06/07/2014 01:41 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2014

Can Research Identify a School That's Working?

At first this post started with a long embedded twitter conversation between @TeacherSabrina and @MichaelPetrilli, spinning off from a discussion of how charters and closings lead to re-segregation, but I've narrowed it down to a most revealing exchange:

@TeacherSabrina "Who should get to decide what works and what doesn't?"

@Michael Petrilli "What works and what doesn't work is a matter of good research."

And there is one of the big disconnects on the side of the Reformsters. Because what works and what doesn't work is not a matter of good research at all. Or rather, the research doesn't matter.

Only one thing matters -- the definition of "works."

Does this raggedy Philips head screwdriver work? That depends on whether I want to use it to unscrew screws or punch holes in a soup can. Does telling my wife she's fat work? That depends on whether I want to make her happy or angry.

If I get to define what "working" looks like, all the measuring, testing, researching, test tubial naval-gazing intro-examination that follows is secondary. Part of what gets folks' backs up about the Reformsters is that they start with, "You do not understand how a school is supposed to work. You are doing school wrong."

The most fundamental part of local control is the community definition of what a working school looks like. The districts under the thumb of colonizers, districts like Newark and Philadelphia, are districts where the community definition has been thrown out.

Imagine a group of parents get together to define what a working school looks like.

It's in the community, so people can walk there. And students are at home in the evenings, learning the responsibilities of being part of a family (however messed up it may be). Student groups do community service in their own community, and students are able to be active in community groups based in the same neighborhood where they live.

Now let's do some scientific research to measure in a sciencey way how well schools stack up, and lookee here -- Philips Exeter Academy and other elite boarding schools all fail. They are all schools that don't work.

Research doesn't mean jack.

Or rather, by the time the research starts, the people who commissioned it have already picked the winners and losers. Common Core stacks the deck before it even gets to the actual standards, because it defines up front that a working education is only one that prepares the student for a job -- period (yes, yes, or for college -- defined down as the gateway to a higher class of job).

Don't tell me what the research says. Tell me what yardstick you set up for the research.

The generally drift of Petrilli's argument was that bringing in outsiders to replace non-working schools with working schools is a win. But that process doesn't replace a non-working school with a working school -- it replaces the community's definition of "working" with the outsider's definition. It's invasive and extraordinarily patronizing (how do you imagine Philips Exeter's parents would greet an outside that stopped by to tell them their school was failing)?

Are there schools that are failing? Sure. Spectacularly in some cases. You know what those schools have in common? A community that knows it. They don't need Reformsters to come in and tell them to sit down and shut up because they don't run the [your district's name] schools. They don't need someone to come shove them out of the way so that their judgment can be replaced with the judgment of someone superior. They already have all the overly politicized bloated self-important bureaucratic monstrosities they need.

That's why parents in some urban districts initially welcomed reformsters with open arms -- they thought the reformsters were going to help them make schools work. Instead, reformsters have steadily told them that they don't know how a school is supposed to work, and they should all shut up and accept the substitution of other standards for their own. After all, it's supported by research.