Conor Williams: If You Want to Win the Reform Wars, You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

By Conor Williams | July 11, 2015

What do most Americans think about “ed reform?” They think it’s a long overdue program aimed at getting their screwup brother Ed out of Mom’s basement. Which is to say…they don’t think about “education reform” at all.
But within the context of education debates (especially policy debates), “ed reform” describes a loose crowd of individuals focused on a narrow group of actions related to equitable educational opportunities for all students: Raising academic standards, reforming teacher tenure, developing school and teacher accountability systems, opening public charter schools, supporting Teach For America, and arguing with Diane Ravitch.
People who care about some (or all) of these issues quickly hear from opponents that they’ve joined a powerful team of “corporate reformers” who supposedly hate teachers and want to find ways to get huge, secret profits from making changes to America's public education system. They also hear that teacher accountability proponents don't understand how child poverty affects schools, or that public charter school supporters must oppose school integration, or that pushes for higher academic standards distract from our inadequate early education investments.
To be a reformer, so the argument goes, is to have tunnel vision, to see only the few issues that reformers usually talk about. Rather than engaging the merits of reform positions, critics simply move outside the issues that reformers usually discuss.
Imagine a conversation with Ed, the aforementioned subterranean brother, about how to reform his ways. You suggest that finding a job would help him get money, his own place, and maybe a few dates. He responds that he can't possibly look for a job until he hears back from record labels about his band's demo tape. Of course that's not the issue at hand, nor is it incompatible with job hunting, but it is one way for Ed to avoid talking about his sorry state.
So it is with efforts to improve public education. And this dynamic has serious, mostly worrisome, consequences. It means that good ideas like the Common Core State Standards get dismissed because they don't seem to be part of a broader theory of education improvement. Rather than engage the new, rigorous standards as what they are — academic expectations — critics make the debate about poverty, federalism, school funding formulas, or any other issue that isn't a reform focus.
Many reformers are silent on questions that seem peripheral to their projects — but are actually of core importance to many parents and educators
To some degree, this is just the way things are. Just as haters are, for better or worse, gonna hate, reform critics are always going to try to move arguments away from the specific policies reformers are pushing. This is a function of playing defense in an argument. If you can move an argument from your opponent’s preferred rhetorical and empirical turf, why wouldn’t you?
But reformers definitely carry a share of the blame. They make it easy for critics to move the debate around. Support for the Common Core, for instance, is intellectually irrelevant to supporting expanded access to high-quality pre-K (reformers like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have supported both for years). Reformers should be able to say, “No question, more and better early education access is a good thing. So is the Common Core.” They usually don’t make this sort of argument. Why not?
In part it’s because the ed reform movement is full of holes. That is, many reformers (and reform-affiliated organizations) are silent on questions that seem peripheral to their projects — but are actually of core importance to many parents and educators. Why can't — why don't — most reformers engage on educational equity issues outside their wheelhouse?
For instance, as a reformer who is also the founder of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group, I’ve been surprised at most reformers’ low level of engagement on issues related to students who speak a language other than English at home. These dual language learner (DLL) students make up nearly one-third of Head Start students, and face serious educational inequities throughout their schooling. What's the "reform position" on bilingual education — or family engagement programs in these students' home languages? There isn't one. Much as they care about equity, most reformers really haven't gotten around to thinking about these kids.
That's why their opponents frequently bring up these kids to criticize reform initiatives. For instance, Chicago's hard-won, battle-scarred teacher evaluation system went into effect recently. It's a good idea that should help improve instruction, give teachers feedback, and raise accountability. But it's designed in ways that give teachers of DLLs confusing, sometimes incompatible incentives. Specifically, it incentivizes instruction in English while also setting math and reading goals that would be easier for many students to achieve in their home languages.
Educational inequity is a systemic phenomenon that spans all levels of governance and many domains of social policy (including housing, health care, anti-poverty, and food policies). Meaningful solutions need to be similarly comprehensive — or at least be attentive to the broader issues influencing educational outcomes. And if reformers were willing to push on a more comprehensive array of issues, I think they’d be more persuasive to their neighbors who are as-yet uncommitted in the so-called reform wars. I think they’d be closer to building a movement.
Or, to put it another way: it's gonna take more than a haircut and a pep talk to get Ed out of Mom's basement — although those could help. It's gonna take more than reformers' slate of (generally pretty good) ideas to make educational equity a reality in the United States.
Dr. Conor P. Williams is a father and former teacher who works as a senior researcher at New America's Education Policy Program. He is also the founder of New America's Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Follow him on Twitter @conorpwilliams and on Facebook.
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