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John Thompson: What Andrea Gabor Teaches Us, Part 1

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John Thompson, who recently retired as a teacher in Oklahoma, here reviews Andrea Gabor’s fine book, After the Education Wars. His review appears in two parts. He is interested in Gabor’s critique of why “reform” failed and where we go next.

The progressive reformers who preceded the corporate reformers of the last generation operated in a manner that was consistent with the “continuous improvement” philosophy of Edwards Deming. As Gabor and Deming explain about schools and other sectors, “Variation is as ubiquitous as air and water.” Deming said, “Only the employees closest to a given process can identify the variation that invariably diminishes quality.” That is why it was necessary to shake up the systemic hierarchy and “drive fear out of the workplace and foster intrinsic motivation.”

Gabor acknowledges the inherent flaws of the pre-reform education administrative sector. Her deepest dive into that “status quo” was her account of how progressive New York City educators, like Deborah Meier, carved out the holistic and inclusive road which reformers refused to take. Meier battled the district’s “compliance managers.” Their methods embodied “creative noncompliance.” Then, Meier and her era’s reformers personified a value system consistent with Deming’s call for “a participative, collaborative, deeply democratic approach to continuous improvement.”

Meier and other progressive education reformers in New York, Massachusetts, and Leander, Tx, respected the essential role of trusting relationships. They needed educators to unite for a team effort, but they also understood the folly of trying to mandate unanimity. It would have been easier to order all teachers to obey the normative dictum which was embraced by the corporate reformers, and be “on the same page.” But they knew that the alternative to open collaboration would be “resistance, secrecy and sabotage.” If Meier and other school leaders emulated the management model of New York City and other large districts, and mandated teacher compliance, “‘the braver and more conscientious [would] cheat the most, but even the most timid can’t practice well what they don’t believe in.’”

Venture philanthropists like Bill Gates and Mike Bloomberg initially shared some of the values which motivated progressive reformers. Both groups initiated small schools in order to offer more personalized services, and the corporate reformers first seemed to not be bewildered by the key component of continuous improvement – building trust. In a sharp contrast to the reckless pace of change that would soon be imposed on public education, the Gates Foundation visited Meier’s Julia Richmond High School for a year before starting its small school campaign. I was shocked to learn that Gates’ Tom Vander Ark invested so much time in visiting schools. But, as Gabor discovered, “The Gates man was smitten with Julia Richmond, but he didn’t see what was actually happening there.”

A progressive principal told Vander Ark about 25 times that “small is a necessary, but not sufficient.” But, he was apparently so obsessed with “scaling up” reforms that the need for collaboration was subordinated to a focus on “design attributes” that could drive nationwide transformation. Vander Ark was more impressed with the “design coherence” of Success Academy than the Julia Richmond culture of trust. Because of their commitment to rapid transformations, Gates, Bloomberg, and other corporate reformers rejected the essence of Meier’s approach and pushed its “antithesis,” which resulted in the “no-excuses charter movement’s focus on behavioral conformity and control.”

Another factor was the Billionaires Boys Club’s hubris. The reformers “distrust of education culture” was combined with “suspicion – even their hatred – of organized labor and their contempt for ordinary public school teachers.” They displayed “the arrogance that elevated polished, but often mediocre (or worse), technocrats over scruffy but knowledgeable educators.” Eventually, Gabor wrote, “to be an educator in Bloomberg’s New York was a little like being a Trotskyite in Bolshevik Russia – never fully trusted and ultimately sidelined, if not doomed.”

It wasn’t just in New York City where the opportunity to learn from veteran, progressive reformers was lost. Across the nation, the accountability-driven, competition-driven reformers’ well-funded public relations campaigns “turned teacher-bashing into a blood sport.” They then sought to “teacher proof” the classroom. Consequently, canned curriculum and mind-numbing lessons drove much of the joy of teaching and learning out of the nation’s schools.

New York City’s lost opportunity morphed into a national tragedy as technocrats continued to worship data but not recognize that the most important educational factors are immeasurable. Their “Taylorism” was combined with a failure to recognize the dangers of “Schumpeterian” disruption on children. And the more that educators resisted reward and punish policies, the more reformers sought better hammers to force compliance. After tougher principal evaluations did not produce enough obedience, value added teacher evaluations sought to hold every single educator accountable for meeting their quantitative goals. Then, reformers overreached by simultaneously imposing Common Core high stakes tests and accountability metrics that were theoretically but not actually aligned with each other.

I entered the classroom as a 39-year-old rookie, but one who had a decade of experience in the inner city. Nearly 1/5th of my first years’ students would listen, learn, and yet refuse to do a single assignment. They didn’t disrupt our lessons as they often did the classes dominated by worksheet-driven instruction. Clearly, part of their noncompliance was a political statement, and they were glad to say why they resisted and why they would soon drop out of school. The common narrative was that they had been robbed of an education when growing up in our district’s teach-to-the-test era in the wake of “A Nation at Risk.” And they bitterly protested that the worst of the drill and kill was imposed on inner city schools.

This was the early 1990s and a new era of test-driven reform was being organized. During our discussions, I said that if reformers would read Catch 22, they would know that compliance couldn’t be forced, and that the system would respond with destructive games to make the accountability metrics come out right. One of my brightest students, who learned every day but who was so fed up with drill and kill that he would have nothing but zeros in every class when he dropped out, offered a better metaphor. During the famous scene in the comedy, I Love Lucy, Lucy fell behind when boxing chocolates on an assembly line. Teachers and students responded to test-driven reform in the same way, tossing out and even eating the product.

Back then, there was a common phrase which Oklahoma progressives repeated, “Feed the Teachers or They Will Eat the Kids,” which anticipates a second post on Gabor’s account of progressive reformers trying to change that reality in NYC, Massachusetts, and Leandor, Tx, as corporate reformers recreated Lucy’s sped-up assembly lines in NYC, New Orleans, and many or most urban schools. It will also review her proposals for a new era that needs to come After the Education Wars.”

Tune in tomorrow, same time, same place, to read the concluding section of Thompson’s review.

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