Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 08/16/2010

Willingham: Can reformers control their own reforms?

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

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.


Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | 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  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: The problem with favoring high schools in turnaround grant program
Next: The best kind of teacher evaluation


The Washington Post is an American icon. It's the newspaper that brought down a President of the United States in defense of the rule-of-law nearly forty years ago. That was then though, now its Kaplan's Washington Post.

The Post and the nation has seen the Reagan Revolution and the rise of the "neoliberals" whose mantra is privatize all profits and make public all debt. They are working to "starve the beast" or reduce government to the point that as Grover Norquist put it, "we can drown it in a bathtub."

In that post-Watergate era, The Washington Post made a deal with the devil, the scamers at Kaplan, a pioneer in the movement to privatize public education. That deal brought Bill Gates and Warren Buffet into influential positions with the newspaper. That deal led to mayoral control of the DCPS. That deal made the same Post that had vanquished Richard Nixon a lapdog of figures as small as the sad little Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

That 7% decline in Washington Post stock today cited by Nick Anderson brings the stock's year-to-date decline to 28%. More market traders are "shorting", betting against The Washington Post today than at any time in two decades. The big money thinks The Post is down for the count.

Understandably, Kaplan's corporate management, which controls the editorial board of The Washington Post, never cared about the newspaper beyond the profits it might generate and the propaganda value it brought to campaign to destroy public education. But those who work for this once-great paper are another matter and should realize that as they participate in the dismantling of the DCPS, they are helping to dig their own graves.

Talking to you Nick, Valerie, Bill. Jay Mathews, feel free to ignore this comment, you sold your soul to these con artists long ago.

Posted by: natturner | August 16, 2010 6:52 PM | Report abuse


I always enjoy what you write. I think your comments are a great asset to the discussion. I just want to disagree with you on one point - I don't think all of those you listed sold their soul.

Posted by: educationlover54 | August 16, 2010 7:46 PM | Report abuse

educationlover54, you missed the period after Bill. Jay Mathews was the only one accused of selling out for Kaplan.

Hope springs eternal for Nick Anderson, Bill Turque, and I wish Valerie Strauss would marry me (or have my baby).

Posted by: natturner | August 17, 2010 12:01 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company