In 1972, Yale sociologist Irving Janis coined the term “groupthink.” It was a way of describing the group dynamics that occasionally lead smart, thoughtful, and well-intentioned people to make catastrophically bad decisions. What I have often wondered is, what would Janis make of the decisions being made by today’s education reform leaders?
Janis, who passed away in 1990, focused much of his research on the meetings and conversations that preceded several key presidential decisions, including those that led President Kennedy and the best and brightest “whiz kids” he brought into his administration to move forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion—an American-supported attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba that was, by all accounts, a spectacular failure. In the end, Janis concluded that Kennedy’s biggest failure was not the final decision, but rather the process he and his advisors followed to get there. Most importantly, he felt that they failed to have open, critical conversations that might have pushed them to rethink their assumptions, and that individuals within the group failed to either voice their own concerns, because they felt there was already consensus, or listen to objections that would have helped them reshape the invasion plan.
The reality is that, even in the best circumstances, debates over education reform and policy (on all sides) are perfectly positioned to support groupthink. Look to nearly any education debate these days—whether on Twitter, at conferences, or in statehouses—and you’ll witness some of classic signs of groupthink at work:
Making matters worse, reform leaders aren’t firebrand upstarts but major public figures in charge of vast public institutions. In stark contrast to the scrappy movement of the 1990s, today’s reform leaders hold key positions of power and have won sweeping policy victories—from setting rigorous standards to holding schools accountable to increasing educational options, particularly for poor and minority parents in urban areas. But the shift from advocacy to analysis and implementation has been a rocky one, and it’s possible that we are already seeing some evidence of groupthink at work in our decision making. What, for example, would Janis make of the push to force through teacher evaluation systems in statehouses across the country over the past two years?
- a feeling of moral superiority among group members;
- collective rationalization, where members discount warnings or fail to rethink assumptions;
- overly negative and stereotypical views of the groups “enemies”
- and censorship of dissenting opinion—either via self-censorship or direct pressure put on those who disagree.
In 2010, in a rush to win out in the Race to the Top competition, policymakers across the country pushed to pass teacher evaluation reform. At the core of most of these efforts was the belief that a strong statewide teacher evaluation plan would include a requirement that 51 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student achievement.
Why 51 percent? No one really knew. Did such a rigid formula contradict what successful principals were telling us about how they made staffing decisions? Were the assessments being used valid and reliable measures of student learning? Were they aligned to the curriculum teachers were using? Were the results from those assessments valid at the classroom level? And how were state teacher evaluation-reform mandates going to interact with other statewide reform efforts, like the decision to adopt the Common Core and transition to the related assessments?
These were questions that too few leaders seemed to really grapple with. If the unions or the most vocal anti-reformers were against it, it must be a good idea.
Of course, leaders are right to stand tall and stick to core reform principles, but we also need to get serious about seeking thoughtful—even if not always friendly—critics who will challenge our assumptions and help reveal the most damaging holes in our plans. Most of all, we should be slowing down the decision-making process to make sure we are making the right decisions for our students and teachers before writing our ideas into law. Time is of the essence, but moving quickly at the expense of smart decisions and effective policies is worse than doing nothing at all.
I remember seeing Geoffrey Canada shout at somebody on TV once, somebody who suggested we think carefully through reform before moving forward with it on a large scale. Canada shouted in that self-important way that so many reformers have, that way Canada himself always has, "WE CAN'T WAIT! THERE'S NO TIME!!!!"
There's nothing wrong with having a sense of urgency in addressing a problem, but as so often happens with humans, education reformers mistake movement for action.
They're attitude is, "We must do something and we must do something now because the status quo is untenable and we cannot abide by it any longer and so what if what we're doing isn't working and is making things worse - AT LEAST WE'RE DOING SOMETHING!"
That's the message from the more erstwhile education reformers - the ones who actually believe their own bullshit.
For the reformers in that camp, there definitely is a groupthink mentality.
The more cynical ones, the ones in it not to improve schools but to privatize them, the ones looking to "use the crisis" for their own ends, don't really care if what they've pushed through across the nation - teacher evals based on test scores, Common Core Federal Standards, high stakes accountability, standardized tests in every subject in every grade - are working.
The more cynical reformers care about selling those schools off to their hedge fund buddies, making money for themselves and their cronies, busting the unions to make it easier to push through their privatization agendas, and using so-called accountability measures as rationale for that agenda.
I would agree with Ms. Porter-Magee that there is a groupthink mentality to education reform.
I disagree with her comparing it to Kennedy's Best and Brightest and their Bay of Pigs debacle.
Rather, I think the better analogy is to Kennedy's and Johnson's Best and Brightest and the Vietnam War.
Long after the Best and Brightest knew the war was a morass, that they were throwing good lives into a meat grinder, that they were lying about the body counts and misleading the public about the state of the war, they continued to press ahead with their destructive (and murderous) policies.
While education reform policies aren't killing anybody physically, you can certainly see the psychological, emotional, spiritual and financial damage they are wreaking.
Note the students who are self-medicating with ADHD drugs in order to increase their so-called academic achievement and/or test scores.
Or the doctor loading up children from working class families on ADHD drugs in order to increase their so-called academic achievement and/or test scores.
Or the districts that are saying they'll be financially insolvent within two to four years because they cannot afford the new federal and state education mandates, especially relating to teacher evaluations and testing.
Or the students who are suffering from more and more anxiety and angst as their days in school become ever more intense Darwinian competitions over "achievement," this angst manifesting itself in depression, drug use, and suicidal feelings in both high school students and college students.
To what ends are these education mandates, these education reforms and "No Excuses!" philosophies getting us?
What kind of society are we creating with all these reforms?
Dunno, but I do know this - we have moved so far so quickly with these education reforms wrought by the groupthink of Gates and Broad and Bush and Bloomberg and Obama and the rest and I can guarantee you that these these geniuses, these latest Best and Brightest, haven't thought through the consequences of their policies either.
Or, perhaps like Rahm Emanuel and Rupert Murdoch, they may not care about the consequences.
They may only care about the agenda they're promoting, the money they're making and the power they're wielding.
Either way, there is a lot of damage being done by the so-called Best and Brightest and their groupthink reforms.
It would be nice if more education reformers were calling for a thoughtful reform process like Porter-Magee is.
Alas, they are not - they are calling for "bolder, faster change," as Eva Moskowitz has branded her movement, and care little of the consequences of these bolder, faster changes.
I'm not invested in the status quo nor opposed to reforms to the system, to teacher evaluations, to schools.
What I am opposed to is the wholesale changes to the system the reform movement has hoisted onto public schools across the nation without any iota of evidence that Common Core, teacher evaluations tied to test scores, and other corporate reform tenets will improve education, though with already a basketful of evidence of the damage it is doing.