Disrupt This!

Disruption is popular these days. Maybe you  noticed.

Maybe you heard a corporate type complete a full sentence, with complex clauses and maybe even a metaphor, without uttering the word aloud. But you know she was thinking it.

Even if she says the word without salivating, the way I might say “train station” or “zoology,” even when delight or greed or hubris is not evident on her face or in her voice, you know she’s thinking about disruption as the ticket to her new life as Steve Jobs.

I realize I generalize.

But this is the Internet.

Sometimes a Thinker for Hire needs to make a point.


The other day I received a call on my day gig line from an education start-up.

Regular readers may surmise how I feel about a firm that approaches public education with STARTUP!!!! intent. With the short-sighted, febrile optimism required to launch a for-profit enterprise. About a collection of worker-believers so besotted with their idea that they think that if they believe hard enough it’ll solve poverty. It’ll close achievement gaps and heal the future of our battered populace. It’ll fix education. It’ll buy them a boat.

But I tried to be nice! I really did! Well, I tried to be respectfully skeptical. Which is nice, to a degree. If not nice then at least helpful, which is a service.

But I didn’t need to open my mind even a crack. I was right to be skeptical.

Her crew had no idea, none, about the ways their product would replicate ongoing, heavy initiatives and efforts their potential clients—public schools—had already invested in. They had no idea that schools have been working on solving that problem for decades. They didn’t see news articles in trade pubs about the very exact same thing they’re trying to do. That schools are already doing. Without being disrupted into it.

The person calling me didn’t know where to look or what to look for.

In business terms: she didn’t know her market.

She didn’t know what she was disrupting.

Perhaps you’re one of my unfrozen caveman ac or post-ac readers who’s spent the last 12ish years thinking that “disruption” is when flirting happens too close to your carrel. So think of disruption as the “paradigm shift” of the business world. In almost every sense of the analogy.

Both terms are discretely useful to describe when a new idea transforms the very foundations of scientific inquiry (paradigm) or business (disruption). But both terms are susceptible to overuse as metaphor and thus stretched so thin—from peanuts to higher education—as to lose all meaning and function.

However, while Kuhn’s book was useful and based on accurate historic analysis, Jill Lepore shows that the disruption book was not. Indubitably. And while I was thrilled that Lepore disrupted disruption for a readership undoubtedly already skeptical of the current disruption hegemony, I mostly don’t care.

Disrupt my peanuts! Disrupt my toothpaste tube! Disrupt my desktop operating system! Seriously. I’ll roll my eyes and buy what I’d already buy and think what I’d already think.

In general, disruption doesn’t disrupt my life.

But don’t disrupt education. Just don’t.

Wanna know how to improve education?

I already said how.

But HOW WILL WE KNOW IT’S WORKING?!?!!?!!?!!! you plead tearfully, in op eds and high level policy meetings.

How can we hold teachers ACCOUNTABLE! without digitally enabled quantification of every aspect of student learning? Without ASSESSMENT?!?!!?  Without DATA!!??!??

You’ll know the same way teachers have always known: by having an experienced supervisor observe the class.

The observer will see how many students are engaged. How long they stay engaged. The quality of their engagement.

What else is worth measuring? Honestly.

Test scores are too highly correlated to family income to be a meaningful measure of a teacher’s or school’s quality.

And what’s education for, if not to make students care about and get moderately good at the process of learning?

Even if that’s the teacher’s very best day, the day of his classroom observation, the only day he tries because otherwise he’s a “bad teacher” too “protected” by “tenure” to ever care again, he won’t win over a single kid with one glory day while his boss is watching.

Maybe you are suspicious of something so ostensibly subjective. Maybe you don’t trust that an experienced teacher is capable of recognizing effective teaching in the present imperfect tense.

Maybe without a number attached, you’ll never recognize human knowledge, ingenuity and creativity as having existed.

Maybe if teaching falls in a forest with nothing to disrupt it, you’ll never know it happened.

I’m sorry. Are koan cliche spoofs gonna be on the test?

So I’m reading this piece on the Atlanta cheating scandal having already lost faith that education reform will divest enough from disruption to see how damaging, how tragic, the corporate reform movement can be in poor communities. How many lives it can ruin.

And I realize I am not drawing a clear, bold line here between ed disruption and corporate reform. I’m working from instinct here, mostly: The transitive properties of corporate dominance mean that reformers using corporate methods (which is like all the reformers, K to 12 to U) will adopt the corporate crush on disruption.

That Gates and Jobs and Zuckeberg and all those dudes think that since they changed our economy permanently, they know from a teacher in a classroom helping kids. And that what that teacher REALLY NEEDS is to be treated like a dot com worker. Because it’s the exact same job. With the exact same effect on poor kids.

What that teacher REALLY NEEDS is for technology and numbers and data to tell her what she’s doing right and wrong. Because neither she nor her boss can use their own damn eyes to see if the kids in the class look like kids who give a damn about learning.

I now believe that someone put a million monkeys with typewriters into a room and told them, “Monkeys. We have digital technology now. Find a way to use it on education.” And eventually instead of Shakespeare some one in a million monkey decided to quantify the bejeebus out of every student and every teacher in the country.

Cuz surely that’ll help us. All those numbers to process, now that we have the tools to process them.

(O’course, we don’t have the data design and data entry staff required to implement these new policies. But this is a rant about the profoundly flawed premise of ed disruption. Not its flagrantly impractical application.)

Those who cheated at Parks were never convinced of the importance of the tests; they viewed the cheating as a door they had to pass through in order to focus on issues that seemed more relevant to their students’ lives.

They didn’t see the value in the test, so they didn’t see that they were devaluing the kids by cheating.

To his mother, his decision to cheat was an act of civil disobedience.

The whole thing, friends. This whole mess.

It disrupts my heart.


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