Willingham: Can reformers control their own reforms?
By Daniel Willingham
The best books show you a new way of thinking about a familiar issue. Paul Peterson’s "Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning", offers a new way of thinking about education reform by recounting the histories of reformers.
The book tells the story of six great figures: Horace Mann, John Dewey, Martin Luther King Jr., Al Shanker, William Bennett, James Coleman, and one perhaps-great-figure-to-be, Julie Young, President and CEO of Florida Virtual School.
A diverse group, to be sure, but Peterson makes a persuasive case that more than just the “reformer” label binds them. (Indeed, King and Coleman are not typically thought of as reformers anyway.) Although they struggled for different goals, a thread of continuity runs through their histories: that of increased centralization of education. From the book:
Each of these struggles shifted control of education away from parents and localities to professionals operating within larger legal entities—large districts, collective-bargaining agreements, state governments, court jurisdictions, and federal executive agencies. Centralization became the almost inevitable byproduct of school reform, simply because reformers sought maximum power to carry their desires into effect.
Reformers, Peterson argues, inevitably step on the toes of stakeholders who profit from the status quo. Horace Mann did not anticipate that local school boards would be controlled by ethnic politicians elected by immigrants who had a different vision of education than Mann. Al Shanker succeeded in forging a powerful labor movement, but later learned that its constituents were wary of his vision of the future of education. And so on.
Peterson’s core argument--that reformers seek greater centralization of control, then lose control of the intended reform--seems especially pertinent to thinking about the impact of the Common Core standards.
Jay P. Greene has emphasized this point. He argues that however much one might like the standards now, “the good guys” will inevitably lose control of them. From Peterson’s read of history, it would seem that Greene is dead on.
This argument might ring true to me because of my own experience. Long before the Common Core standards became the latest Big Idea, I would chuckle when I heard policy observers avow (with a straight face) “Oh, I’m for national standards. [pause] As long as they are good.”
This attitude is an example of a common enough human bias. People think “things would be fine, if everyone would just listen to me.”
A small variation on that attitude would be: “I really like books by smart people—that is, people who agree with me.”
And that, I fear, will be the reason that "Saving Schools" will have a smaller audience than it deserves. Peterson is thought of as an education “conservative” (the quotation marks will be explained in a future blog posting) and there is an unfortunate tendency for people to eagerly read with what they already agree.
Even if you anticipate that you will disagree with much in the book—as I did—I encourage you to read it. It is full of insights and nice turns of phrase. Peterson is an able writer, graceful rather than powerful. Happily, the book lacks condemnations, sanctimony, or dewy-eyed platitudes, which puts it in rare company.
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| August 16, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, National Standards | Tags: common core standards, daniel willingham, national standards, paul peterson, paul peterson's book, saving schools, school reform
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