Three Cups of School Reform Tea

The recent accusations about Greg Mortenson fabricating parts of his bestselling book “Three Cups of Tea” raise interesting questions about school reform.  While we might never know the truth about Mortenson’s stumbling into an Afghan village and being kidnapped by the Taliban, the story that seems to be emerging is that the book was very lightly fact-checked, if at all, in the publishing process.  We can see this as a simple oversight, or we can see it as speaking to something deeper in the American consciousness, something that has implications for school reform.

I was living in Bozeman, Montana when Mortenson’s book came out, and can tell you that there he became a rock star.   People fed up with schooling in America could feel good about giving money to Greg and his organization that built schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  His story of stumbling into a Afghan village after trying to climb a mountain and the hospitality shown him by the locals, touched many people, even if it didn’t happen.

The truth is we wanted it to happen.  We want strangers to show us altruistic kindness, and we want to think of ourselves as doing the same for them.  We want to see ourselves as being lost and then finding a larger purpose, learning that we can make all the difference in the world.  Greg’s story played on this very American myth, and we want to believe it because it is uplifting, because it makes us feel good.

Most school reforms do a similar thing.  We feel good that something is being done, that someone is trying to make a difference, and for these reasons often do not check the facts.   School reforms promise the world, which while uplifting in its own right should make us suspicious.  And yet there seems to be an almost willed ignorance around school reforms, a suspension of critical faculties (and history) that allows us a nation to get caught up in it, in the idea, in the feeling of fixing schools.  Much like a cult, school reforms seduce. They promise salvation and then usually have a good excuse for why we never get there.  They make us feel good by telling us what we desperately want to hear and hope can be true about schooling in America.  They play on and to the American Dream.

Interestingly, a second and more damning claim has been levied against Greg’s nonprofit “The Central Asia Institute.”   In a nutshell, there have been claims that it has taken credit for building schools that do not exist.  I have also read that the Institute has spent more money on having Mortenson travel around talking about building schools than on actually building schools.  Basically they seem to be more invested in making it appear that they are building schools than in actually building schools.  We can dismiss him as a dishonest person, or we can ask ourselves if he was just telling us what we desperately wanted to hear.  Telling us the story that he hopes might bring in the actual resources need to make it a reality.

School reforms run into a similar snag in the sense that people can become very invested in making them appear to work.  This can mean cooking the books (or erasing test answers) or finding inspirational stories that capture our imagination.  It means devoting resources to what essentially amounts to PR or advertising, resources that could go to actually making the image a reality.

Here’s the real rub. If you are a school reform czar, you have most likely made unlimited claims about fixing schools with very limited resources.  So you confront a similar problem to Mortenson’s: Do you put your time and money into creating an image that will hopefully garner more resources or into actually doing what you said you would do and trying to change the reality on the ground?  What do you do when you know you can only really do far less than you have promised, less than we all desperately want to believe you can do?

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that nothing succeeds like success.   In school reform logic this means promising a miracle (no child left behind, everybody racing to the top) and then investing heavily in making it look like it is indeed happening as long as possible.  The truth becomes an inconvenience that only comes out later, after the fact, after we have signed onto the next school reform that promises to fix everything. Like Mortenson appears to have done, most school reforms give us exactly what we want- fantastical fixes that inspire rather than implicate us.  We believe in them because we want them to be true.  We believe that if we believe in them they will be true.  We castigate Mortenson for lying to preserve our own ability to be lied to, to see the current school reform crumble and the next one gaining steam on the horizon and say without a hint of irony, “Bring it on.”