Evil Geniuses or Good Simpletons? (Gary Rubinstein)

Gary Rubinstein was in Teach for America. In his words: “I’m a Houston 1991 alum ….  Despite writing two books and teaching for thirteen of the past nineteen years, I’m mostly ignored by TFA though I have a lot of ‘suggestions’ for how they can improve.” This post appeared June 7, 2012.

He writes about “corporate reformers,” a favorite phrase used by many who oppose the current “no excuses” agenda of test-based accountability, charter schools, Common Core standards, and using test scores to evaluate and pay teachers. My view differs but I do like what Rubinstein has to say.

When arguing against the corporate reform movement, it is natural to try to figure out what their motivation is.  They SAY that they are doing it for ‘the children,’ but sometimes it is hard to believe.  If they really cared about the children, why would they insist on implementing reforms that have never worked, even on a small scale?  It is hard to fathom.

The education world today is separated into two camps:  1) The corporate reformers and 2) Those who think the corporate reforms will make education worse.  I, of course, belong to the second group.  The corporate reformers always like to have a unified front.  They decide that teacher evaluations should be public and they are all behind it.  Then Bill Gates suddenly says they shouldn’t be public, and then they all say that.  But within the side I’m on, we do not always agree on everything.  We are willing to explore different ideas, with hopes that a discourse will lead to the the best ideas.

One such idea that I waver on is the motives of the reformers.  A common criticism held by many of us, is that one goal of the reformers is to privatize education so they can profit off the huge amount of taxpayer money that goes toward education each year.  As this movement is funded by some of the richest people in the country, some of them ‘anti-union’, this is certainly a position worth considering.  The premise is, then, that the reformers know that the reforms are unlikely to raise achievement, but they have hatched an evil plan to profit off education and break the unions.  I think, though, that this is giving the intelligence of the reformers too much respect.

I do agree that the result of all these reforms will lead to a privatization which will profit certain people who are aligned with the reformers, but I don’t think this is consciously, at least, their ‘plan.’

There is a phenomenon in nature known as ‘emergent behavior.’  What this means, basically, is that a group can accomplish something while the individuals in the group were not aware of this.  A classic example is the way birds ‘flock.’  The birds are not trying to fly in a ‘V’ pattern with one of them as the leader.  Instead, the individual birds are operating at a very simplistic level, following a few very simple rules.

I think, and perhaps I am being too generous here, that the reformers are like this.  They are not evil, nor are they geniuses, rather they are good natured simpletons.  (Maybe you think this is more of an insult than evil geniuses, but I see it as giving them the benefit of the doubt.)  They think they know how to fix the schools.  They are influenced, however, by people who would profit from the privatization of the education system.  So while the key players really don’t need to spend their time on education — the time they spend on it, they could spend making more money doing whatever it is they do to make all their money — they do it because they believe they are ‘giving back’ to society.

I see this same kind of emergent behavior in Teach For America.  The individual staff members, all the way up to Wendy, are good people who truly want to improve the schools.  In my 20 years as a ‘member,’ I’ve had all kinds of in person or phone meetings with many of the higher ups.  They are always so positive and seem to validate my concerns.

Even the poster child of the corporate reformers, Michelle Rhee, has been pretty nice to me over the years.  We worked together in the 1996 institute.  I email her from time to time with questions and concerns and she gets back to me almost immediately.  If nothing else, you’ve got to admire her time management skills.  I think she thinks her organization is rescuing students from incompetent teachers.

Though privatization isn’t their official ‘goal,’ if it turns out to be the best way to help kids, at least in the corporate reformer’s estimation, then it would be a necessary side effect.  It isn’t their goal, but it gets accomplished anyway.  Like flocking birds or termites making a wood pile, they are just following their instincts, not realizing that they are participating in an emergent behavior that will accomplish the opposite of what they are trying to achieve.



Filed under school reform policies

13 responses to “Evil Geniuses or Good Simpletons? (Gary Rubinstein)

  1. Paul Jackman

    Very well put.

    What is your opinion on this :

    • larrycuban

      The Pearson investment in Omega private schools in Ghana (there are also ones in the US.) sure fits what critics of current “neoliberal” reform agenda are both thinking and saying.

  2. Gary, I think you captured the “emergent behavior” of the current “corporate reform” agenda. Well intended actions that drive unintended results. With more than 25 years in the business of educational reform I find myself in full agreement. I often pause to reflect on the words of Ron Edmonds: “We can whenever and wherever we choose successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need in order to do this. Whether we do must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.” – 1982.
    The first response in cultural change initiatives is usually to remove what are perceived to be negative behaviors or influences. I can only hope that once the current reforms lay claim to success we still have the capacity to move on to the second phase of change, building on the positive elements of education.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Ben, for reminding me of Ron Edmonds’ words and the Effective Schools movement. I do wonder what Edmonds would have said about “no excuses” rhetoric of “corporate reformers.”

  3. Bob Calder

    Larry: Here is an interesting piece on a management technique used at Microsoft and its effect. Another academic whose father worked at GE told me Jack Welch used stack ranking in the 70s and routinely fired the bottom of each team. I think it’s significant in relation to the closeness between Microsoft and the Foundation since ideas tend to flow from one network to another.


    If you view each school as a “team” you can see how the analogy fits structurally.

    • larrycuban

      I was unfamiliar with the management technique of “stacking,” Bob. Thanks for sending along the piece. The point of firing some folks even on a successful “team”–regardless of the metrics used–generates fear and uncertainty, to be sure. The analogy to a district and schools as teams is evident.

  4. Thanks for posting this Larry, and writing it, Gary. I completely agree with the “emergent behavior” characterization, whether the outcome is for good or bad. Public education continues to be the recipient of a multitude of unintended consequences mostly based on the well intentioned, but misguided efforts of reformers. At the same time, as mentioned, there are those who conspire to influence the efforts of reformers for selfish, greedy reasons.

    Notwithstanding the presumed righteousness of their efforts, I disagree with much of the education reformers’ plank(s), especially the obsessive use of standardized tests to classify and label students, teachers, administrators, schools, districts, states, and yes, our country. Yet, as a new entrant to education, recently transitioning from a quarter century in corporate America to teaching high school mathematics, I continue to be stunned at how arcane our public education system is today. While there have been a variety of disparate architectures, processes, and roles employed over time, none have coalesced to serve as an effective best practice to emulate, in part or in whole. I do not know why that continues to be the case. Is it due to inadequate funding? Outdated assumptions? Intransigent unions? Increasing poverty? Confounding variables? Mixing all of the above?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Dave, for your comments. I wish I had the wisdom to answer the questions you pose about the frequency and persistence of reforms in governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction over the past two centuries of public schooling.Education is a value-laden, political enterprise and, like other value-driven institutions (e.g., health care, criminal justice, religion) reforms reflect different values of those reformers who have the authority,political muscle, and resources to see that they value-driven reforms become “best practice.”

  5. Pingback: Evil Geniuses or Good Simpletons? (Gary Rubinstein) | Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher

  6. I think your response to Dave’s questions does absolutely expose why he finds himself asking them. It is precisely because we allow education to be a value-laden, politicised enterprise, that we get the polarisation and see-sawing we do. It does not have to be this way and I would argue, in the best educational institutions, it never is. That has certainly been my experience of the very best of UK schooling. It is a mark of a truly professional, skilled teacher that they never, ever, allow their political opinions or views to taint their teaching or indeed to influence other people’s children.

    Sadly, I have also worked with many teachers who consider themselves professionals, yet for whom education is essentially a political act and the poorly served children they teach are never allowed to forget it.

    It certainly saddens me too that Dave believes there is no “effective best practice to emulate.” I have worked in and for dozens of schools, state and private, elite and dire: and why we continue to behave as though some schools don’t do an outstanding job just baffles me. One of the problems is that you have to know what the best looks like to talk about it.

    Of his film Macao, Josef Von Sternberg said, “Instead of fingers in that pie, half a dozen clowns immersed various parts of their anatomy in it.” The same is true of contemporary education policy. The best practice Dave seeks remains stubbornly elusive, largely because so many groups and individuals insist on playing Little Jack Horner with education policy.

    The reformers, the corporate marketing staff, policy advisers and gurus might benefit from a little humility in the face of those schools and teachers who know what they are doing and who do it superbly, week in: week out.

  7. Jeff Bowen

    Emergent behavior seems quite closely related to something Jonathan Haidt defines as groupishness in his book about The Righteous Mind. Behaviors and mindsets sort of evolve by group selection while individuals within the group may be evolving separately or independently. Haidt compares this to Darwin’ s theories and

  8. Jeff Bowen

    and he uses it as one way to explain differences in religious and political predispositions. Corporate reformers bear some interesting similarities. I recpmmend Haidt’s book. Maybe you can explain corporate educational reform in terms of moral psychology?

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