The Best and the Brightest, The Sequel

by Robert Pondiscio
June 1st, 2010

As states race to meet today’s second Race to the Top deadline, some are complaining the changes wrought by the program have not been sweeping or revolutionary enough. And then there’s David Warsh at Economic On reading Steve Brill’s latest bigfooting exercise into education reportage Warsh heard familiar and disconcerting echoes.

Remember the recipe for a policy disaster? Start with a handful of policy intellectuals confronting a stubborn problem, in love with a Big Idea. Fold in a bunch of ambitious Ivy League kids who don’t speak the local language. Churn up enthusiasm for the program in the gullible national press – and get ready for a decade of really bad news. Take a look at David Halberstam’s Vietnam classic The Best and the Brightest, if you need to refresh your memory. Or just think back on the run-up to the war in Iraq.

He’s just getting started. Warsh, a veteran economics reporter whose column ran in the Boston Globe for the better part of two decades, turns in the most scathing recent take on current education policy by someone not named Diane Ravitch, whose recent book he cites in the piece. Describing the competitive grant program as “a hammer-blow to the basic principles of public education” Warsh suggests a history lesson:

Obama and David Axelrod should take out some old Time and Life magazines, compare them to Brill’s Times Magazine article, and reflect on how the media pranced as Presidents Kennedy and Johnson blundered into Vietnam. They should read and discuss Diane Ravitch’s book. They should think long and hard about whether they are going to let Arne Duncan and his whiz kids put Obama’s presidency in greater peril than the Deepwater Horizon ever could.

Personally, I’m less than sanguine about RTTT, but not necessarily for the reasons Warsh, Ravitch and other cite. “All science is either physics or stamp collecting,” the British scientist Ernest Rutherford famously quipped. With apologies to Rutherford, I’d offer that all education reform is either curriculum or accounting.


  1. Interesting conclusion, Robert! I’m curious to see if it holds up in the details though, to see what ideas go into each heading though… for example, where would you put reforms that do away with grade levels, units, seat time, etc.? What about getting away from the idea of a single teacher per class? Not throwing down a challenge, just an honest follow up question.

    Comment by David B. Cohen — June 1, 2010 @ 6:56 pm

  2. Fair enough, David. I was merely making a rhetorical point about the lack of traction in ed reform for curriculum. Pedagogy too. Most conversations about ed reform — and RTTT is a good example of this — are pure structural plays: charter schools, merit pay, teacher quality, testing, etc. Even standards are largely silent on the ways to get students to achieve those standards. The operative theory seems to be (I’m painting with a broad brush, clearly) create the right structural conditions and good results follow. I think this is naive, frankly. One gets the sense that mainstream reformers think what children do all day in school doesn’t matter, as long as they do it in the same room as a great teacher (defined as someone who raises reading scores, naturally). The reforms you suggest are no closer to the center of the debate than, say, a national curriculum.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 1, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

  3. No worries, Robert. I recognize the broad brush for what it is. Such a hard concept though, to get to the “center” of the debate. Education is a moving target, and a thoroughly dynamic one at that, as you know well. So in any given setting/context, the debate “centers” around different ideas. I’m “thinking aloud” a bit here, and wondering if we can find that center. You suggested curriculum, and in my own context, I’d agree. I’m in a stable and high-performing school and district. For the most part, our students are healthy and motivated, and our teachers are “highly qualified.” All of my end-of-year discussions with colleagues, when we talk about next year, focus on curricular improvements. But in schools with more acute problems, I wonder if the “center” is still curriculum. If you can’t recruit and retain a skilled staff, and if you face a much more challenging set of students, I’m not sure the curriculum is still the center. Obviously, it’s still essential – there must be curriculum. But it’s hard to see a viable debate about curriculum that becomes more important than the shortcomings in the staff and the critical needs of students. I do know that in those situations, there’s no single solution, and if there were, it would have nothing to do with tenure, performance pay, testing, technology, or data-systems.

    Comment by David B. Cohen — June 1, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

  4. I’m on the record as being strongly opposed to magic bullet solutions. So while curriculum and teaching are my particular hobby horses, even I wouldn’t suggest that it’s really the only thing that matters. What gets lost, however, is the vital role of curriculum in making many other reforms sensible, even possible. To pick the most obvious example, it’s borderline insanity to hold teachers “accountable” for a single year’s reading growth when language is a slow-growing plant (In E.D. Hirsch’s phrase) and a child’s abilitty to comprehend text is largely a function of cumulative background knowledge. In short, investing in long-term knowledge and language growth is essentially discouraged. Such “reforms” become counterproductive, since it forces us to focus exclusively on “skills” that have limited efficacy. And we end up with judging schools and students successful merely because they read more or less on grade level and graduate more or less on-time.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 1, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

  5. Hope you kids don’t mind if I jump in.

    I loved the critique of Brill’s “What All the Smart Kids Think” piece. Because, clearly, anyone who is a voluntary union member is from the wrong side of the tracks and must be advocating for less work and less accountability for more money. And anyone who stays in the classroom, finding the work endlessly challenging and important, is clearly not a player and doesn’t deserve a voice in the policy discourse. There’s plenty of classism in the national conversation on public schooling.

    Robert, I am on board with your idea that what it all boils down to is curriculum and instruction, a word I prefer over “pedagogy” (which has taken a huge and unfair beating) or “teaching” (which is just too broad and tends to morph into “teachers” so that the cool kids can shift the discussion away from what teachers DO to who they ARE and where they did their undergrad, and what they’re going to do once they finish their missionary stint in the classroom and settle down to making money).

    And when I say “curriculum,” I am not limiting that definition to one model, or trying to split curriculum into knowledge and skills (a dichotomy/argument that always seems pointless to me, as the two are inseparable in well-constructed curricula and weak sisters without the support of the other).

    The prevalence of economists and business leaders in education policy over the past decade, seeking “efficiency,” has brought us to this point. This is not a defense of education policy pre-NCLB or pre-RTTT. Only acknowledgment that many policies that well-meaning people assumed would do the job, replicating the Texas miracle, turned out to be no better than the mushy, toothless policies we had before. Just different.

    The center of the debate is always the power of what happens in the classroom. David’s right that working conditions are sometimes so terrible that the core mission is crushed. But if the working conditions are improved and curriculum and instruction are lame, it’s all lame.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — June 1, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

  6. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David B. Cohen, Robert Pondiscio. Robert Pondiscio said: Econ columnist David Warsh with the most scathing Race to the Top column by someone not named Diane Ravitch [...]

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  7. Wow, I think we’re long overdue for lunch. You’ve clearly drunk the koolaid. There is a lot to love about RTTT as I have seen writ small at Girls Prep. Let me convince you.

    Comment by Mary Mitchell — June 1, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

  8. I have to agree with Nancy. In fact, it seems to me that a strong curriculum can improve working conditions.

    Whether or not one agrees with Warsh, I think it’s fair to question some RTTT champions’ hubris and high moralism. There are no guarantees that RTTT reforms are the right thing to do–though some may argue that we have to strike out on such paths even before the evidence is available. But it’s never fair to paint skeptics of such reforms as mere obstructionists who place the good of adults above the good of children. That sort of thing happens all too often.

    Comment by Claus — June 2, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

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