Thursday, March 22, 2012

A program of reform?

I was reading an article about Michelle Rhee, the one-time Chancellor of Washington, DC schools, and I finally figured out why I find the education reformers (of which she is one) so frustrating. 

They're too wonky.  That is, they're all about policy.  (No surprise to find that Rhee's own education is in public policy.)  By this I mean that they think programatically, and they insist on measurable results, like they're a business.  The push for data is to be able to more readily evaluate the policies put in place under such an approach.  Get something we can measure, then we can see how we're performing. 

It came clear when I read that she thought 'universal' vouchers were not a good idea, but 'targeted' vouchers to subsidize poor families to go to better schools would be a good idea.

Such a debate sounds so meaningful and so erudite and so nuanced.  But it's hard to imagine just how either policy trickles down to a meaningful effect on the specific students in specific schools.  The great difficulty, of course, is that so many students have such varying experiences, and so many factors besides the organizational structure of the school matter, that such a broad brush claim as vouchers--universal or targeted--will be a difficult to apprehend.  Vouchers (or charters or anything you can name) would be a boon to some, bust for others.

The reformers' claims implicitly rest on the assumption that organizational structure is so determining that freeing up schools--by getting rid of union contracts or by connecting evaluations to test scores or by converting to charters or whatever--will so transform the school environment and process that students will necessarily do if the current organizational structure generates only bad, destruction, sloth, etc., while the proposed new structure would be a frictionless plane that will create and maintain perfect teachers with perfect curriculum leading to outstanding student performance.

Such devotion to organizational reform is, in its own way, faith in a kind of technological solution.  If we just build the organizational machine rightly and well, all will get better...except when it doesn't.

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