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.

All of which explains why people are talking about — and why The Atlantic published in its July issue — a piece by Nick Hanauer titled, “Better Public Schools Won’t Fix America.”

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.

But does recognition that fundamental economic restructuring may be in order, a la Elizabeth Warren, mean we should abandon reform efforts aimed at improving schools serving lower-income students? Hanauer doesn’t actually say we should.

“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.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

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.”