Curmudgucation: After the Education Wars: The Best and Worst of Reform

Andrea Gabor is a business journalist by trade, and it's our great good fortune that she followed the thread of business-style reform into the world of education. Her recent book, After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform, is an invaluable addition to the literature of ed reform -- not the faux reform that has been foisted on us for the past decades, but actual improvement of schools and education. With a journalist's keen eye for detail and gift for story-telling, Gabor delivers compact, fair and gripping tales of education reform in four cities, showing both what worked and what didn't. The book combines thorough research with sharp insight and-- well, there are plenty of books about ed reform that are "interesting if you're into that sort of thing." Gabor's book is just plain interesting and hugely readable. If you're afraid this review is too long to read, let me cut to the chase-- read this book.

Gabor is a fan of W. Edwards Deming, the American engineer who helped Japan create their post-war industrial boom but who was long ignored in this country. The story she finds in business-driven ed reform is the story of businessmen who keep learning and applying the wrong lessons, and whose distrust of educators combine with their arrogance about their own expertise result in repeated versions of the same mistakes. They keep returning to a topdown, hierarchal, siloed organization driven with carrot-and-stick incentives "about as successful," says Gabor, "as a Ford Pinto or a Deep Water Horizon drilling operation." But the debates about industrial management in this country were largely won by the Taylorites, who put their faith in sort-of-scientific data and a view of workers as rats in a Skinner box. The Deming systems approach, valuing an atmosphere of trust and empowerment.

This may all seem very esoteric, but it shakes out in some important ways. To oversimplify-- a Taylorite approach says that individuals mess up the system, and you make the system better by rooting out the "bad" individuals, while a Deming approach says that problem individuals are signs of flaws in your system. You can see the Taylorite approach manifest in the long-standing reformer emphasis on finding bad teachers and firing them as a ay to fix schools. My favorite Deming observation is about deadwood in an organization. Deming asked if it was dead when you hired it or did you hire a live tree and then kill it? Either way, it's your system (and management) are to blame.

Gabor uses five big chapters to tell the stories of four big systems; each story is fascinating and instructive in its own way.

New York

I will confess that the ins and outs of NYC schools have always been mysterious to me. So much history, so many players, and so many mistakes. Gabor takes the wayback machine all the way to the 1970s, then picks up the rise of a progressive movement in the city and its connection to the small schools movement, including schools within schools and charters. Gabor brings the various players to life, from Lillian Weber to Deborah Meier to Tony Alvarado-- a growing network of education rebels practicing "creative noncompliance." Gabor doesn't erase anybody's failures or shortcomings; this is a story of human beings doing what they think is right, their strengths also sometimes their weaknesses.

Gabor tells the stories of Central Park East and the Julia Richman complex (the schools that inspired Bill Gates, but from which he took all the wrong lessons). And then she tells the story of how Mayor Bloomberg and Joel Klein brought the new brand of corporate ed reform to NYC and the havoc that "disruption" wrought, leading to the "charter school boom and the test score arms race." Again, Gabor balances a huge number of vivid characters and wonky policy ideas rendered in clear strokes. (As a side note, reading this I was once again struck by just how many reformsters got their start working for Klein). By focusing on specific stories, like the rise and fall off Global Tech, she shows how the various reform policies played out.

And while Gabor is fair, she's also pretty blunt. Here she is writing about the impact of federal reform on the state:

Behind Race to the Top was a well-worn set of assumptions that competition, in the form of charter schools and the Common Core would lift all pedagogical boats; that punitive teacher evaluations-- extra funding in exchange for teacher evaluations linked to test scores-- would motivate lazy and recalcitrant teachers to finally do their jobs; that all you need was a good teacher in every classroom and the detrimental effects of poverty, neglect, and social dysfunction could be significantly, if not entirely mitigated.
However, New York State's alacrity in adopting both the Common Core and faux-Common Core tests stands out for its sheer hubris and wrong-headedness. 

New York City ends up being the story of how federal, state and local politics managed to mostly overwhelm actual effective reform going on in the city. Fortunately, it's not the only story Gabor has to tell.

Brockton, Massachussetts

Brockton was the state's largest high school, and its poorest. That part it at ground zero for Massachussetts' remarkable Education Reform Act of 1993. This story takes us back to a time before "reform" meant "market-based opportunity for corporate profit" and explains why we hear so often about how Massachussetts had strong schools and better standards than the Common Core.

Gabor gives several reasons that Mass reform worked. First, it grew from string  broad-based leadership and support which in turn produced a clear vision of what reform should look like. Second, it had clear goals and a system for achieving them-- a system that was collaborative and transparent. Third, the whole business was born of a "deliberate, often messy, and deeply democratic process."  Everyone was par of it and "the reforms were not rushed, nor were they imposed from above." (Also, as a side note, charter schools were "virtually irrelevant.")

Gabor tells the striking (and probably not well  enough known) story of how the state crafted a true education reform, including all the messy parts, and sadly, how that reform eventually collided with federally-imposed corporate reform. I'm not sure anything highlights the hollow hypocrisy of No Child Left Behind, Common Core, or Race to the Top than how the feds dealt with a state that had already achieved most of what the reformsters claimed they wanted, and how those reformsters tried to hammer their way into the state anyway.

Leander, Texas

You've probably never heard of Leander, Texas, but you need to. The school district is an absolute model (or "proof of concept," if you prefer corporate reformster-speak) for the Deming continuous improvement doctrine of Trust and Collaboration (and driving fear out of the system). The grown-huge district has an impressive commitment to both qualities, with a firm vision of maintaining student excitement about learning. Imagine a district with entire "Culture Days" devoted simply to maintaining and building a sense of positive mission and shared commitment.

Here in this chapter is How They Did It, Why They Did It, and how well it has worked. I won't say much more than to say that I've heard district leaders speak, and my initial reaction was  "Yeah, sure" and a half hour later I had arrived at "I'd like to work there."

This chapter, more than anything I've read, answers the eternal reformer question, "Well, if you don't like our ideas, what do you want to do instead." This. I want to do this. A systems approach that drives out fear and thrives on trust and collaboration while centering on students not just as learners, but as human beings. Let's do this.

New Orleans

There's no denying that pre-Katrina New Orleans schools. A city steeped in racism and corruption  (read Empire of Sin for a picture of its amazing history), it had a school system to match. But post-Katrina NOLA is a perfect example of the reformster technique of offering fake solutions to real problems. This has been a pattern over and over-- a heavy emphasis on the problems that need to be solved, with no real discussion or honest evaluation of the proposed "solutions" and certainly no consideration for possible alternative solutions.

The local charter establishment had presented the takeover of the city's schools as a binary choice-- the mismanagement and corruption of the old OPSDB of the pre-Katrina years or the shiny, efficient, technocratic charter schools run by mostly white out-of-towners and funded by white, mostly out-of-town money and muscle.

With that, a silencing of the poor, black residents of the city. The stories of Morris Jeff, MLK, and John McDonough schools show just how hard black residents and neighborhoods had to fight to be heard at all (and how often they fought had and were still ignored). New Orleans continues to be an example of reform at its most nakedly anti-democratic, of a top-down approach that tells the little people to shut up and sit down because their betters know what's best for them, and they probably aren't capable of self-determination anyway. Watch for a repeat performance in Puerto Rico.


Gabor wraps up by talking about "how schools -- and society -- benefit from real democracy." It's an appropriate discussion because, as many have noticed, reformsterism is part of a larger pattern of erasing democracy so that the right people, rich people, privileged people, can run things without being interrupted by all those little people and votes and such foolishness.

I have a ton of things underlined in this chapter - I'll just share a few of them.

K-12 education in the twenty-first century cannot be framed as a battle between preparing young people for a competitive global marketplace, on the one hand, versus a democratic society, on the other. That's a false dichotomy; schools must do both.

But instead of scouring the world for the best educational practices, America embraced testing and the disruptions of the market. For business-minded Americans, tests have all the benefits of an easy-to-digest profit-and-loss statement. When scores go up, education is deemed to be improving; when scores go down, schools are labeled failures. But like quarterly earnings reports, tests have a nasty habit of distorting and manipulating production in order to generate the desired numbers.

...from Bloomberg's New York to New Orleans, the elites who control the education-reform agenda have absorbed a deep distrust of democratic decision making both at the school-board level and in schools themselves.

Gabor shows throughout that while the official ed reform of those elites has been controlling the agenda and grabbing the power, all along, quiet revolutions have produced real reform in a variety of settings, and reformsters have not only failed to learn from those educator-driven democratically-fueled reforms, but they have actively opposed them. Gabor last out her lessons to be learned:

Key ingredients for meaningful reform include local decision making (including teacher voice), equitably funding, strong leadership, a clear and widely supported strategy, and accountability with flexibility.

Schools and school governance must model democratic decision making.

The best schools need protection from "giant vampire squid bureaucracies."

Democratic involvement will be affected by trends in the country at large.

Charter schools should get back to the old notion of teacher-led innovation and away from public school substitution.

Accountability needs to be radically rethought.

Wrapping up.

This is a book you really, really ought to read. It masterfully balances the big picture, the small picture, and the ideas behind them. It shows how schools and school systems can be improved by folks who are actual educators, and it shows how the rising tide of "reform" has actually interfered with real reform. And it's written in as the kind of engaging history that good journalists do best. You should read this book. 

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation.