Insult of insults from Third Way – Baker, You… You… Status Quo…er!

I gotta admit that my favorite part of the Third Way memo responding to my critique of their “Middle Class” report is the end of the memo.

Here are the two concluding paragraphs from the Third Way memo in reply to my rather harsh critique of their report:

 There are 52,860 public and charter schools that fall within our definition of middle-class schools, and they educate 25.7 million16 students. The message from Dr. Baker and the NEPC seems to be—let’s ignore them. In fact, let’s not even define them. Our view is that there is immense potential out there. These schools are failing in their basic mission—to become college factories.

From our perspective, college graduation rates of 31% and 23% in the second and third NSLP groupings, respectively—as our report presents—are unacceptable for America’s economic future. Clearly, the NEPC and Dr. Baker disagree and are satisfied with the status quo. We are not.

Yes, there it is. The insult of insults in reformyland! I am, as a result of critiquing their near criminal abuse of data, a… a… Status Quo-er!

Obviously, anyone (like me) who might take offense at such egregious representation of data must be a defender of the status quo. That is the worst offense in today’s reform debate. Especially if the egregious abuse of data was done with good intentions? Right? Done with the good intentions of letting the American public understand just how awful their schools are!  They need to know. America needs to know! And now! This can’t wait! Even if we have to classify information illogically or draw conclusions that don’t even match our data?

Look, bad data analyses and bombastic conclusions about our supposed education apocalypse do little or nothing to start a genuine conversation about either the true current conditions of our schools or whether we should be considering systemic changes.

Often, such crisis mode reporting has as its central objective, encouraging the public and policymakers to act in haste and adopt ill-conceived (often self-serving) policy before they know what’s really going on. That is, let’s get in a panic and adopt something really stupid and fast.  Any reader should be wary of and evaluate critically crisis-mode reports like the Third Way middle class report. Some such reports may ultimately reveal important issues and some even with a degree of immediacy. Third Way’s report reveals neither.



  1. Clearly, when an organization defaults to hurling supposed insults, the game is up. Such is the marker of a thoughtless institution. As Hannah Arendt observed long ago: “[P]roblem-solvers did not judge; they calculated. Their self-confidence did not even need self-deception to be sustained in the midst of so many misjudgments, for it relied on the evidence of mathematical, purely rational truth. Except, of course, that this “truth” was entirely irrelevant to the “problem” at hand.”

    Of course, even the Third Way’s supposed analysis is complete garbage–the classic “garbage in, garbage out” analysis, since their misjudgments are fatal to the task at hand. Endless numbers of doctoral students are going to have a ball tearing apart this specific bonehead project.

    See Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition, 1972, p. 37.

  2. When did the basic mission of these schools become being “college factories”? Interesting choice of words. Illuminating.

    1. I included that whole quote hoping someone might raise that issue. While I personally believe strongly in college readiness as a goal of k12 systems – and more strongly in college readiness than in proficiency on state tests which are often completely divorced from college readiness – I also found this statement to be a bit over the top – that the central, single objective of middle class schools in particular is to be “college factories.”

      The lack of understanding of education issues – or economic issues for that matter – or of relevant data, literature, etc. – among the authors of the Third Way report is simply baffling. If anything, the Third Way report is especially illustrative of what can happen when individuals believe they really understand a policy issue and related data, based on little more than shallow dabbling in data and cursory reviews of secondary and tertiary sources. Yes, we all do start somewhere. But, this goes back to my Jazz example in a recent post… One doesn’t become Charlie Parker simply by listening to a few cuts and having a few sax lessons, and perhaps learning a few solos from the Omnibook. Yeah… that’s a start, but there’s a whole lot of discipline (a whole lot of practicing & intense immersion) to developing deeper knowledge of what Parker was actually doing and one heck of a lot of discipline to developing the skills to do even some of the same.

      Similarly, good research on complex policy issues such as this is not accomplished by doing the equivalent of what is required for writing an undergraduate paper on a pet topic. Dreadfully oversimplified statements like the one you point to here are suggestive that the authors simply have not bothered to exercise that discipline. (nor do they seem to care or understand?)

  3. Yep–I believe I have a new HW problem for my students. Read the report and critique it. All but one of my students is from a middle eastern country or an eastern asian country, so have little familiarity with the US system. But can guarantee they will pick up on the flaws of the study.

    They asked me to explain value-added and I did explain in a way that captured the theory of it. One young Kuwaiti woman leaned back, folded her harms, and said, “That just doesn’t make sense. It won’t work. Why would anyone think it would?”

    1. Unfortunately, the critique is already out of the bag. It works if they haven’t seen the original report or critique though. I did use it in my class on Monday night. It was an introductory doctoral course on data use/analysis/reporting. I simply gave it to them and said to critique it. I had finished my own draft critique, but didn’t share it with them until after. They actually caught many of the issues, including the definition of “middle class” and they used the hyperlinks to dig through the available data and point out some absurdities. Some also were perplexed as they read the text and then looked at tables where data didn’t support the conclusions of the text. We have spent a lot of time in the first two session discussing issues like information loss in measures such as proficiency rates and poverty rates. We’ve also discussed carefully considering measures and context… such as understanding how different poverty thresholds apply to income distributions, and how context matters (e.g. Texas income distribution vs New Jersey, etc.). So, they were sensitive to particularly important issues for critiquing this report.

  4. As for college factories and graduation rates–I like how the new reformy types totally discount factors affecting college graduation rates such as the recession, declining public financial support, etc and lay the entire blame on K-12 systems. Perhaps their lack of criticfal thinking in writing the report is the real indictment of middle class K-12 schools if that is where they went to school.

  5. College factories…. which is why we have so many remedial courses in college, and why within 10 years we will have plumbers that can command hire hourly rates than lawyers. No one is learning trades anymore because we’ve decided that “everyone must go to college”.

  6. @Trisha – Law services are being outsourced to India, so plumbers are definitely commanding higher hourly rates than many people doing legal work. The corporations must maximize profits… that is why they exist. If they need to do it by outsourcing or busting unions, they will. The rhetoric that these corporate reformers use to pretend that they care at all about those with middle and low incomes is pure fantasy. They think the “free market” will somehow fix schools? School choice is a joke for poor folks… is sounds good, but it is not having the effect it was supposed to… it’s mostly just resegregating schools racially, ethically and economically.

    Not only are our schools supposed to be “college factories,” but they are supposed to somehow insure our economic future. My question is, “economic future for whom?” It seems like most American corporations are looking for low wage labor that is docile and won’t organize. If they can’t get it here they will go overseas and leave us with more unemployment and more poverty. When even high skill work such as law and engineering can be outsourced globally how is improving education for all Americans going to help anything? Who will clean the hotel rooms and bus the tables? What jobs will the college grads have when their job can be done much cheaper by someone in India or China?

    Many of these reformy types talk the talk of raising the bar for everyone when, in fact, it seems that they are just trying to privatize schools to find another profit center, or make sure there are a enough “good” schools in their area to attract the professional classes. Here in Chicago there are a few great selective enrollment high schools and some magnet schools which allow the mayor to boast about our school improvement when trying to attract some new corporate HQ, like Boeing. Boeing moved here, and our “improved schools” were part of the deal, but the huge tax breaks Boeing got to move here just add to the city’s financial problems and those of our schools.

    The misuse of data and the talk of crisis are typical arrows in the reformy quiver. The manufactured crisis is a very powerful tool of neoliberals in general. Schools are not engines of the economy. They should not be treated like businesses. Test scores are not products and children are not cogs in a machine.

    When factors like family income or maternal level of education predict school success better than any curriculum or in-school factor why can’t people see that schools will improve significantly when society improves and not before. I guess they’d just call me a status quo-er.

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