Ed reform turncoat or just a more balanced position?
Billionaire’s confession stokes policy debate
IN THE GREAT EDUCATION DEBATE that has animated American public life for the last several decades, the players roughly divide into two camps.
The so-called “reformers” say education can, in Horace Mann’s words, be the “great equalizer” through which children of all backgrounds succeed. They support the standards and accountability measures that schools have imposed (the MCAS system here in Massachusetts), they look favorably upon charter schools, and denounce, as George W. Bush famously did, the “soft bigotry of low expectations” for poor and minority children.
The other side argues that the accountability era has brought high-stakes testing that has led to a narrowing of the curriculum in urban schools, and that it has punished schools and educators for the injuries of poverty, which are the driving force behind wide disparities in student achievement, not failing schools or incompetent teachers.
As in broader debates of the political left vs. right, occasionally a confirmed adherent to one side of the education wars will jump ship, a cause for much hand-wringing from the side being abandoned, while a hero’s welcome awaits in the other camp, which will claim there’s no better proof of the rightness of its cause.
It’s not the argument that landed the piece in the magazine, but who was making it.
Hanauer is a billionaire venture capitalist who has been deeply committed to education reform efforts. He was everything that’s wrong with the reformers’ cause, according to critics: A member of the 0.01 percent who, like his Washington state neighbor Bill Gates, was pushing aggressive school reform, an idea for righting society’s wrongs that conveniently avoids big wealth redistribution schemes that might make a claim on his riches or any questioning of the fundamentals of the capitalist structure that has served him so well.
So it was hard to resist a piece from Hanauer, who comes with head bowed solemnly and confesses, “I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was wrong.”
Education historian Diane Ravitch promptly tweeted out Hanauer’s article. It was surprising she didn’t add a “welcome aboard” message, since Ravitch is probably the most well-known figure in education to have flipped sides, going from an assistant secretary in George H.W. Bush’s reform-minded education department to leading critic of testing, charter schools, and the whole reform movement. But it’s actually not clear that Hanauer has done a complete ed policy 180.
He does a good job laying the case for why education reform efforts will not be able to address the deeply entrenched economic inequality that has grown wider with each recent decade.
“What I’ve realized, decades late, is that educationism is tragically misguided,” he writes of the idea that school reform on its own can drive huge change. “American workers are struggling in large part because they are underpaid—and they are underpaid because 40 years of trickle-down policies have rigged the economy in favor of wealthy people like me. Americans are more highly educated than ever before, but despite that, and despite nearly record-low unemployment, most American workers—at all levels of educational attainment—have seen little if any wage growth since 2000.”
It’s actually not that shocking a pronouncement from Hanauer. He wrote a piece for Politico in 2014 and did a TED talk the same year warning his “fellow plutocrats” that society would not long tolerate the obscene economic inequality that had taken root.
“To be clear: We should do everything we can to improve our public schools. But our education system can’t compensate for the ways our economic system is failing Americans,” he writes.Though it makes for a less luring headline, his piece is less a flat rejection of reform efforts than a recognition of the need to also address growing economic inequality directly. The two are not incompatible, says Dan Weisberg, CEO of TNTP, a New York-based nonprofit focused on ensuring high quality teachers for all students.
“I guess it sounds more dramatic to make it an either/or choice between improving education and addressing income inequality. It isn’t,” Weisberg tweeted in reaction to Hanauer’s article. “Maybe the author should stay committed to improving ed for more than a few years before deeming the work futile.”