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Where Is the Tropopause When We Really Need It?

The botanical phenomenon known as tropism shows how even vegetal life sometimes changes itself in response to primitive stimuli such as light. The classic example is a field of sunflowers that face east in the morning but look westward in the afternoon. I sometimes think that the ‘discourse’ over the ‘reform’ of education is a kind of tropism. I mean not just vegetal action but the –ism of tropes, that is, bromides and caked wisdom, as Barzun calls it.

Typical of the tropism I’m talking about is an article appearing in the most recent issue of The New York Review. Its subject is Joel Klein (“Mr. Klein talks lots of bunk and / More bunk comes from Mr. Duncan”). Now, Mr. Klein’s bunk has been debunked often and at length in these postings and elsewhere[1], but for the writer of the article, it is as if that part of the ‘debate’ never took place. He opens breathlessly with a comment supposedly made to Klein by the late Bruno Bettelheim shortly before the tragic end of his life. That rather ambivalent comment includes the statement that Klein ‘ignores yesterday in order to keep his eye on tomorrow.’

Like George Santayana, I take a dim view of people who ignore yesterday in order to do anything, and have shown in these postings how misguided education ‘transformationists’ have caused more trouble than they’ve cured. But our reviewer actually subsumes tomorrow into the present, asserting against much of the evidence that Klein has already transformed New York’s schools.

One of the properties of tropism is that it functions below the level of consciousness and intelligence, and that seems to be what is happening in this review. Like the Orwellian animals that call out “Four legs good, two legs bad,” our reviewer uncritically presents again all the debunked evidence, though not entirely without a new approach. The novelty is a kind of ad hominem attack on Diane Ravitch, related more in sorrow than in anger.

Joseph de Maistre said that a country gets the government it deserves. After reading something like this review, he might be tempted to assert the corollary that it gets the schools it deserves too. I hope he was wrong.



[1] See for example Exorcise for Health, in which I question value-added metrics; A Philosophy of Baloney, in which I present the criticisms of VAMs by a noted Stanford professor; The Phantom VAMs, in which I present research studies showing that standardized testing does not yield reliable data about students’ learning; Data, Schmatta, in which I present a thorough debunking of the Gates Foundation’s ‘Measures of Effective Teaching’ project; and, finally, Failure by the Numbers, in which I present evidence by New York City’s own Independent Budget Office that Klein’s programs did not produce much of value.

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