Over half a century ago, in The Affluent Society, economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term “the conventional wisdom” to describe “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.” “Because economic and social phenomena are so forbidding, or at least so seem… within a considerable range (the individual)…. may hold whatever view of this world he finds most agreeable…” “The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group.… the consensus is exceedingly broad. Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives.” In other words the conventional wisdom about hard and complicated subjects in public policy is made up of what we all believe because everybody else seems to believe it.
The idea that school achievement can be fixed in our poorest communities by testing students and punishing so-called “failing” schools where test scores are low, by holding teachers accountable, by privatizing what are described—even by Democrats like Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, in the words of conservative Milton Friedman—as “government monopoly schools,” has come to be widely accepted since the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law in 2002. No Child Left Behind celebrated the philosophy of test-and-punish, and test-and-punish has been the conventional wisdom now for almost fifteen years, more than enough time for many students to go all the way from kindergarten through 12th grade. Galbraith was right: support for this philosophy became bipartisan. The George W. Bush administration and the Barack Obama administration have implemented the test-and-punish conventional wisdom with a vengeance.
The conventional wisdom, however, does seem to be influenced by people who we think are expert enough to know, particularly if they have supported the conventional wisdom and then changed their minds. It seems that the knowledgeable people who never accepted the conventional wisdom have a lot less influence even though they may have been wise enough never to have gone along in the first place. Hence we have all the experts in the field of education whom we ignore, because, as Arne Duncan has repeatedly pointed out, they just support that weak educational status quo. The list of these people is endless, but I’ll name some of the stars to whom we ought to have been listening: Linda Darling-Hammond and James Comer and Jean Anyon and Pedro Noguera and Rudy Crew and Pauline Lipman and Deborah Meier and Richard Rothstein and Gary Orfield and Mike Rose and David Kirp and Gene Glass and David Berliner and Susan Eaton and George Wood and Helen Ladd, and John Kuhn and and Sonya Nieto and Lisa Delpit and Gregory Michie and Paulo Freire and John Dewey and John Jackson and David Sciarra and Michael Rebell. There are dozens of others I am forgetting in this quick catalog. These are the experts who have defined and defended good teaching and the role of out-of-school factors on school achievement and the importance of the whole child and the urgent need for well funded public schools and access to education as a civil right for every child. Because these people base their opinions on academic expertise or a lifetime of work, we consider them ringers and we pretty much ignore their arguments.
We pay more attention if someone who originally got sidetracked into the conventional wisdom or who strongly believes in the principles behind the conventional wisdom recants and changes sides. This has, after all, become a battle with two sides. If enough of these unlikely folks change their minds and keep on changing their minds, just maybe the conventional wisdom will shift a bit.
Today this blog will quickly review five years’ of mind-changing and then add another defector from the conventional wisdom to the catalog of mind changers. First there was Diane Ravitch who, as a former member of the Koret Task Force of the Hoover Institution, wrote The Death and Life of the Great American School System in 2010 to announce her change of heart and mind and basically to apologize for her long, intense support for test-and-punish school accountability. In 2013, Diane published another book, Reign of Error, to establish her new views more strongly. Her about face, as a former assistant secretary of education, launched a significant challenge to the conventional wisdom.
Then last fall there was Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, the inventor of “portfolio school reform.” Portfolio school reform is a school choice scheme that imagines a big city school district like a business portfolio filled with public and private schools. The district is imagined to promote the successful schools and shed the failures as a businessman would build a successful investment portfolio. But last summer Robin Lake went to Detroit, became dismayed by what she observed, and wrote a scathing condemnation in Education Next of the situation she found there: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit? Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer. It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers. It is not Detroit Public Schools, which views charters as a threat to its survival. It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law. It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview. And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll. No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.” Lake did not entirely recant the conventional wisdom, but she raised some serious questions that let people know she was very disturbed about the implementation of the idea she had been promoting.
Then Margaret Raymond of the Hoover Institution came to the Cleveland City Club to talk about the functioning of the charter sector in Ohio. She was asked a question about the future of charter schools in the state, and here is what she said: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.” Later Raymond tried to backtrack a little and blame the lack of information being provided to the parents choosing schools, but even so, she strongly challenged the conventional wisdom.
Then last month the Education Trust-Midwest condemned lack of regulation of the charter sector in Michigan. Education Trust-Midwest declares itself pro-accountability, pro-test-and-punish, but its new report worries about out-of-control expansion of charter schools in Michigan: “Charter school authorizers, in particular, are arguably accountable to no one—not even our state’s governor—though almost one billion Michigan taxpayer dollars are spent on charter schools each year. Charter authorizers are getting a free pass, despite being responsible for nearly 380 charter schools (and counting) and being the only entities in the state with the power to approve new charters and expand existing charter operators. While the state superintendent has recently threatened to use his limited authority to suspend authorizers, he cannot revoke an authorizer’s authority entirely for chronic low performance.”
Now there is another defection, and this is one of another kind altogether. David Hornbeck was Maryland’s state superintendent of public instruction from 1976 to 1988, and then superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia from 1994-2000. Hornbeck is a retired public school educator who—as the test-and-punish, pro-charter school “reform” began to take off leading up to the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002—believed it would be possible to maintain a strong system of public schools and at the same time try out the new reforms and have them enrich each other. Hornbeck believed at that time that you could improve things by having it both ways. This week in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, Hornbeck declares he was mistaken: “As Philadelphia’s Superintendent of Schools, I recommended the approval of more than 30 charter schools because I thought it would improve educational opportunity for our 215,000 students. The last 20 years make it clear I was wrong… New policy should not build on current inequities and flawed assumptions….”
Hornbeck’s defection is very strong. He resides in Maryland and he writes in response to a new proposal in that state that regulation of charter schools be strengthened. But Hornbeck rejects privatization through charter schools; he is not merely recommending stronger laws to regulate charter schools: “States with ‘stronger’ charter laws are not doing better: Advocates say we need a ‘stronger’ charter law, noting that Maryland ranks near the bottom. Pennsylvania’s law is ranked much higher, yet its charter growth is contributing significantly to a funding crisis that includes draconian cuts to teachers, nurses, arts, music and counselors in Philadelphia.” Hornbeck points out that, “Charters, on the whole, do not result in significant improvement in student performance.” “Charter funding is also negatively affecting regular public schools.” “Charters do not serve students with the greatest challenges. Charters will be quick to point out they enroll high percentages of low-income students. Some do. However, the citywide charter lottery inherently skims. Every student chosen has someone (parent, pastor, friend) who encouraged and is advocating for him/her to apply and succeed.”
Hornbeck concludes: “Charters are not substitutes for broader proven reforms. In fact, chartering is not an education reform. It’s merely a change in governance. A charter law doesn’t deal with the hard and often costly slog of real reform.” He then lists what makes the difference in education: high standards, quality teachers, prekindergarten for 3 year olds, lower class size, and “attacking concentrated poverty through community schools; after school programs; more instruction time… and high quality child care.”
In his recent op-ed, Hornbeck also wades into one of the hottest issues in the debate about education reform: teachers unions:
“We need the best and brightest teachers: The proposed ‘stronger’ law undermines collective bargaining that protects teachers from politics and favoritism and has been crucial to improvement in compensation and benefits… Unionization is not the problem. There are no unions in many of the nation’s worst educational performing states. All schools, charter or traditional, must pay competitive salaries and benefits to attract experienced, skilled teachers who can succeed with children.”
Congratulations David Hornbeck for your courageous challenge to the conventional wisdom and your support for a just system of public schools as the best way to meet the needs and secure the rights of our nation’s children.