Putting The Trust Back In Education

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In my last TPM column, I suggested that ad hominem attacks on Campbell Brown were inappropriate and part of a rhetorical pattern for the opponents of education reform. The response was, frankly, scathing. The vast majority of responses were via anonymous emails and tweets accusing me of a variety of things: being a crypto-corporatist, a “basterd” [sic] whose column was a “tongue bath” for Brown and Michelle Rhee, and so on. One guy longed for Brown to be violently beaten for her views. I’m from the Midwest. I have neither the inclination nor the rhetorical juice to go blow for blow with those folks.

Others tried various defenses for discounting Brown’s views on the basis of her husband’s activities and partisan affiliations. As a feminist, as a husband, as a father to a brilliant, independent daughter, I can’t imagine a situation where or when that logic would make sense to me.

Finally, a few people pointed out that my column was inadequately attentive to the causes of intemperate reform opposition. Some American teachers feel like they’re under siege. If they respond viscerally to critics, that’s because they feel that their profession is under attack.

As a former teacher — heck, as a human being — this makes sense to me. American teachers rarely control new reforms affecting their daily work. Reforms happen to them. After years of this, some teachers have decided that these perennial impositions on their day to day work have become intolerable (again, as I mentioned in my last column, all education reform skeptics should really read Jal Mehta’s book on this).

So if some teachers push back aggressively to education reforms, that’s because they’re tired of being pushed. (Note: this is all oversimplifying matters, of course. A number of organizations, such as Educators for Excellence, have organized pro-reform teachers to ensure that their voices are heard.) In other words, some teachers don’t trust that their interests and expertise are valued within the broader education reform movement.

As it happens, I’ve been thinking a lot about trust in education lately. I just read Ulrich Boser’s excellent “The Leap: The Science of Trust and Why It Matters.” While the book isn’t explicitly about education, Boser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP), has done some excellent education policy work for CAP over the years.

At one level, research on trust is pretty intuitive. We know that we need one another. We know that cooperation pretty much always beats isolation. We know that we’re more likely to work and take risks with one another when we’ve weathered trials together, when we feel part of a common mission, when we feel as though our position is secure enough to risk challenging our partners and changing our own practice. Anyone who’s ever tried to resolve a problem by organizing her neighbors gets this. Shoot, anyone who’s been married — and worked to stay married — knows that trust is enormously important.

But understanding that trust matters is not the same as actually doing something to build it at work, home, or on a team. This is where “The Leap” is particularly helpful. Boser offers an organized, thoughtful tour of the research and history of efforts to build trust between individuals, within and between groups, and in society at-large. From impromptu Civil War truces at a creek in Tennessee to a British game show called Golden Balls to Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49er teams to skydiving and even to healing the wounds of genocide in Rwanda, Boser’s narrative is both comprehensive and engaging. Each of his vignettes helps connect evidence that supports — and sometimes challenges — our intuitions about trust.

What does this have to do with education? Well, I’m increasingly convinced by arguments suggesting that the erosion of trust in the United States is part of a deeper political current. Boser gestures to something like this when he notes that our system of government isn’t aimed at maximum effectiveness so much as providing structural checks on human judgment. Because we suspect that humans are fickle and self-interested, Americans have long built systems to ensure that public officials rarely make consequential decisions without checks and balances.

This means that U.S. policy — especially education — is dominated by trust in procedures rather than trust in basic human judgment. That is, instead of letting principals hire and fire their own staff, we build enormously complex and contested teacher evaluation systems. Then we build an appeals process on top of those to deal with efforts to dismiss teachers. And beyond that, it leaks into the checks and balances of the courts.

Similarly, instead of trusting teachers to develop their own units or lesson plans, we increasingly rely upon pre-packaged curricula and standardized assessments (preemptive note: the Common Core is not a curricula, it’s just standards in support of better data, that’s not what I’m talking about.).

Is it any wonder that teachers feel more like industrial widgets than valued, empowered professionals? For a while, they respond to new reform proposals wearily. But after a while, after innumerable intrusions into their professional sphere, they lash out.

This is no way to run effective organizations, let alone a national education system. Boser’s book is full of examples that offer guidance for how we might start rebuilding social capital in education politics. Consider, Boser’s account of former UK prime minister Tony Blair’s turn of the century domestic reforms: Blair set clear, measurable, specific targets for various government agencies, and then largely let them work out how to reach those. Outside of the charter school movement, that flexibility is unheard of in American education.

But I think that Boser’s account of Walsh’s 49er teams really gets at the heart of the matter. A national effort to slim down the various regulatory systems governing how schools and teachers operate would be a good start, but that’s hardly a sufficient step. Boser describes Walsh’s brilliance well: the coach fostered intra-team communication, an open approach to player feedback, supportive workplace norms, and a team-wide push for success that transcended individual glory.

That’s a potent brew, and it’s sadly rare at the school level in the United States today. Whatever else reformers propose in the coming years, they should also be thinking of ways to support the development of trusting, collaborative, and mission-driven communities of educators.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think that noting and prioritizing that goal should be seen as an endorsement of any particular education policy path. There are lots of ways to build supportive teams of educators. And while the foregoing may help explain some of the pyrotechnic rhetoric used by reform skeptics, it does not justify it.

I’ve written some vague guesses about the future of education reform—and education politics—before. It’s hard to know just what the next phase of reform will look like. But it’s almost certainly going to rely on taking teacher professionalism more seriously than on expanding top-down accountability. Trust me.

Conor P. Williams, PhD is a Senior Researcher in New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @conorpwilliams. Follow him on Facebook.

Photo: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

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  1. Violent and misogynist comments are awful and those posters should be ashamed of themselves, but Conor, as far as this public school parent can tell, you’re basically a pro-charters-and-testing concern troll, and I can understand how that would make people angry.

    People who care about our public schools are angry because they see an unfathomably deep-pocketed astroturf “movement,” fueled by a combination of anti-labor and anti-government ideology and commercial self-interest, privatizing K-12 public education and turning poor kids into profit centers for the charter chains and testing companies. They know there’s big money sluicing around the media-political complex to support privatization – from the Waltons, the Broad and Gates Foundations, hedge funders and VCs, etc. They see the not-incidental near-unanimity of Democratic electeds at all levels for charters and testing.

    Still, I expect more out of TPM, and I’m once again disappointed to see a site I depend on for “In, not of” reporting offering a venue for this kind of one-sided (but infuriatingly, pretending at objectivity) swill.

  2. The larger the behemoth… The more the impersonal…

    That is what we get when there are so many levels of bureaucracy, do-gooder researchers, and castle-builders in the chain.

    Is Conor Williams still in the classroom? If he’s not, he’s not teaching! Allow me to quote JCS:


  3. Here is where you are off and fundamentally wrong in your argument:

    Blair set clear, measurable, specific targets for various government agencies, and then largely let them work out how to reach those. Outside of the charter school movement, that flexibility is unheard of in American education.

    In fact, American education is largely local: education policy is set by local school boards and at the state level. That’s why you have such a huge disparity in the quality of public education – the absolute worst schools happen to be in the right-to-work (for the lowest possible wage) states – Mississippi, Nevada, Texas, etc., and the finest schools happen to be in state with strong teacher contracts and strong dedication to teacher professional development – Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont.

    To the extent the federal government has any leverage in education policy, the power they wield is just extra money. The major funding for public education comes from local property taxes. That’s why the best schools in any state are in wealthy neighborhoods and the worst schools in any state are in poor neighborhoods.

    Stupid and counterproductive testing schemes like the ones you advocate aren’t going to change that stark reality. Non-profit charter schools may, in some cases, be a better choice for students in a given neighborhood, but there is no comprehensive data that makes that case.

    People like Campbell Brown and the Gates are just wealthy amateurs trying to monetize public education for their own political agenda. They know nothing about the profession of teaching. They are like Wall Street banksters sitting around a mahogany conference table trying to reform the practice of neurosurgery. Fiddling around with people’s lives in order to enrich the 1% to which they belong.

    One thing in indisputable: Profit-driven education is and always has been a complete and total failure. The data is clear on that, from kindergarten through university-level education, there is NO case where a for-profit school has any success. Trump University, anyone?

    Prove me wrong.

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