Finding the Corner Pieces

I don't often work on puzzles, but I've been told by my aunts and cousins (several avid puzzlers among them) that you always start with the corner pieces. Once you have the corners down, patterns of color start to emerge. From the patterns, eventually an image takes shape. That feeling - gradual, eventually cascading insight - is one I'm particularly fond of, although it rarely comes to me via jigsawed pieces of cardboard. 

That feeling is the same feeling that came over me as I read a piece published Wednesday on The Progressive's website by Sarah Lahm, titled "The Secret Group That Wants to Take Over Your School." I could (and may, at some point) write a whole blog post on all the reasons I think the click-bait title, cheesy image, and boogeyman style intro are counter-productive for education-minded progressives, but I figure I've droned on enough already in the short life of this blog about things I think are wrong, and decided to share what I liked about this article instead. 

Lahm's piece details the Center on Reinventing Public Eductation (CRPE - which Lahm suggests pronouncing "creepy"), described as the ALEC of the free-market education reform movement (to Lahm, any education organization - like, say, Teach For America - funded by the Walton, Broad, or Gates foundations, or supported by figureheads like Arne Duncan). The article certainly has its editorializing moments (the description of TFA as a free-market education reform organization being one that I take notable exception to), but in large measure Lahm's portrayal is based in a description of a CRPE presentation called "Dollars and Sense Accountability" from their 2013 meeting. 

Using the words of the presenter - Marguerite Roza (we'll come back to her) - more or less on their own, Lahm perfectly illustrates the aims of CRPE in their own terms. Rather than retaining the conspiracy theorist tones of the article's introduction, the bulk of the piece simply lays out what CRPE states very clearly and matter-of-factly. 

What I appreciate so much about Lahm's piece is not so much the particulars of the Minneapolis scenario used as a case study for Roza's lecture (in the face of limited budgets, schools should seek always to spend less money - expanding class sizes, for example - and must, above all else, continuously improve standardized test scores). For me, what is important is the web of connections between foundations, universities, and non-profit entities at the center of the free-market ed. reform movement in which Marguerite Roza is so thoroughly entangled. That web tells a story that is often implied or assumed, but rarely illuminated. 

So often, progressive defenders of education (particularly public education) trot out familiar tropes and whipping boys - the usual suspects called out at the beginning of Lahm's article and listed above as the core of the free-market education reform movement. Connections to the Gates Family Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, for example, are routinely cited as proof of neo-liberal, free-market intentions at play in a particular school or organization with which they are affiliated. Unfortunately, true as they may be these claims are rarely elaborated or supported with any substantive information. 

Marguerite Roza and the CRPE, though, provide the perfect window into the minds of leaders of this wing of the education reform movement. Simply by naming the CRPE, Lahm points down a path littered with similarly clear representations of the CRPE's free-market mindset and aspirations. Take, for instance, their recent report, "Uncovering the Productivity Promise of Rural Education." The title alone is telling. Rather than addressing school funding through the lens of budget priorities, the report centers on making schools "productive" (think Will Johnson's "Lean Production"); doing more with less. Roza's essay in the report, "Promoting Productivity," laments the low Return On Investment in rural schools, while suggesting such "innovative" solutions as online curricula in the face of staff shortages (particularly for electives). 

Still more telling is Roza's own publication history, through her work at the Edunomics Laboratory at Georgetown University and earlier work with think tanks like the Fordham Institute. One such policy brief, prepared for the Fordham Institute in 2011, but available on the Edunomics website, outlines Roza's thinking on "education reform" quite clearly. In addition to the standard attacks on tenure protections and calls for more "accountability" in the realm of teacher effectiveness (tied almost exclusively to performance on standardized tests), Roza calls for increased class sizes, lengthening work days and school years, reducing sick days and related benefits, limiting the amount of time students can be classified as English Language Learners - and the list goes on. 

The sort of policies explicitly backed by Roza and her colleagues at the Edunomics Lab - several of whom, like Roza, are former economics advisers to the Gates Family Foundation - serve to bring vague critiques of the "free-market education reform movement" and those foundations at its forefront into focus. Without the specifics provided by the individuals who give voice to broad ideological visions, constructing a counter argument is a difficult task at best. Any resulting debate is likely to lack the teeth of an informed, thoughtful critique, shifting instead toward empty ideological sloganeering.  

In other words, without the specifics, the individual voices like Roza's, an argument against free-market, efficiency- and productivity-focused education "reform" is a bit like starting a puzzle from the middle: ill-advised and lacking foresight. Lahm's critical look, thankfully, gives us instead the framework - the corner pieces - necessary for constructing a more clear picture of what it is we're up against, and how best to work against it.