Are We Finally Ending the Battle of the Edu-Tribes?

Anyone who has spent time during the last decade or so working for the betterment of American public education will tell you the same thing:

It’s ugly out there, and you’re going to need to pick a side.

Four years ago, I wrote about this in an article titled, “Let’s End the Battle of the Edu-Tribes.” At the time, the two main camps in the #edreform wars each had their own clearly identifiable titular head: For the New-Schoolers (choice champions, TFA alums, KIPPsters, and the like) it was Michelle Rhee; and for the Old-Schoolers (tenured elders, district loyalists, progressive die-hards, etc.) it was Diane Ravitch. Both sides practiced their own version of righteous Truth-Telling. And both sides suggested that the other side’s supporters weren’t just wrong – they were manifestations of an evil incarnate in our midst.

Four years later, I think we may be reaching an end to those pitched, and pointless, battles. To be clear, there are still major differences in the field, and major departures in both thinking and values that will continue to divide people from sharing a true common cause. And yet, it is starting to feel that in a large and significant sense, all roads are beginning to converge on the educational definition of Rome: a public education system that clearly places students at the center by making learning more personalized, relevant, and real-world-situated.

To wit, check out the website of the Convergence Policy Center’s Education Reimagined project (full disclosure: I’m a contributor). For two years, Convergence has been gathering almost thirty of us – practitioners and policymakers, “Deformers” and “Status-Quo’ers,” Progressives and Conservatives, union leaders and union critics – to spend time together, for the purpose of seeing if they could ever get all of us to agree on anything.

In the end, not only did we agree on something – we agreed on a pretty specific articulation of the future of education (see for yourself). And here’s the thing: our coalition is just one of many out there, and all of them are basically saying the same thing.

The folks at New Profit – historically, a New-School organization with a clear seat of honor in the KIPP/TFA camp – have now partnered with leading funders and practitioners from the Learning Differences and Social & Emotional Learning camps to launch Reimagine Learning. Entire states, from New Hampshire to Wisconsin to Maine, have revised their policies in order to make learning less time-bound, more interesting, and more socially-embedded. Grassroots organizations like the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA) are advocating for a system of schools more deeply informed by democratic principles and youth voice. And sprinkled across all of these efforts are innovative charter schools, public school districts, and effective (and eclectic) school networks.

What do these different movements share in common?

  • A belief that the future of education must be based on a more personalized, performance-based method of assessing student learning and growth.
  • A belief that learning doesn’t just happen in school – it happens anywhere and everywhere – and therefore schools must become places that can recognize and accredit student work whenever and wherever it occurs.
  • A belief that teachers must start to act more like coaches and facilitators than mere content experts – and that the relationships between adults and young people must remain as the bedrock of learning itself.
  • A belief that technology is essential, but only in so far as it augments, not replaces, the relationships between teachers, students and peers.
  • A belief that all student learning, to the greatest extent possible, should be designed in a way so that it can legitimately offer a “slice of the solution”, and contribute to our ongoing collective effort to solve actual, intractable social problems.
  • A belief that empathy is a foundational skill for student development and growth – and that schools in general must become more explicitly focused on the skills and dispositions (as opposed to content knowledge) they believe their graduates must acquire in order to live successful, fulfilling lives as adults.

(Hell, if you really want to see what the future of education is going to look like, just read this.)

So what does this emerging consensus mean for the next few years?

I think it means we might actually start seeing a different set of stories being told about our schools – stories that are more solution-oriented, student-centered, and hopeful than the deficit-based fear-mongering of our recent past.

I think it means more states and localities will adopt policies that end up incentivizing educators to do the things that they know are in the best interests of children.

I think it means more examples of district-level innovation and reform – because, let’s be honest, as much as I love me a good school no matter the form, we are not going to solve American public education one charter school at a time.

And I think it means that the era of high-stakes standardized testing, already in decline, will soon enter its final death spiral.

As Summit Public Schools’ founder Diane Tavenner put it, “the measure of an effective test in the future should be the extent to which its results have direct and meaningful personal implications for the child who takes it.”

In other words, folks: Change is not just coming; it’s already here. And it’s coming to a neighborhood school near you.

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  1. Posted October 7, 2015 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that this is pretty much where the conversation was circa 1999 prior to NCLB, which would indicate to me that the last 15 years were a big waste of time.

  2. Posted October 7, 2015 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    Very kumbaya.

    On the one hand, I think we are all coming closer to what we believe is needed to support student learning and have the best academic outcomes. The question might still be how we get there. I may be suspicious but I hear code in these phrases:

    “deficit-based fear-mongering of our recent past.”

    And who was doing that?

    “incentivizing educators” You mean paying bonuses or paying teachers for the job they do?

    “district-level innovation and reform: – you mean instead of one charter school, a whole district.

    Even though my state, Washington State, struggles with fully-funding education, I think our lucky stars that we have mostly avoided charters (and the law has been thrown out by the Supreme Court) and TFA (no traction or real interest here as far as teaching but they certainly are around in administrating and running things which, of course, is their real goal). As for testing, well, we are pretty committed to opting out until we see real change.

    Maybe the war is over but the battle continues. You can’t get Arne Duncan out and replace him with John King and it’s all better.

  3. Posted October 7, 2015 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for reading and responding, Melissa. And you’re right — you’re being overly suspicious. “Fear-mongering” is a reference to what Michelle Rhee did. “Incentivizing educators” refers to setting up a system that is designed to encourage them to do what they know is in the best interests of kids — not to pay them bonuses for higher test scores. “District-level innovation and reform” means, well, district-level innovation and reform.

    I agree with you that battles will continue, which is why I hope the ultimate takeaway is not merely kumbaya. I wrote the piece because it feels like there is greater consensus across camps about what the end goal must be — more personalized learning experiences for kids that are rich in relationships and that rely on performance-based, locally-developed assessments, not standardized tests. And that seems like something worth acknowledging and feeling hopeful about.

  4. Jon Lubar
    Posted October 8, 2015 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    “A belief that teachers must start to act more like coaches and facilitators than mere content experts – and that the relationships between adults and young people must remain as the bedrock of learning itself.” The “old school” you incorrectly identify as such has always taken this position, it is the “deformers” like TFA who, by design, imagined that good content knowledge and a few scant weeks of what passes for training is all that is needed to be a teacher.

    The two tribes you identify have a significant difference: The “old school” have a deep and broad understanding of how and why learning takes place in children at all stages of their development and what is needed in terms of resources to make that happen, the “deformers” have no such professional, institutional knowledge and expertise, and instead have chosen the hostile takeover model to impose highly inappropriate competitive, profit driven business model in place of what actual educators know works. The “deformers” prefer a dehumanizing Taylorist factory method which generates data in support of their claims, data that generally fails to see and therefore capture what is most important about education. Until the power of money and the political influence it buys in the field of education is ended and actual education professional are put in charge, the war you speak of will continue unabated, in no small part because teachers are primarily concerned with providing the best outcomes possible for their students and see firsthand that the “deformers” methodology cannot produce that result. America seems to be the only advanced country on the planet that has allowed a small group of wealthy, influential individuals and ideologues to have a disproportionate say in a system they know less than nothing about, education.

  5. Posted October 9, 2015 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    I would offer that the Taylorist model predates the deformers by several decades, so it’s not entirely fair or accurate to place all of this system’s shortcomings on their doorstep. If we allow ourselves to believe that our side is pure and the other is the source of all that is wrong, we give ourselves a free pass — or, perhaps worse, blind ourselves to the ways in which we too must change and evolve. Because this much is clear — the way schools must operate if they want to become more equitable and student-centered will require all of us, old school and new school, to change — precisely because the Taylorist model has been shaping our notions of school for more than a century.

  6. Jon Lubar
    Posted October 9, 2015 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Hi Sam, while you are correct that the Taylorist mindset predates the current set of “reforms”, the spike in the imposition of that mindset that is part and parcel of what passes for reform these days is impossible to ignore. It is not just that education has been turned on it’s head by seeking to makie schools serve the needs of data collection, it is also that the behavioral doctrines of the “no excuses” mindset treat children as if they were not in a school but a prison where any deviation is a threat to the imposed order and narrative of those in control. One noteworthy and abhorrent example of this is the stark contrast between pre-k/k/1st grade here where developmentally inappropriate and meaningless testing has been forced upon students and Finland where highly appropriate and productive play based learning takes place with no serious focus on academics till the ages of 7/8. Another is the behavioral rules of many charters where children are expected to sit perfectly still in identical postures, march silently in lines, and always track the teacher with their eyes and respond in unison. The above examples are not of educational innovation or excellence but of child abuse, and the fact that they are very often seen as solutions for the misidentified “problems” of poor, inner city children of color makes them all the more abhorrent. America does not have to accept some or any of the policies of the reformers just because they have the financial and political power to impose and advance them, we must do what is right because it is right and assume full responsibility for knowing the difference. From what I have seen, virtually all of the focus of “reform” has been to circumvent and subvert that responsibility, quite often by attacking those who seek to embrace it, America’s teachers.

  7. Posted October 14, 2015 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Seriously though, in what sense is that not getting back to where we were 15 years ago? I notice Peter McWalters was on this Education Reimagined project. Not surprisingly, it is pretty much indistinguishable from what he was saying when he was ed commissioner in RI, pre-NCLB. And these ideas weren’t earth-shattering at the time. The middle school I attended in Central Pennsylvania in the mid-70’s was pretty much set up along these lines.

  8. Posted October 14, 2015 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    The differences – and they’re two huge ones – are our relationship to content knowledge, and our capacity to create truly personalized learning pathways for kids. And both of those are a result of technology. That doesn’t mean replacing teachers or human connections, and it doesn’t mean adaptive software. But it does mean making changes like the ones they’ve made in Albemarle County, or perfecting platforms like the Personalized Student Plan they use at Summit Public Schools (and that they’ve now open sourced to any school or district that wants to use it). So yes, the spirit of the Education Reimagined is not merely as old as Peter’s tenure in Rhode Island; you can trace it all the way back to Dewey. What’s new is our potential to deliver on that ancient promise. And that seems noteworthy to me.

  9. Posted October 15, 2015 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    What you’re actually doing here is spinning the fact that many of us have been right all along and others have been wrong and are slowly coming around to that fact. The “new schoolers” set this project back by about 15 years, although at least some of them are realizing their mistake finally. Congratulations on figuring this stuff out now!

  10. Posted October 15, 2015 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    If you believe you’ve been right along, I won’t bother trying to dissuade you. Must feel good, though . . .

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