Today I’d like to take a look at the 6th and final installment of Gary Rubinstein’s discussion with Matt Barnum. For those who don’t know, Gary is an education ‘reform’ blogger (on a side-note, I highly recommend his post ‘Why I am sending my daughter to P.S. 163,’ both for those who know nothing about the NYC public schools admissions process and for those who know it all too well and care to read a piece by a fellow sufferer). Matt is also active in the education ‘reform’ dialogue; while Gary is a parent on the non-corporate side of the reform movement, Matt is in many ways a polar opposite, as someone who has been known to criticize leaders of the non-corporate reform movement.
The conversation between these two men, which some have begun referring to as the Rubinstein-Barnum discussion, is a rich dialogue that offers a rare glimpse into what it would be like if members of the two education reform movements actually talked to each other, not simply about each other. I highly recommend reading the entire conversation, which consists of six installments that were written and published on Gary’s blog from April to July. There is certainly a fair share of name-calling and accusatory language presented by both sides, but this is (unfortunately) not unusual in the conversation about national education policy. What is unusual, however, is the opportunity to hear figures from the two drastically opposed and polarized reform communities respond to each other directly, publicly and frankly. Additionally, the conversation has some really fascinating input from other well-known education critics in the comments section of the letters. It really makes you think: what would happen if the Michelle Rhees and Diane Ravitches of the world were to actually talk to each other?
Each installment of the Rubinstein-Barnum back-and-forth covers a variety of issues facing education ‘reformers.’ In this post, I will focus on the 6th installment (for a discussion of the issues covered by the 1st half of the conversation, I recommend ‘What the Gary Rubinstein and Matt Barnum dialogue is really about’). This final installment of the conversation begins with a letter from Gary to Matt, and Matt’s response letter, followed by a series of substantive comments by them and others. Instead of going through each letter piece by piece, I’d like to talk about an extremely important theme of the letters and comments: “reform.”
As you’ve noticed, I’ve sometimes felt compelled to put the terms “reform,” “reformers,” etc. in quotes. This is because one of the biggest issues facing the education reform community is the word ‘reform’ itself. In the first letter of the 6th installment, Matt refers to the education debate as existing between ‘reformers’ and ‘traditionalists,’ where the term ‘reformers’ refers to the corporate, large-scale reformers (Matt names figures such as Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, and Jeb Bush) and the term ‘traditionalists’ refers to the anti-corporation, grassroots supporters of education (Gary names figures such as Diane Ravitch, Anthony Cody, Jersey Jazzman, EduSchyster, Katie Osgood, and, of course, himself). Matt argues that the ‘traditionalists’ are much more known for negative campaigning than the ‘reformers,’ claiming that the leaders of the reform movement, unlike those of the traditionalist movement, do not attack individuals on a personal level. To this Gary responds that ‘reformers’ are only able to avoid calling out individuals because of their position of power (and, I think in many cases, authority). He says that while the corporate reformers have access to all the power and money, the so-called ‘traditionalists’ have only their words. They have a long, uphill battle to pull themselves up to the dialogue into which the ‘reformers’ are thrust purely by their possession of power and wealth.
My reaction to this aspect of the conversation is mixed. One commenter critiques Matt’s usage of ‘traditionalist,’ but another commenter responds by saying that this is common terminology and that Matt should not be too harshly criticized for trying to use a well-known term to clarify differentiation. I would agree with the second commenter that the term should not be too harshly critiqued, especially since Matt did not randomly generate it on his own. But more importantly, I strongly believe that the entire battle of education reform terminology is one which should be thrown out of the education war as soon as possible. Yes, this is naive by many standards, but I stand by it nonetheless. While I believe that language is extremely important and valuable to the progression of any social change, I believe that it is more important that words remain a free commodity. We cannot allow corporate reformers to use their power and wealth as a currency with which to buy singular rights to the word ‘reform.’ If we allow this to go on, it is not long before they also take up the word ‘education’ as their own property.
To further my point, though to do so perhaps a bit nerdily, I refer to Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality, in which Nietzsche offers an historical explanation for the development of the priestly class. Nietzsche’s theory essentially states that the language of “goodness” can be traced back to the original nobility who, by simply possessing the wealth and power of society, were able to define their own characteristics as the first values of society. The lower classes, upset by their inability to attain the power and wealth that the nobility claimed was virtuous, decided to create a new system of valuation by which the original good was “evil” and their own qualities would be known as the new, truer “good.” Hence the development of religion in which the poor, hungry, powerless believers will be rewarded in heaven, and the greedy are punished in hell.
In relating this to the education debate, the corporate reformers are the original nobility while the so-called ‘traditionalists’ are the original lower classes. By claiming that their own educational values and methods are ‘reform,’ the ‘reformers’ have taken possession of the term ‘reform,’ which really just means change. They have defined corporate-reform as the original ‘reform,’ even as the original “good” in the education reform movement. The grassroots reformers, lacking the power and wealth required to advertise possession of ‘reform’ terminology, have been forced to form their own sort of priestly class (in fact, to further substantiate this analogy, Matt claims that non-corporate reformers have “demonized” corporate reformers, and Gary goes so far as to call Diane Ravitch a “saint,” but I digress) in which ‘reform’ is “evil” and the new “good” is defined by the qualities and values of the poorer, non-corporate reformers. As of now, there is not a word that the “priestly class” of the education debate has claimed as their own “good.” Matt and Gary refer to them as ‘traditionalists,’ the Network for Public Education has been known to call themselves advocates of the “genuine reform movement,” and countless other terms have been tossed around. No figure or group has yet achieved the power to buy a term such as the corporate reformers have bought the term ‘reform.’ They may do so yet, though probably not soon.
Providing a linguistic differentiation between the two sides of the education debate clarifies their differences and may allow the public to engage more easily with the education dialogue. However, at what cost? My fear is that we are too easily distracted by the struggle to define and redefine “reform” that we forget the first word of the phrase: education. The fact is that neither group has tried to take ownership of the word “education” yet, and I can only hope that it stays that way. The only reason that the Rubinstein-Barnum discussion was able to take place is because the two men still share at least some vocabulary. In order to have more open dialogues like this one (and I strongly believe that we must have more open dialogues like this one) we must remember the importance of language as a method of political communication, not as a political commodity. In the end of the installment, Gary says that he hopes Matt may be “a leader in a new brand of ‘reformers’ who are a bit more thoughtful and self-reflective.” In saying that Matt may belong to yet another “brand” of ‘reformer,’ Gary points to what has become one of the most overwhelming problems of the education debate, namely, the language of reform.
The fact that Gary and Matt were able to act civilly enough towards one another to publish a series of letters to one another over the course of months shows a level of civility that has become too rare in the education debate. But the fact that so much of the discussion focuses on who is and is not a ‘reformer’ and who “demonized” whom only emphasizes the fact that we have much to do before we can have a conversation about education policy that is both civil and focused on substance. If anything, the Rubinstein-Barnum discussion should point to how tangled and practically incomprehensible the language of the education conversation has become. In all this talk about ‘reform’ and how to define, redefine, claim and reclaim the terminology of reform, we come closer and closer to forgetting altogether what we were trying to reform in the first place.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece stated that Matt Barnum is a researcher for McGraw-Hill. This is in fact not the case, and Barnum has never been affiliated with McGraw-Hill.