I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, October 6, 2012

America's Worst Invasive Species: The Wonk

Over the last several years, America has seen an inundation of a particularly prolific and invasive species: the Wonk.

Do not confuse the Wonk with the Scholar. The Scholar digs deep into literature and research; the Wonk merely glides over them, plucking what little it needs to satisfy his own ideological predilections. The Scholar thrives in a particular environment called "peer review"; this is a toxic place for the Wonk, which prefers to forage in a habitat called the "think tank." The Wonk sometimes imitates the plumage of the Scholar by adorning its coat with advanced degrees and endowed chairs; however, the Wonk rarely uses these to produce actual scholarship.

Do not confuse the Wonk with the Expert. The Expert gains her knowledge through years of accumulated experience; such a pursuit would merely slow the Wonk down. While the Expert toils away at actually doing things, the Wonk spends its days cataloging all the flaws, real or perceived, of the Expert. This leads to an antagonistic relationship between the Expert, who gets increasingly annoyed at the Wonk's constant and ill-informed pestering, and the Wonk, which generally tends to look down its nose at species that actually get stuff done. The Wonk will occasionally nest in the environs of the Expert for a short time to gain credibility, usually fleeing as quickly as it can.

The Wonk's natural habitat is the "conference." Here the Wonk can soar, freed from the constraints of practical or theoretical knowledge :
Strategy Session 5: Transforming Colleges of Education
Nine out of every ten teachers graduate from traditional teacher prep programs at colleges of education. Should these colleges be held accountable for the caliber of students they admit into their programs and the teachers they send into the classroom? Don’t miss this discussion on what can be done to ensure new teachers entering the profession are fully equipped to help each of their students succeed.
Moderator: Kate Walsh, President of the National Council on Teacher Quality
  • Dr. John Chubb,  CEO of Education Sector and member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education
  • Paul Pastorek, former Louisiana Superintendent of Education
Note here that neither the moderator Wonk nor the panelist Wonks actually run a teacher preparation at a college program, even though that is the topic at hand. Likewise:
Strategy Session 9: Developing and Retaining Teachers We Can’t Afford to Lose 
A teacher’s influence – good or bad – can have life-long effects on the students in his or her classroom. Hear new research on the teacher-retention crisis, and join the ensuing discussion on what can be done to develop and retain the high-quality educators our states need to reverse student decline and elevate the status of the teaching profession.
Moderator: Dr. Stefanie Sanford, Director of Policy & Advocacy, United States Program, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Tim Daly, President of the New Teacher Project
  • Christopher Cerf, New Jersey Commissioner of Education
  • Gary Holder-Winfield, Connecticut State Representative
Notice that none of the Wonks here - in a panel on how important teachers are - actually teaches (Daly was TFA - surprise!). Unencumbered by scholarship or experience, the Wonk marks its territory with confidence and pride, assured that its superior genetics make a relevant resume unnecessary.

The "think tank" provides the nutrients necessary for these conference habitats - and thus, the Wonk - to flourish:

Digital Learning: The future of schooling?

May 17, 2012 at 1 pm to 4:00 pm
Location: Governors Ballroom, Sheraton at Capitol Square (MAP)
75 E. State Street
Columbus, Ohio 43215
Join us for this important, nonpartisan event about digital learning and where it will take education in Ohio -- and the nation -- in the years to come. National and state-based education experts and policymakers will debate and discuss digital learning in the context of the Common Core academic standards initiatives, teacher evaluations and school accountability, governance challenges and opportunities, and school funding and spending.
Note, in this case (click through), the absence of any Expert who might actually use digital learning to teach her students; such creatures would merely upset the delicate ecosystem in which the Wonk thrives.

The Wonk does not merely restrict itself to education, however:

Issue Forums at Mathematica

Paying Wisely: Using Incentive Reforms to Reduce Costs and Improve Patient Outcomes

Tuesday, October 23, 2012 
12:00-1:30 p.m. (EDT)
Mathematica's DC office

The expert panel of speakers:
  • Robert Berenson,
  •  the Urban Institute
  • Christine Cassel, 
  • the American Board of Internal Medicine
  • Stuart Guterman,
  •  the Commonwealth Fund
  • Tim Lake,
  •  Mathematica
  • Eugene Rich,
  •  Mathematica 
  • Gail Wilensky,
  •  Project HOPE
How physicians are paid is a major driver of health care costs, and is at the forefront of discussions by policymakers, service providers, and payers. There is agreement that continued increases in cost of health care services are socially unsustainable, but there are many effective services that are underused as well. How can we simultaneously reduce costs and maximize good clinical outcomes?
Note that even though the topic of the panel is incentives to physicians, there appear to be no physicians on this panel who make their living actually treating patients. The Wonk thus dominates the discussion; the rare Expert and the Scholar may attempt to speak for the actual victims subjects of the policy, but the Wonk is sure to ascend as the dominant species.

While the Wonk is most comfortable at the conference, it also seeks shelter in the "blog." There, it practices its mating calls ("mating" referring not to the search for a suitable mate, but rather a suitable foundation). For example:
Eleven years ago I was a legislative assistant to a US Congressman, and K-12 was in my portfolio.  NCLB was making its way through the House, and the congressman was leaning against.  I took it upon myself to change his mind.
I gave him our state testing data showing enormous achievement gaps.  This legislation, I argued, was social justice for disadvantaged kids.  Standards, assessments, accountability, and transparency were not only reasonable but also necessary.  We had to do something about failing schools.  You have to vote for this legislation!
Ten years later I was Deputy Education Commissioner of New Jersey, and I was leading our effort to write a waiver to free our state from NCLB.
Were I interested in reputational self-protection, I’d take the easy way out and simply say that America learned a great deal over that decade; that I was right as a zealous 26-year old to agitate, and I was right as a wiser, more prudent 36-year old to retrench. [emphasis mine]
Notice, again, that the Wonk does not actually have any practical background in the field in which it claims expertise. It makes a self-effacing claim to "experience," but its experience is limited to its work in hectoring the Expert; the Wonk never actually does the work of the Expert itself. It also eschews the role of the Scholar; again, that would require peer-review, an anathema to the Wonk.

The Wonk is a social animal; this is an adaptive trait, allowing the Wonk to flourish in an ecosystem defined by self-importance:
My former colleagues at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have never gotten the credit they deserve for a document they produced on the edu-federalism debate in 2008.  It isn’t going too far to say that they framed the issue better than anyone else had at the time and that their ideas ultimately shaped—or at least coincidentally mirrored—the course the Obama team took. 
Two other friends and former colleagues, Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly at AEI, recently penned a very smart article for National Affairs of this very subject.  They argue that a President Romney will be unable to craft a coherent agenda and will be susceptible to faddish and wrongheaded proposals until conservatives decide what the proper federal K-12 role actually is.  Hess and Kelly then give a short but enlightening history lesson on how the right ended up in its current predicament. [emphasis mine]

Note how this Wonk lends credence to his fellows by acknowledging the importance of their work, even though that work is useless for both the Scholar and the Expert. Thus the Wonk extolls its role and justifies its existence.

This tendency to gobble resources and dominate the ecosystem makes the Wonk a particularly pernicious threat to the Scholar, the Expert, and society at large. The only known control for the Wonk is a consistent and thorough program of regularly spraying facts, real research, and logic into its habitat. While tiring and often frustrating work, this seems to be the only way to keep the Wonk at bay.

If you encounter a Wonk in the wild, leave it be. While it may have an attractive voice, these creatures can quite often exhibit a nasty disposition. The care, feeding, and breeding of Wonks is best left to professional billionaires, who have become quite adept at the domestication of Wonks. Due to their pampered natures, it's best to leave the training of Wonks to those who have the resources to keep them well-fed and happy.

Some of America's best-known Wonk breeders.

ADDING: To be clear: I'm not saying everyone at these conferences is a Wonk.


Gary Johnston said...

What a great post. Really makes the argument that policy makers cannot be merely ex-teachers of antiquated methodology. One would think that we should have a mix of teachers and politicians working together. Why don't we?

Duke said...

Thx, Gary

Unknown said...

What it's really like having a policy wonk with no experience administrating? They cause absolute havoc and don't produce.

When staff asks the wonk questions on how to proceed on issues, he's standard response is, "How would you handle it?" and nothing more. Obviously, he doesn't know how to make a good decision.

The wonk attends meetings and once the rubber hit the road he excuses himself as he had another meeting to attend. He likes appearing important but never does anything of policy substance.

The wonk wants Glory but doesn't want to work for it.

Ruth in NC said...

While I appreciate your point and agree with you, I want to point out that Christine Cassel and Robert Berenson are actually MDs, facts that could easily be determined with quick google searches. I hope you researched your other examples a bit better.

Unknown said...

Just imagine how lovely it would be if teachers, guidance counselors, social workers and school administrators were invited to these conferences as participants, helping to find solutions together with policy makers. For us teachers I think of so many positives. A few off the top of my head:
a) our voice is sought, respected and heard
b) new networks are opened
c) authentic collaboration with policy makers
d) travel, a break from the classroom
d) a sense of invigoration and enthusiasm upon return
e) free premium cable in the hotel room

Thanks Jersey Jazzman.."take my blues away"

Elizabeth Rose, Edu-tainer

Duke said...

Ruth, I chose my words very carefully there:

"...there appear to be no physicians on this panel who make their living actually treating patients."

Berenson's bio from the conference (note I preserved the link, so you didn't have to use Google at all) uses the past tense to specify when he practiced medicine. He appears to have been working primarily in policy over the last several years, and not practicing medicine full-time.

Cassel has been an academic and a researcher: again, it appears that she does not make her living primarily through caring for patients.

You'll get no argument from me that these are distinguished doctors with impressive credentials - that's why I added at the end of my post that I am NOT saying everyone here is a wonk.

What I do see on this panel, however, are several wonks who took the place of doctors who would be directly affected by changing incentives. Where was their voice on this panel?

I was struck by the parallel here between the way working doctors and working teachers are treated. The voice of actual experience is crowded out by wonkiness.

technokat said...

"I was struck by the parallel here between the way working doctors and working teachers are treated. The voice of actual experience is crowded out by wonkiness."

Perhaps bringing actual working professionals into the movement would be far more costly for these conferences being that in-service professionals have to take time off from work to appear. Reformers are all about profits-why would any of them condone paying the working stiffs for their expertise? Maybe they can justify exempting the real experts because "they should be where they belong: in the trenches with all the other commoners," not the ivory towers with the wonks of "the nobility class."