THE BLOG
10/23/2012 11:37 am ET | Updated Dec 23, 2012

The World Is... a Sisyphean Hill of Policy Smackdowns?

As a former teacher with a MBA, I read a lot of "business books." And of the titles I've read over the past few years, none have characterized the future of public education more presciently than Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I read an op-ed in this weekend's New York Times in which Friedman abandons the nascent non-hierarchical plains of the twenty-first century for the familiar twentieth-century terrain of command-and-control. Yet there it is -- and there he is -- writing about the future of school reform, and praising the Obama administration's Race to the Top program.

First, let's recall what Friedman described in The World is Flat -- the dawn of collaboration and the demise of top-down politics. As he wrote, "We are now just at the beginning of a massive, worldwide change in habits... from command and control to connect and collaborate." In that world, "the most important ability you can develop in a flat world is the ability to 'learn how to learn,'" and the only way that sort of shift will come about is by "having an abundance of trust." Friedman quotes a wide range of experts to strengthen his claims, including foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum, who, though speaking of geopolitics, might as well have been talking about school reform. "People change as a result of what they notice," Mandelbaum said, "not just what they are told."

Which leads us to this weekend's column, and Friedman's praise for the Obama administration's support of a vision of "educational reform based on accountability of teachers and principals," and for an education secretary who trumpets reforms that "have already showed double-digit increases in reading or math in their first year" without realizing the only thing those sorts of numerical gains accurately reflect are the funhouse-mirror state of our modern discourse.

What Friedman seems to have forgotten, and what the Obama administration has repeatedly failed to heed, is that systems as dysfunctional as those in American public education require more than a new set of end goals: they require deep and sustained investments in our collective capacity to imagine and sustain something new -- and that sort of change requires two main ingredients: technical expertise and emotional commitment.

Unfortunately, Race to the Top (RTTT) lacks both ingredients: its formulas for technical expertise, such as new teacher evaluation systems (good idea) based significantly on student test scores (bad idea), move the goalposts but ignore the skill levels of the players. As international change expert Michael Fullan points out, RTTT "pays little or no attention to developing the capacity of leaders to improve together or as a system: it is based on a failed theory that teacher quality can be increased by a system of competitive rewards, and it rests on a badly flawed model of management where everyone manages their own unit, is accountable for results, and competes with their peers -- creating fiefdoms, silos, and lack of capacity or incentives for professionals to help each other" -- in short, the sorts of habits Friedman defines as the key to becoming successful in the flat world of the twenty-first century.

Worse still, programs like RTTT reflect a technocratic insensitivity to the actual rhythms of human beings, and a complete disregard for the necessity of building a shared emotional commitment for the changes we seek (Chicago, anyone?). So whereas attaching a dollar sign to the "recommended" reforms of RTTT was an effective strategy, as was tying each state's conditional funding under ARRA to its agreement to adopt the common core learning standards, it's equally true that there are short games and there are long games. And what I loved about The World is Flat was its recognition that to win the long game of the current century, compulsion was fool's gold; commitment was the gold standard.

In fairness to Mr. Friedman, this point was made long before him. As Plato said, a loooong time ago, "Knowledge, which is acquired under compulsion, obtains no hold on the mind."

Isn't it time we heeded that 2,000-year-old advice?