Paul Krugman has a good piece in the NYRB discussing the ill-judged move, over the past few years in the west, to "austerity"-- that is, cutting government spending and raising taxes. The article is worth reading even for people who aren't usually terribly interested in economics, both because this is one of the major stories of our time and because Krugman's analysis of how the opinions of the elites and the policymakers could be so wrong is more broadly applicable. In particular, I think the analysis applies pretty well to the Ed Reform movement of the past decade.
According to Krugman, the move to austerity has a few notable features:
* It found support from scholarly studies that are, despite fancy pedigrees (Harvard!), shaky and dubious
* It had a simple moral and psychological appeal
* It did not demand anything difficult from the elites themselves
All of these fit the Ed Reform movement as well:
Support from dubious but ivy-league scholarship
Educational research is, like economics research, anything but conclusive. A lot of pretty basic questions are surprisingly unclear: whether homework is worthwhile, whether class size makes a big difference, how reliable or valid standardized test scores are as measures of teacher effectiveness, whether vocabulary instruction is useful, and many , many more. Nevertheless, you would never know this from the self-assured pronouncements of people like Bill Gates, who can move with dizzying fickleness from demanding small schools to demanding Common Core Standards to demanding that teachers be evaluated by test scores to demanding larger class sizes, citing studies for each new "evidence-based" proposal despite the fact that none of these proposals has more than the slimmest of empirical evidence in its favor.
In fact, the Ed reformers' emphasis on standardized tests is striking in its radical departure from what has long been understood: that what matters is student engagement with the material in as authentic a way as possible. But just as radical proponents of austerity economics have, on the basis of thin scholarship and simplistic moralizing ("We must tighten our belts!"), left behind the accepted wisdom of John Maynard Keynes--just so have the Ed reformers radically left behind the legacy of John Dewey on the basis of thin scholarship and similarly simplistic moralizing ("We need to get tough!").
Crude moral and psychological appeal
Blame and punishment have an eternal appeal. Just as the Germans blame the Greeks, and demand cuts and austerity from the Greeks even though cutting the Greek economy off at the knees means it won't ever get back on its feet, American Ed reformers blame teachers and schools, and demand punishment. Never mind changing the larger system of inequality and poverty, never mind the fact that punitive measures never work, blame and punishment are appealing--especially if you can put them onto other people, not yourself or people you know.
Few demands on the elites themselves
Because cutting taxes on the rich helps the rich, cutting government spending doesn't hurt them directly, and failing to tackle high unemployment keeps wages down and corporate profits high, the wealthy proponents of government austerity are remarkably insulated from the bad effects of the policies they propose. In the same way, the Ed reformers are very far from personally connected to the reforms they propose. Not only have none of these people (Gates, Broad, Duncan, Obama, Bloomberg, Klein, Coleman, Emanuel, etc.) ever actually been a teacher, not a single one of them, as far as I know, has kids in public school. The fact that all of the ed reformers send their kids to private school is significant for two reasons: (1) because private schools like Lakeside, Sidwell Friends or the Lab School do not follow an ed reform model now, and (2) because they will never have to. New standards, new testing regimes, increased class sizes, teacher evaluation based on test scores--all of these dubious reforms will be imposed on those of us in public schools, but their architects and proponents are sheltered and insulated from them. It is infuriating.
What Krugman says about proponents of austerity economics is, I think, appropriate to Ed Reform as well (and reminds me why the wonk is an invasive species). Here's Krugman:
"It’s a terrible story, mainly because of the immense suffering that has resulted from these policy errors. It’s also deeply worrying for those who like to believe that knowledge can make a positive difference in the world. To the extent that policymakers and elite opinion in general have made use of economic analysis at all, they have, as the saying goes, done so the way a drunkard uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination. Papers and economists who told the elite what it wanted to hear were celebrated, despite plenty of evidence that they were wrong; critics were ignored, no matter how often they got it right."