The Fierce Urgency of Eventually

by Robert Pondiscio
December 24th, 2010

A version of this piece appears in the most recent edition of Fordham’s Education Gadfly.

Last Wednesday in New York City, Michelle Rhee was awarded the Manhattan Institute’s 2010 Urban Innovator Award.  In her acceptance speech, the former Washington, DC Chancellor discussed her new high-profile initiative, Students First, and its goal of raising $1 billion to advocate for “real change,” which she defined as putting students’ needs “before those of special interests or wasteful bureaucracies.”

Reflecting on her attempt to turn around Washington’s schools, Rhee said she ultimately learned that she was “playing the wrong game.” 

“I would spend my time, as many education reformers across the country do, talking to politicians and trying to appeal to their sense of what is good and right for children and meanwhile you’ve got the interest groups like the teachers unions funding their campaigns.  So at the end of the day, who are you going to go with?  The nice little lady over here who says you can do good for kids?  Or the people who are going to get you re-elected?”

Fordham’s Checker Finn see Rhee’s move from educator to advocate as part of a broader trend.  There has been, he notes, a “profound shift” away from the research and education agenda of non-profit groups toward “political hardball—cash contributions to campaigns, outright advocacy of this candidate and denunciation of the other one, the shrewd use of paid lobbyists, influence-peddlers, campaign consultants, marketing experts, and public relations firms,” Finn wrote.  It is, he observes wistfully, not an entirely welcome development.

“Part of me wishes this weren’t happening in education, as it has and is in just about every other sector of American life. Part of me wishes the old model would endure and in time prevail by virtue of its powerful analyses, moral superiority, and irrefutable arguments.”

After the Manhattan Institute event, I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Rhee about my reform game –curriculum, teaching and learning.  I wondered out loud whether it made sense to reach conclusions about the effectiveness of individual teachers who are poorly trained and have no say over their curriculum or, more often than not, no curriculum at all. 

“I know you have a lot on your plate,” I concluded. “But I’d urge you to at least keep curriculum in mind.” 

“The last thing we’re going to do,” she replied with a chuckle, “is get wrapped up in curriculum battles.”

A stunning reply if you think about it.  The poster child for bare-knuckle reform, who moments earlier was urging her listeners to “embrace conflict,” has no stomach for a debate about what kids should learn in school.  Is it that difficult or controversial, for example, to say that all kindergarteners should learn shapes, colors and to count to 20?   Confronting the teachers unions on pay and tenure  is worth a fight, yet it is too heavy a lift to say what third graders should know about American history, geography or science—or whether they need to know anything at all?

It is not my intention to single out Michelle Rhee.  She is merely the most vocal and visible representative of a theory of change that sees structures, and increasingly political power, as the coin of the realm.  I have no illusions:  Education reform may be sexy, but curriculum is not.  It doesn’t get you on Oprah or the cover of Newsweek.  We are unlikely, now or ever, to see a bold initiative to raise one billion dollars to advocate for a coherent, knowledge-rich curriculum for every child in the early grades, even though, for high-mobility, low-income children in particular, it would surely be among the most impactful reforms we could offer. 

What I cannot accept, however, is that to focus on instruction—on curriculum and teaching—is to play the “wrong game.”  To accept this argument is to believe that the educational outcome of Jose or Malik in the South Bronx or Detroit is more deeply affected by who wins a primary for a House race somewhere in California than what they learn in school all day.  It is to believe that electing the “right people” matters more than what teachers teach and what children learn.

“For three decades, education has been driven by special interests,” Rhee concluded in her Manhattan Institute speech.  That’s one diagnosis.  Another one belongs to E.D. Hirsch, who points out in The Making of Americans that our schools have gone six decades without a curriculum.   Earlier this year, at an Aspen Institute panel discussion, AFT head Randi Weingarten hit the nail on the head when asked why ed reformers aren’t concerned about curriculum.  “This stuff is really important,” she replied.  “And it’s really boring.” 

Playing kingmaker, by contrast, is the best, most glamorous game there is.  But it’s an expensive, time-consuming, long-term play.  It does nothing to effect change today, and essentially writes off yet another generation of children to mediocrity and underperformance.  It represents the fierce urgency of eventually. 

It is the perfect right of Michelle Rhee and others committing their careers and their dollars to ed reform advocacy groups to play whatever games they wish, under whatever terms they choose.  But forgive me if I don’t see this as the last word in “What’s Best for Kids.”  The rhetoric is a bit of a sham, frankly, since a big part of what we know works best for children is a coherent curriculum. 

Call it what you like, but don’t call it the wrong game.

15 Comments »

  1. [...] The Fierce Urgency of Eventually « The Core Knowledge Blog. [...]

    Pingback by The Fierce Urgency of Eventually « The Core Knowledge Blog « Parents 4 democratic Schools — December 24, 2010 @ 10:55 am

  2. Great piece, Robert. Like Finn, I am uneasy with the tendency toward “political hardball” in education discussion. And it is astounding that Rhee (and others) would not consider curriculum worth their time.

    But I question your assertion that curriculum isn’t sexy (or, in the words of Weingarten, that it’s “really boring”). Why should it be boring? It’s the literature, history, math, science, languages, music.

    But then, many view curriculum as the rather dreary plotting out of what gets taught on which day–or they confuse it with pedagogy. But they’re jumping ahead; one must first decide what gets taught in the first place–and what’s boring about that? Not all will be interested in all subjects, but there’s no reason why they should be.

    The discussions of curriculum–if they went into the meat of the topics–could be some of the most interesting discussions in education.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — December 24, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

  3. “The last thing we’re going to do,” she replied with a chuckle, “is get wrapped up in curriculum battles.”

    While Ms Rhee remembers well the standards battle around history and mathematics and has decided similar battles should not prioritize her agenda, her statement above seems to suggest she’s unaware of the difference between standards and curriculum. She wouldn’t be the only one.

    By the by, merry/jolly to all in this holiday season. Hope everyone enjoys the nest week or so and gets to read their favorite new book.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 25, 2010 @ 10:06 am

  4. I agree with Diana, the problem with curriculum is that it is too sexy, or at least relatable and emotionally resonant. That’s why you avoid it. Same with desegregation.

    But yes, the whole pose of being bold and confrontational is a sham. These folks wouldn’t dream of touching desegregation either. They are cowards who attack the weak.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — December 26, 2010 @ 1:57 pm

  5. When children tell me that a book is too “boring” it usually means that it is too complex for them to understand. Is it possible that Michelle Rhee doesn’t understand what curricula are or how quality curricula can affect learning? For those of use in the trenches with children, I don’t see how curricula could ever be boring as it is the bread and butter of what we do.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — December 27, 2010 @ 3:07 am

  6. It saddens me as I read Ms. Rhee’s comment on curriculum. I wish the different groups of people out there trying to reform education can see how each discipline of educating our youth is vital to the success of each child.
    Discipline #1: Standards
    Over 40 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, a rigorous set of skills that will prepare our youth to be better prepared for their future.
    Discipline #2: Assessment
    We over test content and under assess the skills/standards we want our students to master.
    Discipline #3: Curriculum/Content
    We are in the 21st century, yet we continue to drive curriculum through content. It is time to drive a skills-based approach and provide students with engaging and relevant content that best matches the skills we are teaching.
    Discipline #4: Instruction
    We have years of research by Marzano, Hattie, and Reeves that shows us what works to improve achievement. We must implement these instructional strategies to teach the necessary core skills.

    We all have the same goal: prepare our youth for the 21st century global workplace. Can we all sit around the table and create a system that will achieve this mission? My dining room table is available. Who wants to bring the appetizers?

    Comment by Alan Matan — December 27, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

  7. I think it’s the chuckle that bothers me more than the deferral. Maybe I’m overreacting to that, seeing it as a “What a crazy idea!” response instead of something more innocent.

    But I dispute the wisdom Rhee’s deferral and agree with the other posters here. A less inflammatory — even Rhee has pointed out that her manner, at least as much as her policies, were at fault for her downfall — and more suitable approach might have been this:

    “The last thing we’re going to do,” she replied with a chuckle, “is try to rewrite curriculum. Others, like you, Robert, are fighting that battle already. We’re going to support you by helping promote the cause and speaking on its behalf, but we’re not going to create a new front in the battle.”

    I’m not a Rhee partisan by any means, but if she’s going to suggest that prioritizing curriculum is not essential to “Putting students first,” then I am going to be partisan against the empty rhetoric of that nicely crafted three-word tagline.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — December 27, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

  8. Rhee’s vision may be wrong, but at least it is consistent. If you look at education through the political angle, the pro-curriculum advocates are preciously few. And some of the curriculum advocates would have it as Alan described it, short on content and long on well sounding and indescribable things like the 21st Century Skills.

    Remember the not too long ago story about Singapore Math’s adoption in a New York district? Singapore Math, one of the few serious elementary math curricula we actually have, was made during school adoption look like all the other discovery-based, gimmicky constructivist math curricula. The same would happen if the idea of a rich, coherent curriculum would be adopted in the majority of the schools: it would get bastardized beyond any recognition. The notion that schools need to be centers of culture and need to nurture intellect is, I am sorry to say, way ahead of its time, and I feel that what our schools really need firsthand is a 40 years walk through the desert.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — December 27, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

  9. [...] Pondiscio what role curriculum would have in her new advocacy venture, former DC schools head Rhee said, in a word, none. “The last thing we’re going to do,” she said, “is get wrapped up in curriculum [...]

    Pingback by Rhee and Black, Both Wrong « Common Core — January 5, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

  10. When children tell me that a book is too “boring” it usually means that it is too complex for them to understand. Is it possible that Michelle Rhee doesn’t understand what curricula are or how quality curricula can affect learning? For those of use in the trenches with children, I don’t see how curricula could ever be boring as it is the bread and butter of what we do.

    Comment by Fay Pugh — January 12, 2011 @ 7:22 pm

  11. I really agree with the Students First idea. I believe that when it comes to education, everyone must be on the same page and that students must always come first. It is too bad that in many cases educational issues are overlooked or not as important as who won the new election. Also, we need people in charge who are going to care about the curriculum. What the student is going to learn is as important as to how the student is going to learn. If there is no curriculum to go by, students will be at different learning levels and the teachers will be inconsistent in their daily lessons. We should consider the students whenever there is an educational issue at hand.

    Comment by Todd Filtz — January 18, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

  12. [...] Consider this account from Core Knowledge supporter Robert Pondiscio: After the Manhattan Institute event, I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Rhee about my [...]

    Pingback by What the Reformers Aren’t Reforming « Real Learning Matters — January 21, 2011 @ 1:49 am

  13. Throughout this week, I paid close attention to what different teachers did and said. Many teachers care more about themselves and how different situation could affect them rather than how the situation could affect their students. Building from my first post, I believe as educators we must always think of the students first. We are in this profession to help young students reach their full potential in the classroom and prepare them for their futures. We can not loss sight of this. If we consider the students first, I believe that our schools will begin to get better and the students will leave more prepared for the next level of learning.

    Comment by Todd Filtz — January 23, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

  14. [...] struck me as a man with a long-term vision of what it means to be educated, something glaringly absent from the reform debate. At a sparsely attended talk on the Upper East Side last October, Steiner [...]

    Pingback by The Last Best Hope? | GothamSchools — April 14, 2011 @ 5:03 pm

  15. [...] struck me as a man with a long-term vision of what it means to be educated, something glaringly absent from the reform debate. At a sparsely attended talk on the Upper East Side last October, Steiner [...]

    Pingback by Praise for David Steiner’s vision, including from Steiner himself | GothamSchools — April 14, 2011 @ 6:30 pm

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