Eli Broad: Kick over the anthills

Eli Broad has a very interesting opinion piece in this week’s EducationWeek.  It’s a little long, and it meanders some, but when it comes to its point it’s very gripping:

I never shy from an unreasonable goal. And as President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff and now-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel once smartly told The New York Times, “Rule One: Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things.”

That’s a good rule for everyone to keep in mind, no matter the type of crisis you find yourself confronting. When external forces are changing your world, think about what you can do to move with them, rather than reflexively hunkering down and refusing to change. Use crises as chances to rethink everything, question your assumptions, and start afresh. That’s what we’re trying to do in public education.

Entrenched bureaucracies, policies, and practices are no longer set up in a way that helps teachers and students progress. Taxpayer resources often don’t make it to the classroom. Teachers are left to fend for themselves without adequate real-time information about how well their students are learning, access to best practices, or time to collaborate. Because teachers’ pay and expectations are, in most cases, low, many talented Americans are dissuaded from entering the profession at all.

How did public school districts get here? I suspect the reason is because too few dared to ask the right “Why not?” question: Why not redesign these districts? It’s a simple matter of reframing basic assumptions. Data show that the greatest positive outcomes for students happen when entire school systems are either redesigned or started anew.

The problem is immense. The solution must be big enough to match it.

It fades out from there, dissolving into a few heartless platitudes.  But the sentences above are striking, aren’t they?  Put aside for a moment the cavalier and naive pronouncement that “it’s a simple matter of reframing basic assumptions.”   (When is that ever simple?)   Broad is advocating a sort of “Year Zero” approach to education.  As the Shadows said on Babylon 5, sometimes you have to “kick over all the anthills.”  It would be fascinating to see what people could come up with if they approached a ground-up renovation of our education system seriously.   Does anyone know if there are any serious policy conferences about this sort of thing?

Now on one level or another, he’s running the risk of bumping into Chesterton’s Fence.   It’s very easy to look at all the problems with education today and not see all the problems that existed before the current system solved them.  Indeed, Broad’s own comments — essentially arguing that we have the districts we do just because no one cared enough to design better ones — certainly indicate that he is committing the “fallacy”.  (It’s not really a fallacy, but that’s what it’s called so that’s what I’ll call it.)

But Chesterton’s Fence isn’t a prescription not to change things, just a warning to understand what you’re getting rid of.  Broad, if his writing is indicative of his thoughts, doesn’t care to understand it.  But that doesn’t mean his notion of mass renovation is wrong.  It just means that he’s personally not really in a position to say that it’s right.

One sort of gets the feeling that this might be what’s actually going on, though — in the slow motion of history, as it were.  Charter schools are rather revolutionary..  Michelle Rhee — love her or hate her — is changing the types of discussions that we’re having.  Value-added evaluation of teachers, and even the No-Child-Left-Behind-So-Let’s-All-Stay-In-Place-Act, are big changes.  Changes for the worse, maybe, but changes.

That’s the other danger inherent in big, sweeping, destructive change of the sort that Broad is proposing.  (Maybe “waving his hands at” is a better way of putting it; he doesn’t have much in the way of specific proposals.)  When you do big things, you can have big victories, but you can also have big disasters.   Maybe it’s wiser to take a system that, more or less, is doing what it is designed to do, and fiddle around the edges to make it better.  You may not produce anything that is a miraculous improvement, but you won’t wipe everything out, either.

By this point, you’re probably thinking, “Gee, it sounded like Michael liked Broad’s push for big, revolutionary thinking at first, but now it seems like he doesn’t.”  I do like it.  I think it’s important for us to be able to think in that mode, to be able to see what could be.  And sometimes it’s important to recognize when you have a chance to do something big — because those chances don’t come along every day. I said that maybe it’s wiser to fiddle.  Maybe it’s not.  How do we find out whether it’s better to fiddle at the edges or tear the heart out of education?  The same way we find out anything else — lots of hard work, planning, forethought, and educated guesses, sauced liberally with experience and hard knocks.

I’m just not a huge fan of people who make institutional renovation (as opposed to mere reform) sound easy and simple, because it’s not.  Big renovation is, to quote Vice President Biden, a “big f***ing deal.”   And it deserves to be treated as such through every step of the process, not rushed into because we think we don’t like what we’ve got going right now.

Still — and this is why I like Broad’s point on balance — at some point you have to fish or cut bait.  There are never any 100% iron-clad guarantees that any big policy course of action is going to work out the way you think it will, and sometimes the only thing to do is plunge in and see.

Don’t worry.  If things don’t work out, there will be another crisis, and a chance to try something new.


  1. J. D. Salinger says:

    It’s a little long, and it meanders some

    Someone should critique you some day.

  2. Ponderosa says:

    Razing public education and building anew won’t improve things if we misdiagnose what’s wrong with the status quo. What replaces the status quo could easily be worse.

    Schools are very complex, but Broad and his businessman ilk think crudely, like the impatient minds behind the urban renewal movement in the Sixties. These guys thought they could cure urban ills by razing old neighborhoods. The poverty and dysfunction just relocated, and dismal glass and concrete boxes sprouted where charismatic, walkable districts had been. When we blow up public schools, the troubles will still remain, but a lot of the good stuff (to which we’re currently blind) may be lost forever.

    Conserve, Americans! We need to stop maniacally wrecking everything that’s more than 15 minutes old and calling that wisdom.

  3. The diagnosis, unfortunately, is that our culture is screwed up, and our priorities as individuals (the vast majority, but not all, thankfully) are all wrong. Until these two things change, nothing – I repeat, nothing – will ever improve in our K-12 schools.

  4. P.S. – Kind of scary, taking advice from the Shadows! They would destroy an entire planet full of millions of people if it was ‘infected’ by a single person… But I see where you were going with that analogy.

  5. Ponderosa says:

    “Data show that the greatest positive outcomes for students happen when entire school systems are either redesigned or started anew”

    Ergo, blowing up schools systems is the way to go!

    I’ll accept a redesign, but an intelligent and informed one, not some half-baked airport-bookstore corporate self-help scheme.

    Here’s what would help my district:

    1. Adopting a Core Knowledge curriculum so that kids actually learn something.
    2. Gateway tests after each grade level to prevent passing along unprepared kids.
    3. Intensive summer school to help said kids.
    4. Insulating teachers from harassing and dysfunctional parents.
    5. Beefing up discipline, including creation of an unappealing “alternative” track for kids who chronically misbehave.
    6. More money for more aides, richer curricular materials, field trips, etc.
    7. Shorter school days so that teachers can use the afternoons to grade carefully, and plan excellently.
    8. Great content-specific professional development instead of the generic, intellectually-bankrupt b.s. we get now.

    • #4 and #5 will never happen. These two (or the lack therof) is how principals can use teachers for scapegoats. You think principals will happily remove their own ‘buffer zone’ that shields them from blame in the public’s (and parents’) eyes?

  6. banjo pickin girl says:

    I hope you mean half-hearted and not heartless.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      I didn’t mean half-hearted, but “devoid of soul and meaning.”

      I actually forgot that heartless had such strong connotations of lacking mercy.

  7. What Broad shows no sign of understanding is that children need stability. Any changes he wants to institute (and I don’t argue with some of them) have to happen in a context of enough time so that the elements of stability (same building, many of the same faces, social bonds not being broken, etc) are preserved.

    Also, many of the needed changes have to do with curriculum and instruction, and not management, governance, or personnel. C&I will change as teacher ed is reformed, and as districts realize how important they are. This doesn’t have to be al all disruptive for the children.

  8. Cranberry says:

    Because teachers’ pay and expectations are, in most cases, low, many talented Americans are dissuaded from entering the profession at all.

    Teachers’ pay and benefits are much better than the pay and (no) benefits of adjunct college faculty. See the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “From Graduate School to Welfare.” https://chronicle.com/article/From-Graduate-School-to/131795/

    Most teachers are not MBAs. Money does not seem to factor into their decisions, to the extend a businessman thinks it should.

    Orderly classrooms, good management, respect and autonomy are very important.