Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hail the Idealocrats

Over at Gotham Schools they've been wrestling with what to call the group of education advocates who follow the Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, Jon Schnur model of thought. While those three would probably declare themselves to be reformers, that's kind of a loaded word to use. After all, everyone working on education advocacy would probably describe themselves as reformers so that isn't a particularly useful appelation. Furthermore, it's loaded in the sense that reform automatically implies good. Have you ever heard of negative reform? I'm sure it's happened, but it's just not how the word is used. While what these advocates are doing may or may not be positive, giving them the label of reformer automatically implies that they are doing good, which is a disservice to our discussions on the issue.

So over at Gotham Schools they threw open the question to the readers to hear what other people had to say. The suggestions ranged from the pretty good to the pretty inane. My personal favorite (though it could never be used) is the Axis of Eval. That one's pretty loaded too, but also extremely clever, especially given the focus these people put on accountability and high stakes testing.

The one that I'm actually going to start advocating for, though, is similarly brilliant and sums up so many aspects of this particular "reform" movement. I'm voting for Idealocrats.

The blending together of idealists and bureaucrats is a pretty accurate summation of the idea. On the one hand, you have the naked idealism (perhaps best exemplified in Teach for America corps members) that the system can work, that all children can learn, and that by working to ensure all children are learning we may very well be saving the world. The flip side of that is the bureaucratic focus on data, testing, working within the system, and following a business-like model to achieve quantifiable goals. The melding together of these two seemingly different ideologies is what makes the "reforms" of people like Klein and Rhee different from what has come before.

So all hail the Idealocrats! Now they have a name.


Elizabeth said...

Hi, John: I agree that Idealocrats is one of the best ideas yet. But what do you think about our latest entry - "Boardroom Progressives" (

I like it because it gets at the same tension between idealistic goals and pragmatic methods (testing, accountability), but without using the term "bureaucrats," which I'm not sure is quite right. A key characteristic of the "reformers" as I see them is their disgust with the bureaucracy as it is. I see this strain whether they work outside it (Wendy Kopp, charter school leaders) or inside it (Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein). Either way, the idea is to transform the bureaucracy, often to make it operate more like a free market. We could argue about whether that happens in practice (are New York City principals more or less "empowered"?) but it's definitely the stated goal. And to me that attitude seems better summarized by "boardroom" than "bureaucrat."

What do you think?

John said...


I hear you that bureaucrat isn't quite the right word. However, I think that idealocrats is still the way to go.

Boardroom progressive sounds more to me like it would describe the Gates or Broad Foundation work. It's using extensive corporate power/wealth in the non-profit or public sectors. That's just the image that the phrase conjures up for me. It seems to define an arrangement more than a philosophy.

I think idealocrats is best because it captures the accountability/data focused drive of the reform along with the idealism of being able to change the system for the better.