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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 06/09/2012

The trouble with ‘Groupthink’ in school reform

This was written by educator Anthony Cody, who worked for 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 years teaching science at a high-needs school and six years as a mentor and coach of teachers. He is a National Board-certified teacher. A version of this post appeared on his Education Week Teacher blog, Living in Dialogue .

By Anthony Cody

A disturbing thought came to mind as I was looking at the latest report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, which criticizes schools of education for failing to jump on the “obsessed with data” bandwagon. You can just feel the irritation in the words of NCTQ president Kate Walsh when she says:

A lot of schools of education continue to become quite oppositional to the notion of standardized tests, even though they have very much become a reality in K-12 schools. The ideological resistance is critical.

This reminds me of a phenomenon called “Groupthink.” What we are experiencing in education is actually a virulent and coercive strain of Groupthink, and it is harming our students.

The value of test data has been inflated way beyond its true worth, in a manner similar to real estate prices during the bubble of the past decade. Once this bubble is launched, many people begin to depend on it for their livelihoods.

There’s been a flood of tax-exempt corporate money for advocacy, think tank “research,” and lobbying to direct public education policy into a “public-private partnership” under corporate — not public — control. This has in turn produced a network of consultants, paid strategists, leveraged public administrators and legislators, media pundits, and academic grantees. They now owe their positions and their livelihoods to an insular and self-affirming pattern of Groupthink.

First, let’s take a look at how Groupthink is defined. The Psychologists for Social Responsibility offer this description, drawing on the work of Irving Janis:

Janis has documented eight symptoms of Groupthink:

1. Illusion of invulnerability — Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.

2. Collective rationalization — Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.

3. Belief in inherent morality — Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.

4. Stereotyped views of out-groups — Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.

5. Direct pressure on dissenters — Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.

6. Self-censorship — Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.

7. Illusion of unanimity — The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.

8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ — Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.

For the past decade, educators have been under intense pressure to join the “Groupthink” ideas of No Child Left Behind and the whole standards/accountability movement.

Let’s look at this list of traits and see how they fit today’s education “reform” movement.

1. Illusion of invulnerability — Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.

Remember how No Child Left Behind was launched? We had the “Texas Miracle,” the high school dropout rates of zero reported by George W. Bush, which evaporated when it was revealed that the glowing stats were simply the result of administrative maneuvers and falsified data. And the whole NCLB project projected that schools must reach 100% proficiency by 2014.

Promoters of charter schools have been claiming for years to have “figured out” how to overcome the effects of poverty. Only now that we are several years into the experiment we hear that we must “calibrate our expectations” as they fail to deliver. We hear similar confident claims for the new tests being designed to align with the Common Core State standards, exams thatwill somehow magically wipe away the damaging effects of the previous ones.. Not to mention the wonders of the Khan Academy and other computer-based delivery systems, which will allow us to simultaneously increase class sizes and “personalize” learning.

2. Collective rationalization — Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.

We have had report after report documenting the failures of NCLB and high-stakes tests. Not a single experiment in pay for high test scores has worked. Every time it fails a reason is found that allows the idea to survive.

3. Belief in inherent morality — Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.

What is the mantra of the phony reform movement — now repeated by Mitt Romney? “Education is the civil rights issue of our time.” As if discrimination, housing, poverty and voting rights no longer trouble us! Our schools are now even more racially and economically segregated than any time since the 1960s, and this is given not a thought by these crusaders.

Neighborhood schools are closed, entire staffs are fired, and dedicated teachers are subjected to humiliation by the press, all justified by this moral crusade for the children.

4. Stereotyped views of out-groups — Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.

Public education is defined as the “status quo,” and anyone who defends it is defending a failed, moribund system. There have been some interesting windows into the thinking of education “reformers.” A recent report on what members call the “Fight Club” reveals national coordination among various “Education Reform Advocacy Organizations,” such as Stand For Children, the Education Trust, and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst. They see as their enemy “the collection of teachers unions and other school employee associations derisively called the ‘blob’....” The unions are the chief villains in this morality play, acting to defend “bad teachers,” who morph into child molesters who cannot be fired, or simply lazy individuals responsible for the economic decline of America.

5. Direct pressure on dissenters — Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.

This is most damaging within public schools, when teacher evaluations are increasingly based on whether the teacher succeeds at embracing data-driven practices mandated from above. Administrators’ careers advance or not, depending on their willingness to distort and juggle data to support disastrous assessment-driven classroom practices.

In the public arena, education historian Diane Ravitch is an archetypal heretic, who was attacked when she left the conservative “reform” fold. Columnist Jonathan Alter called her the “Whittaker Chambers of school reform.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said she was “in denial and she is insulting all of the hardworking teachers, principals and students all across the country who are proving her wrong every day.”

The current effort by NCTQ to silence criticism of standardized testing from schools of education is a frightening expansion of this campaign. When NCTQ’s ratings of these schools are released, it will not be surprising to see schools of education that actively question the obsession over test score data receive low scores, and preparation programs affiliated with alternative certification, such as Teach For America, receive high scores, because of their devotion to “data-driven” instruction. And we will hear Secretary Duncan launch a program that removes funding from programs that produce graduates with lower test scores, as he has already indicated is planned. This is ideological and fiscal coercion, tying funding to data to punish those who deviate from the correct thinking.

6. Self-censorship — Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.

Within schools, there is pressure to join in the obsession over data, and this has intensified with recent “reforms” that require test scores to be used as a significant part of teacher and principal evaluations. Teachers who may have been willing to voice dissent in public in the past are now in fear of poor evaluations and possible termination. If one expresses a lack of faith in the latest curriculum or testing package, one might be accused of poor implementation, or worst of all, of the cardinal sin -- “not believing all students can learn.”

A Teach for America corps member named James offered this advice in response to a post by Teach for America critic Gary Rubinstein: “Corps members who choose to question TFA-doxy, ... should be prepared for an escalating series — in length — of ‘mindset chats.’”

I have not been privy to such a conversation, but clearly there is some heavy pressure at work to keep the corps members thinking a certain way.

7. Illusion of unanimity — The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.

Take a look at the 2010 multimedia extravaganza that accompanied the release of “Waiting For Superman.” For Education Nation, the news division of NBC prepared a week-long parade of education “reform” superstars like education activist Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Newark Mayor Cory Booker. There was a driving narrative that was almost unquestioned, with the exception of a hastily arranged “Teacher Townhall.” This was the projection of a consensus where none exists. Anyone who disagreed with the main storyline was marginalized. Similarly propagandistic programming was aired on Oprah that week.

8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ — Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.

When President Obama accidentally spoke the truth a little more than a year ago, and described how he felt we were overemphasizing test scores, and “using them to punish schools and students,” the mindguards at the Department of Education leapt to the breach. They insisted that “The President and Secretary Duncan are on the same page,” though clearly the president’s remarks were far different from his minion’s policies. And when President Obama assembled a roundtable of advisers on education, not a single actual educator was present.

But in a bigger way, all of the organizations now being funded by the Gates, Broad and kindred foundations are functioning as mindguards for the American public. We have Astroturf groups ready to bring teachers to testify against their own due process protections, and groups like StudentsFirst willing to pour millions of dollars into lobbying policy makers to ensure they get the message about where their votes should go.

The Gates Foundation now funds the Media Bullpen, which has as its slogan, “Bringing accountability to the media.”

The site explains:

The Bullpen reporters — the umpires — react and respond in real time to the press as it rolls out its coverage in print, online or broadcast, at the local, state or national levels. They score the coverage using the metaphors of that favorite American pastime, baseball. Articles are given strike outs, pop flies, singles, doubles, triples, and home runs, reflecting a particular story’s objectivity, proper context, its exploration of data, and search for accuracy.

While they claim to be “diverse” in their ideology, a review of the Bullpen’s ratings reveals a strong bias in favor of standard education “reform” ideology. But like NCTQ, and Bill Gates himself, they attempt to position themselves above the fray, as umpires who set the rules of the game and determine who is in and out of bounds. They pretend to be beyond any particular ideology. “We are technocrats,” Bill Gates recently said.

But technocracy, and the set of solutions Gates and his experts have arrived at are deeply ideological, rooted in the mindset of the market, using test scores as the driving force in their quest to transform teaching. With the vast wealth of some of the world’s most well-endowed foundations, they are purchasing the space where dialogue regarding education occurs.

The trouble with Groupthink, as Janis points out, is that it can be disastrously wrong. Once we get swept up into this momentum, and more and more of our values and livelihoods hinge on this set of beliefs, it becomes harder and harder to break away. And with this particular set of ideas, we are, as a nation, building a huge technological infrastructure of curriculum, instructional tools, assessments and data systems, based on this absolute diehard belief that test performance will drive learning to new heights. Those of us who have voiced skepticism are called Luddites or worse.

What eventually happens in cases like this is that the systems collapse, because reality will not support the endless optimism of the believers. The bubble always bursts, sooner or later. The NCLB testing bubble should have burst several years ago, and probably would have done so had not the billionaire technocrats intervened with the Common Core testing bailout. Now it looks like we are in for a few more years of glorious predictions of the wonderful equitable outcomes the latest and greatest testing technology will deliver, until it doesn’t. But in the meantime, our public schools continue to be undermined, and resources continue to be diverted away from classrooms and into the testing/data infrastructure.

The sooner this Groupthink bubble bursts, the better off we will be. In our classrooms, we must do our best to give our students meaningful opportunities to learn, in spite of the intense pressure to raise test scores. In the public arena, we can help burst the bubble by focusing on the big-picture data that shows that in spite of a decade of obsessing over data, there is no evidence that better learning results. We can help burst the bubble by calling out the self-appointed umpires like NCTQ, the Media Bullpen, and dozens of other test-obsessed advocacy groups that are attempting to overwhelm critical discussion of these issues. And we can support efforts to give voice to other points of view, through organizations that allow parents, teachers and students to raise their voices, without the filtering effect of foundation funding.

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