Twilight for Education Policy's Idols

One of the most frustrating things about the current education reform wars is the cults that form around dominant personalities. Education reformers coalesce around former New York City Education Chancellor Joel Klein and Waiting for "Superman" director Davis Guggenheim. Their opponents rally around Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. These figures serve as proxies for ideological positions. That way, instead of arguing about the needs of students or the merits of particular policies, we end up arguing instead about the personalities or foibles or missteps of the other side's heroines and heroes.

You can imagine how this disables serious debates. Whatever else she has wrong, this is why Michelle Rhee scored a masterstroke by naming her new advocacy organization "Students First." Even if you think that it's just a front to keep funneling media attention her way or to fund her honeymoon with KJ, the name is genius. While we need to hear and address the needs of adults in education (parents, teachers, administrators, etc), they aren't why we have a public education system. Students are. When education debates collapse into squabbles over the virtues and vices of various personalities instead of students' needs, students can get forgotten. Strike that. Students do get forgotten.

And this is oh-so-very-nice to point out, and gosh, we oughta do something about it, except that that it's really hard to discipline ourselves. You may understand in a polite, abstract way that the education reformer you're talking to is not the moral equivalent to Michelle Rhee, but that isn't always going to hold you back from holding him or her accountable for Rhee's embarrassments. If you're a "Rhee Supporter" -- which is not the same as being an "education reformer" -- you may understand that any evidence of DC schools cheating on tests rightly diminishes her legacy, but that won't usually stop you from mounting a full-scale defense of everything she's done since learning to walk.

Rhee isn't the only such example, of course. Both sides are susceptible. Take the curious case of Diane Ravitch. She was for education reform before she was against it. She wears the mantle of author and historian. She claims to be defending the facts of the historical record against opponents who play politics and manipulate the media. As a result of all this, she's a darling for many of those who oppose education reforms. For them, she stands above the fray as a fair, objective observer.

In one of her most recent columns, "Why Won't 'Reformers' Listen?," Ravitch accused Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist of repeatedly shouting her down in a private meeting. Ravitch was almost plaintive: "But Gist continued to cut me off. In many years of meeting with public officials, I have never encountered such rudeness and incivility. I am waiting for an apology." Something awful must have happened in there. Did Gist whip out a chainsaw? Did she start foaming at the mouth?

Not according to Gist or Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee (who was also in the meeting). Both seemed surprised by Ravitch's response, and Chafee issued a statement: "Commissioner Gist comported herself in an appropriate and respectful way at all times during this discussion." Normally, this would be the end of it all: a standard she-said-she-said moment in a corner of small-time education politics. What happened in there? We'll probably never know.

But wait! This time, maybe we will know! It turned out that someone taped the meeting for a documentary, and they've offered to release the tapes, so long as all meeting participants agree. Gist, the accused boor, promptly agreed. Ravitch, the (supposedly) aggrieved party, has been dragging her feet. Why? We won't know until we see the tapes, but it seems likely that they won't justify her aggrieved reaction. It's worth noting that she also promptly started backpedaling, admitting, "I wrote harsh words about state Commissioner Deborah Gist. On reflection, I concluded that I had written in anger and that I was unkind. For that, I am deeply sorry."

This doesn't necessarily show that Ravitch is a liar, or that she's not "an accurate chronicler of events." It doesn't show that she's always to be distrusted. It just shows that she's playing politics too. It shows that she is, fundamentally, a talisman, just like Michelle Rhee. It shows that she's another proxy that (at best) distracts us from getting down to the serious business of fixing our schools.

It's hard to notice when we've let our admiration for our favorite education prophets push us to intellectual dishonesty, but hard things are usually the things most worth doing. If we want to make any progress on improving education, it's time for a twilight of these particular idols. It's time for new, dynamic leaders -- like Stand for Children's Jonah Edelman -- without the baggage of the world's Rhees and Ravitches.