The Washington Post

What’s the ‘most pernicious cliché of our time’?

(Source: Bloomberg) (Source: Bloomberg)

According to a new piece in The New Republic by the magazine’s science editor, Judith Shulevitz, the term “disruption” is, as the headline says, “the most pernicious cliché of our time.” That’s almost right.

Shulevitz makes important points about the dangerous errors that “disruptor” advocates make with their “almost utopian faith in technology” and insistence that “disruption” (which is always transformational, not to mention innovative) is equally useful for private and public enterprises. That includes America’s public education system. She writes that Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen, the man who coined the phrase “disruptive innovation” in 1997, has advocated that “fundamental school reform” can happen only if political and education leaders force such change on the masses because they won’t agree to it otherwise. (In other words, democracy only goes so far.)

She writes further:

Many well-meaning philanthropic disruptors have taken that advice to heart, and the results reveal something George Orwell pointed out, which is that stale phrases mechanically repeated have dangerous political effects. It is too soon to see how disruption will play out in public-health and government agencies, but what it has done to public schools is now becoming clear….



As for effectuating change from on high, the Broad Center in Los Angeles, funded by the billionaire Eli Broad, has worked hard to do that. The Broad Center runs an academy that recruits future superintendents from outside education. To quote from its website and a memo published last year in The Washington Post, these “transformational leaders” should share “a willingness to challenge and disrupt the status quo,” that is, “traditional, bureaucratic systems.” They should be “aggressive” “change agents,” modeling themselves on “passionate, civic-minded and disruptive” figures such as reform-oriented, urban schools chancellors Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein.


But when Broad’s “change agents” move into the institutions they’ve been taught to shake up, as dozens have now done, we can see how disruption, well, disrupts—not just “the status quo,” but peoples’ lives. Teachers quit en masse or are fired. Nearby schools close, forcing students to travel to distant ones. School boards divide and bicker. Parents picket. Broad-affiliated superintendents all over the country—Atlanta; Philadelphia; Rochester, New York; Sumter, South Carolina—have resigned or been forced out after no-confidence votes, corruption or cheating scandals, or, in one case, the discovery of alleged irregularities with a doctorate degree. (That last superintendent then went to the Gates Foundation and is now in charge of Los Angeles’s school system.) “The disruption was expected to produce innovation,” writes school-reform critic Diane Ravitch in a book, Reign of Error, to be published this fall. “More typically, it produced turmoil and demoralization.”


(Read the whole essay here.)

She’s right on all counts. Still, for my money, I’d say the most pernicious cliché is, of course, “school reform.” And it’s been around, doing damage, for a lot longer than “disruption.”

Try to guess when this was written:

It’s on the lips of educators and politicians from coast to coast, their holy grail. Chicago has been reforming its schools for more than a decade. Houston, Memphis and San Diego are said by various educators to be the hot new reform cities.


Since the 1983 release of “A Nation at Risk,” a report that documented U.S. public education woes, scores of school board members and superintendents have called their own district, or someone else’s, a model for school reform.

But a growing number of educators say it’s time to scale back the rhetoric and lower the expectations. They say that few, if any, school systems have achieved–and sustained–the broad turnaround in performance that the claim of reform suggests.


Some researchers say the hyperbole is not only misleading but dangerous, because it creates the illusion that improving schools is easy. Hearing that other cities have managed to fix their troubled schools, parents and politicians wonder why their principals and teachers can’t get it right.


The focus on district-wide policies and initiatives is wrong to begin with, some educators say, because real change happens at individual schools and from the bottom up….


The bottom line, experts said, is that school leaders need to stop focusing on one program or theory–or on one district’s experience with reform–and instead use a combination of approaches, making sure that the programs are suited to their city and to particular schools.



I wrote that in 2000, when the term “school reform” already had a bad name because it made people think things were being improved when they weren’t.  Waves of school “reform” have brought us “school choice” and “the accountability movement” and “standards-based education” and “21st century skills” and all kinds of other education buzzwords that either have no meaning or are misleading.

Disruptive innovation is the latest dangerous jargon.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · August 17, 2013

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