Scott LeMieux does most of the hard work here, so I won’t go through a point-by-point rebuttal of this post by Matt Yglesias. But there’s a big point Scott didn’t address. Yglesias’ post is argued entirely from the perspective of how to deal with teachers:
Suppose we found out that LeBron James were taking steroids. I can imagine a whole range of responses to that revelation that reasonable people might take. What I can’t imagine is someone saying that LeBron James taking steroids proved that basketball players should be compensated on the basis of pure seniority rather than perceived basketball skill. Right?
That’s a great way of looking at the alleged cheating under Michelle Rhee if public education were about creating a structured environment for a competition where success or failure is measured by who has the superior score. That is, of course, pretty much how most “school reformers” see public education. Using this frame, it would mean just that someone cheated so they don’t win, but it doesn’t mean the entire game is flawed.
But public education isn’t a game where someone wins and someone loses. Public education is about educating and nurturing children. Children in public schools shouldn’t be thought of like players on a court, but more like patients in need of the best available care, so they can grow, be healthy, develop their full capacity and thrive.
Matt reveals a lot about the mindset of most school reformers when he compares Michelle Rhee’s cheating to an athlete getting an unfair advantage. The problem isn’t just that it presents Michelle Rhee as better at her job than she actually is, or that she gains advantages such as higher pay, more prominence, and better jobs. It’s not just Michelle Rhee gets to declare “I’m better than everyone else at running schools.” It’s also a problem because it leads to the conclusion that everyone else should adopt Michelle Rhee’s methods, because her policies and practices have been proven to be superior to those previously dominant in public education.
Yglesias’ sports analogy doesn’t work, but there is a good analogy to the alleged cheating by Rhee: the case of Andrew Wakefield. The name may not ring a bell, but you know the story: he’s the former British physician who published fraudulent research purporting to establish a link between vaccines and autism. As covered in Yglesias’ own Slate, there’s a measles outbreak in the UK, created no doubt in part by the anti-vaccination conspiracies validated by Wakefield’s now repudiated “research.” But there was immediate harm as well. Here’s that same Slate writer, Phil Plait, from 2010:
The GMC (the independent body of medical regulators in the UK
, rather like the AMA in the US) didn’t investigate whether his claims were correct or not — and let’s be very clear, his claims have been shown beyond any doubt to be totally wrong— only whether he acted ethically in his research. What they found is that his research (involving spinal taps of children) was against the children’s clinical interest, that Wakefield was unqualified to perform the test, and that he had no ethical approval to do them.
Even the most serious allegations against Rhee don’t involve the kinds of immediate and life-threatening danger to which Wakefield exposed his subjects. But if a curricula and radically different system of running schools was a failure, and if Rhee and her associations concealed or altered empirical results that not only would have revealed that failure, but presented it as a great improvement over previous methods, their actions were a threat to the cognitive, emotional, social and physical flourishing of the students funder Rhee’s authority. But the harm won’t end there. If she concealed and distorted data to fraudulently claim success, and that led to a widespread embrace of her policies, Rhee’s actions also threaten the well-being of all children in American public schools, for it validates practices–treatments, were it medicine–that are not improvements over current practices, and quite possibly could inflict avoidable harm on children.
Matt Yglesias is wrong here, but he’s not, to use one of his favorite lines, “history’s greatest monster.” And being wrong about school reform doesn’t have the immediate life-and-death effects of monstrously convincing parents to not vaccinate their children. But think about the willingness of a lot of people like Yglesias–smart, otherwise liberal people who end up thinking so much about the “scores” of teachers than they sometimes lose focus on doing what’s best for children–to remain immune to the evidence that the school reformers are charlatans, and see how Plait’s description of anti-vaxxers [emphasis in the original] could be used to describe those who embrace the hucksterism of “school reformers” like Michelle Rhee:
[T]he evidence was already overwhelming that Wakefield was wrong, just as it’s overwhelming that vaccines are totally and completely unrelated to autism. But the antivaxxers’ world is not based on evidence. It’s more like a dogmatic religion, since many of its believers will twist and distort the truth to fit their views, even, tragically, if it means babies will die.