This morning I love the Social Security Administration. I just retired, which was a scary process because I had to read and digest all sorts of explanations of choices I had to make and then, even though I wasn’t sure I fully understood it all, I had to make decisions that, I was told, couldn’t be undone.
The only thing that saved me were the steady, friendly people who told me in simple language what all the paperwork really meant. Last week I received a second Medicare card, with a slightly different number from the first. Why did a second card arrive just when I thought I was done with this process? Which card should I use? Should I keep them both or destroy one of them? Late Friday, I left a message on the voicemail of John Morris, the gentleman I have come these past two months to consider my friend at the Social Security Administration, and sure enough, this morning, Monday, at 8:17 AM, John Morris called me right back. I should keep the second card, destroy the first, and have a lovely day and a great week.
John Morris is a bureaucrat, not a disruptor, and a bureaucrat is exactly what I have needed to help me through the disruption of retirement. He listens well; he knows all the rules and the answers to my questions; and he can tell me in simple language exactly what it all means and why.
It was particularly timely this morning that right after I spoke with John Morris, I happened to read Valerie Strauss’s column in the Washington Post, What’s the “Most Pernicious Cliche of Our Time”?, which directed me for further exploration to Judith Shulevitz’s recent piece in the New Republic, Don’t You Dare Say “Disruptive.” It’s the Most Pernicious Cliche of Our Time.
The subject of both pieces is Orwellian language—in this case the language of business transferred without much thought about its implications to the world of government. As Shulevitz explains, “Disruptive doesn’t mean what it used to, of course. It’s no longer the adjective you hope not to hear in parent-teacher conferences. It’s what you want investors to say about your new social-media app. If it’s disruptive, it’s also innovative and transformational.”
These day we have adopted the language of business not only into our talking but also into our thinking about things like government services and most especially public education. This is the context of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s put-down of supporters of public schools: “mere endorsers of the status-quo.” Status-quo, in Arne Duncan-speak, connotes stasis and inertia.
It bothers me that Arne Duncan is putting down my friend John Morris at the Social Security Administration and the fourth grade school teacher who is getting her classroom ready this week for the beginning of school just as she has for the past seventeen or twenty-two years. These people show up every day, know their stuff, and take the trouble to be friendly, courteous, kind, and supportive. “Same-old, same-old, same old,” we are told to think these days.
Shulevitz connects disruption, the term coined by Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, with economist Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction, as applied in the world of business. Portfolio School Reform, as being practiced in Chicago these days, also means destruction: the closure of nearly 50 public schools and the disruption of communities and routes along which children walk to school.
Schulevitz also examines other assumptions. It has become popular for school reformers who embrace disruption as a primary goal to advocate using technology to disrupt the delivery of services, “a happy thought for an investor, since labor is the most expensive line item in all service-industry budgets.” Finally, education disruptors “don’t like participatory democracy much,” because public school communities can be too contentious when it comes to accepting top-down disruption. She quotes Christensen: “Political and school leaders who seek fundamental school reform need to become much more comfortable amassing and wielding power because other tools of governance will yield begrudging cooperation at best.” Democracy can get messy when people protest that the disruption they are experiencing is not what they are looking for at their child’s school.
I urge you to read Shulevitz’s article and also Valerie Strauss’s column. Strauss contends that the term school reform competes with disruption as the Orwellian public education jargon of our time. On one level I agree with Valerie Strauss, but this morning I’m going with disruption, just because I want to honor John Morris, the bureaucrat who has supported me so steadfastly through the disruption of my retirement.