"We Know What Works"

Writing in The New Yorker last month, Dale Russakoff had this to say about today’s education “reformers,” personified (in this case) by New Jersey governor Chris Christie and then-mayor of Newark Cory Booker (who is now, of course, one of the state’s U.S. senators):

Decades of research have shown that experiences at home and in neighborhoods have far more influence on children’s academic achievement than classroom instruction. But reformers argued that well-run schools with the flexibility to recruit the best teachers could overcome many of the effects of poverty, broken homes, and exposure to violence. That usually meant charter schools, which operated free of the district schools’ large bureaucracies and union rules. “We know what works,” Booker and other reformers often said. They blamed vested interests for using poverty as an excuse for failure, and dismissed competing approaches as incrementalism. Education needed “transformational change.”

The “we know what works” people arrive in all sorts of different political overcoats and have been with us since the founding of the nation (think Alexander Hamilton, just for one). They know what’s best, so are entitled to manipulate our democracy to reach ends that they know are best for the rest of us. One of their best 20th-century shills was the journalist Walter Lippmann who, in The Public Philosophy wrote:

The public philosophy is addressed to the government of our appetites and passions by the reasons of a second, civilized, and, therefore, acquired nature. Therefore, the public philosophy cannot be popular, For it aims to resist and to regulate those very desires and opinions which are most popular. The warrant of the public philosophy is that while the regime it imposes is hard, the results of rational and disciplined government will be good.

Russakoff’s comments come while he is describing a conversation between Christie and Booker that leads to a decision to side-step the popular will and entrenched powers in order to “reform” Newark’s schools. Eventually, they get Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, to pony up $100 million for the project.

So far, little has been seen of the money, and the issue of education “reform” played a large role in the election to replace Booker that was won by Ras Baraka, a school principal and Newark politician, beating out “newcomer” Shavar Jefferies. At the end of his article, Russakoff writes:

Jeffries believes that the Newark backlash could have been avoided. Too often, he said, “education reform . . . comes across as colonial to people who’ve been here for decades. It’s very missionary, imposed, done to people rather than in coöperation with people.” Some reformers have told him that unions and machine politicians will always dominate turnout in school-board elections and thus control the public schools. He disagrees: “This is a democracy. A majority of people support these ideas. You have to build coalitions and educate and advocate.” As he put it to me at the outset of the reform initiative, “This remains the United States. At some time, you have to persuade people.”

And so it has always been, the “we know what works” crowd notwithstanding.

‘The people don’t know enough,’ the Lippmannites might argue, ‘so we have to do most of the work for them. At best, we should offer them simple choices, limiting democracy to alternatives that will not be disruptive.’

Those of us who believe in public education, on the other hand, believe passionately in the idea that democracy only works when everyone has at least the chance to become educated. We tend to be supporters of the ideas of  John Dewey, Lippmann’s great opponent, who wrote in The Public and Its Problems:

The idea of democracy is a wider and fuller idea than can be exemplified in the state even at its best. To be realized it must affect all modes of human association, the family, the school, industry, religion.

Democracy has to be practiced everywhere if it is going to work. Yes, there are sometimes necessary limitations, but these need to be clear and stable. Booker and Christie, with Zuckerberg’s money, were not practicing democracy. Those who have foisted on our states the Common Core State Standards, no matter how good they might or might not be, were not practicing democracy, either. Nor are those, in our universities, who despair at getting anything done through shared governance so act by fiat. Their paths may seem simpler and easier, and may have noble goals, but what they are doing is not democracy.

Those who, frustrated with the slow pace of change in democracy or who are, for some other reason, tempted to side-step it, might want to remember what Winston Churchill once said:

Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

And it keeps us from the arrogance of believing that we are the special one’s who know what works–without having to demonstrate just how.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.