As the Education Secretary fight nears an end, everyone is trying to figure out how to describe the two sides of the battle for Barack Obama’s affection. But I don’t think any of the recent descriptions — from the Associated Press (“reform advocates”) to Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter (“bomb throwers”) to The New Republic (“Reform School”) — live up to the standards of my New York Sun editor, Ira Stoll, who declared that the word “reform” is hopelessly imprecise and banned it from my writing.
Rep. George Miller, the leading voice on education in Congress, told me recently that “the debate is between incrementalists and disrupters, and I’m with the disrupters.” So is Bill Gates. The father of disruptive software is ready for another revolution.
The disrupters may not be a real word (or at least a word entered in my computer’s dictionary), but it is a neat proposal. It’s the same distinction Randi Weingarten makes between herself and Joel Klein. As she told the Times, her vision is “sustainable and incremental change.” Klein wants “radical reform.”
But I still have some concerns. First, the distinction doesn’t articulate what kind of methods will be used to achieve change. What kind of a disruption do they want? In the past few months we have narrowed in on some key components: the importance of data and test scores, the drive to locate and get rid of bad teachers, the belief that individual schools can change students’ lives all on their own. “Disrupters” doesn’t describe those things.
The distinction also does nothing to describe the kinds of people who fit into each camp. And there is a sociological profile, as one contest entry — boardroom progressives — made clear.
So, we have a little more work to do. One adjective will probably not be enough. But we’re getting close!
Footnote: A funny honorable mention (but way too biased to merit serious consideration) is from Leo Casey, the local teachers union vice president. Writing recently on his blog, Edwize, Casey called this group the “education deformer crowd.” I think that the etymology traces back to January of this year, when Deborah Meier suggested the idea parenthetically, on her blog with Diane Ravitch at Ed Week:
But what to do about “reformers” (maybe we should rename them “deformers”?) who use their extraordinary power to rush through one after another measure that undermine such optimism about democracy??