Bill Sanders, evangelizing expert

About a month ago, Kevin Carey wrote a eulogy for the late Bill Sanders in a New York Times’ Upshot column. Sanders was a statistician at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, someone who among other things had contributed to a mixed linear model procedure in the SAS statistical system1. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he worked to persuade the state of Tennessee that they could use a statistical approach to measuring teacher effectiveness, one flavor of what we now know as value-added modeling.

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  1. PROC MIXED []

Erwin V. Johanningmeier

I was sorry to hear earlier this spring that my former colleague Erv Johanningmeier had died. As the chair of a search committee in 1996, he was responsible for Barbara Shircliffe, Chris Ogren, and my coming to the University of South Florida.1 In my job interview I found a gruff, intellectually curious future colleague who took me out for dinner with a colleague and was pleased that I could share a bottle of wine and still keep talking coherently about the history of education. I suspect that (and the reference by Michael Katz) was most of the reason why I was hired.

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  1. In a span of about five years, he directly or indirectly was responsible for the hiring of six historians of education at USF. []

Adulting from nowhere

For some years, I have been somewhat irritated by the rhetoric of some in education that posits that there are adult interests and children’s interests, and that opponents of their preferred policies (whatever they are) are somehow privileging adult over children’s interests. It’s a slick rhetorical move that’s about as close to ad hominem as you can get without crashing over the line explicitly, but I’ve struggled with explaining to others why I find it unproductive. So, the various not-very-satisfactory explanations:

  • There is a long record of privileged (generally white) education and social reformers who claim to speak on behalf of poor and otherwise disadvantaged children, and the policies and practices they pushed often worked directly against the interests of those children’s communities or parents. In many cities in the late 19th century, for example, the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Children was often termed just The Cruelty by working-class parents for their arbitrary and capricious power to remove children from households. I know that when John Dewey wrote, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy” (in School and Society), he was speaking as a good Progressive… and from a position of privilege, assuming that there was a very specific “best and wisest parent” who could dictate children’s interests. So call me skeptical based on the history.
  • We are always talking about adult values when we debate things like education reform. Even if we think we are a proxy for children’s welfare, they are our adult values about what childhood should be and the type of society we are preparing children for. Calling some of our positions privileged because they assert children’s interests obscures the fundamental adult nature of the conversation.
  • Schools are about the least adult-friendly white-collar work environments you could imagine. As I wrote almost a decade ago, where else can adults be vulnerable to being hit by children, be told when they can go to the bathroom, and be told that their own intellectual development does not serve the organization’s interests? Colleges are better unless you’re talking about contingent faculty and then, not so much, and they’re the majority of those teaching undergraduates.
  • Speakers using adult vs. child/student interest language often have their own material interests, which are neatly erased in the rhetoric. This inconsistency is obvious to those who are the targets of the rhetoric. That’s more than a wee barrier to conversation about the specific issues.

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The pendulum and the ratchet

My thoughts on this start with education policy but is more general: Whether elected Republican officials can reverse a slew of Obama administration policies may depend on whether each policy area is more like a pendulum or more like a ratchet. Elite Republicans hope that by the end of 2018, federal health care, environmental, tax, and financial-regulation policies will look like a pendulum that rapidly swung towards extreme conservative policies after this election.

In contrast, former President Obama and liberals hope that in their priority areas, current federal policy acts more like a ratchet, with teeth and a pawl that block reverses and slippage.

The pendulum and the ratchet in education policy

Neither metaphor is going to be true in all areas; the critical question is where policy is more like a pendulum or more like a ratchet. Twenty years ago in their book Tinkering toward Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued that education reform witnessed cycles of reform rhetoric in counterpoint with long-term institutional trends. Tyack and Cuban explained that at a superficial level, the rhetoric of education reform appeared much like a pendulum: “Watchwords shifted in different times from excellence to equality, efficiency to empathy, unity to pluralism–and then back again” (p. 44).

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Learning from the “failure” of polling

The tie between [Progressive-era] administrative authority and the discourse of special education lay in three connected features: the objects of study in the field, the evangelism of experts embedded in personal and professional networks, and the technical tools that experts and their public partners used in practice. We can call this set a triangle of expertise: objects, experts, and tools. – Artiles, Dorn, & Bal (forthcoming, Review of Research in Education)

After the failure of most polling aggregators this week, I am not all that surprised that some observers of education have taken it as a warning about the flaws in big data in education, whether Harry Boyte, Audrey Watters, or others. As someone who has written a bit about the history of expertise in education — yes, the block quotation above is a bit of a tease about a future article — I am sympathetic towards that skepticism. Yet that is not the only conclusion one can draw, and it is important to consider alternative arguments.

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