available seats.

NJSCERA and the protesters represent opposite ends of the education reform spectrum: blow up our traditional schools (NJSCERA ends its paper with a call for private school vouchers) or reboot Camden’s long-failing dysfunction despite the fact that only 14 percent of Camden’s elementary and middle schoolers can read and do math on grade level.

If you’re like me, part of the “forwards” contingent but not willing to go as far as NJSCERA, passionately committed to neighborhood schools but not, like NJCU, at the expense of student achievement, then you’re frustrated with our spectrum disorder.So often us reformers disable ourselves by amplifying opposite ends of the gamut when our attention should focus on the moderate middle.That's the sweet spot for consensus, the still point on the spectrum that promises meaningful improvement. Which is, after all, what we all want.