Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Evolution of the Two Camps

I haven't written much the past couple years, so I'd like to write a bit about the biggest change I've seen in the education debate during that time.

I wrote last week about the two camps in education reform.  It's an imperfect division, but I think it's fair to split education reform into one camp that supports more markets, measurement, and metrics versus another camp that opposes most of these reforms.

What I've noticed over the past decade, and particularly in the past couple years, is that the two groups -- let's call them the MMMs and the Yucks -- have switched roles rhetorically.

In my first blog post (coincidentally, exactly six years ago today) I discussed a potential conflict within the ideas and rhetoric of the MMMs, which became kind of a theme over the next few years.

Many readers of this blog doubtless assumed that I opposed everything for which the MMMs stood and that I was a dyed-in-the-wool Yuck.  But that was never really true. What I oppose is people who are really certain that something will work regardless of the evidence; people who are really just wildly advocating solutions in search of a problem.  And in those years, the MMMs did that consistently.

From my vantage point, the posts and press I read advocating for the MMM solutions were frequently frantic, caustic, and accusatory.  You don't support charter schools?  You are a BAD PERSON!  (A slight exaggeration, but you get the point).  I found this style of argument more distasteful than the actual solutions being proposed.

The Yucks, on the other hand, tended to be more measured in their writing.  They knew the evidence was mostly on their side since charters, vouchers, merit pay, testing, and so forth hadn't really produced many measurable results at that point.  They preached patience and caution and pointed out flaws in overly zealous arguments.  Or at least that's how it seemed to me.

But something's changed in recent years.  Maybe it's my point of view.  Maybe it's my geographic location. Maybe it's my reading list.  Maybe it's my daily context.  Those are all possibilities.  But I think it's the rhetoric.

I often find myself more frustrated now by the pieces written by the Yucks than the MMMs for the same reasons I listed above.  The MMMs seem more calm and reasoned while the Yucks seem more frantic and aggressive.

I could list a thousand examples, but I'll spare you all the details in this post.  Many exceptions obviously exist, but I've generally been dismayed by the rhetoric of those advocating against testing, the common core, school closures, and the like in recent years.

Since most of the same people are on the same sides (other than Diane Ravitch, of course), it seems almost impossible that the debate could really have changed that much.  But I think there's one very good reason why it would: the MMMs are now winning.

A decade ago, most of their ideas were outside the mainstream (other than NCLB) and they were advocating for radical reform while the Yucks were telling them to be reasonable.  Now, the majority of Americans (and even the NY Times editorial board) support a lot of the MMM ideas and the Yucks are on the defensive.  It seems only natural that the side with momentum and power can be more patient while the side that finds itself on the outside looking in feels the need to frantically scream for attention.

The problem with this strategy is that the Yucks are only making it worse for themselves.  Here's one of the responses to my last post on the two camps:
Based on what I've written above, I can understand why Jason feels this way.  The Yucks are so busy frantically screaming that the MMMs are wrong that it's hard to hear the Yucks who are trying to advance different ideas.

I do think it's important to point out, though, that what Jason said is demonstrably false: thousands of Yucks are working on major new initiatives and ideas (Promise Neighborhoods being the prominent example).  But, in some ways, that doesn't matter.  Perception is reality.  And it's perfectly understandable that one would perceive the MMMs as the reasonable adults and the Yucks as the crying babies in the room at the moment.

Granted, it's also understandable that the Yucks would be crying foul.  Most empires topple due to overreach and hubris, and this outcome seems perfectly plausible here.  The current outrage against the Common Core might signal the beginning of another transition in power.

While the Common Core is backed by solid research and makes tons of sense on paper, it's been rammed down teachers' and parents' throats in some places -- so we shouldn't be surprised by the gagging we're seeing from those groups.  Indeed, in a recent survey, teachers cite constantly changing demands as the most significant challenge they face as a teacher by a large margin and almost none thought their voices were being heard on a state or national level.  So even if they're objectively wrong about the Common Core, their frustration is understandable.

When each group has been in power, they have been openly hostile toward and dismissive of the other group's proposals.  And when each group has been in the minority they've screamed bloody murder about every little thing.  And I don't think we'll ever get anywhere as long as this continues.

So, for now, my advice to the MMMs is to stop treating everybody who disagrees with you as an obstacle to your inevitable success.  And my advice to the Yucks is to stop yowling about everything the MMMs have done or are thinking of doing.  Very little of what's happening today is likely to signal the end of the world.

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