General Failure

Tommy Franks
Commanding General Tommy Franks didn’t appreciate that military action is one thread of an intricate tapestry.
Photo by djwhelan via photopin cc.

I had planned to write about the Atlantic Monthly’s valedictory interview with NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg because of its interesting edu-tidbits. But the magazine’s article on the performance of U.S. generals over the last decade is haunting me. I think it has far more important lessons for our sector.

In “General Failure,” Thomas Ricks argues that the American military leaders in charge of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan performed far more poorly than the public has been led to believe.

There’s much for ed reformers to take away from Ricks’ analysis—the importance of holding executives accountable, the lurking dangers when those on the ground are disconnected from those in policy positions, etc.

But what I found most illuminating—and foreboding—is the author’s discussion of the tragic consequences when leaders are unable to discern the difference between tactics and strategy, activities and systems, the short-term and long-term.

For example, Ricks argues that Commanding General Tommy Franks didn’t appreciate that military action is one thread of an intricate tapestry. The general “fundamentally misunderstood generalship, which at its topmost levels must link military action to political results.”

Franks did not, in Ricks’ estimation, comprehend that these conflicts were entirely different than those our nation had previously faced. After a speech at the Naval War College, the general was asked, “What is the nature of the war you are fighting in Afghanistan?”

His response?

“That’s a great question for historians.”

An “after-action review” of the first phase of the war in Afghanistan concluded that the lack of a sufficiently sophisticated perspective “led to a tactical focus that ignore(d) long-term objectives.”

And, probably most troubling of all, Ricks argues that Franks treated with disdain those primarily in the business of strategizing about the mission. “Franks seemed to believe that thinking was something others did for generals. In his memoir, he refers to his military planners, with a whiff of good-old-boy contempt, as ‘the fifty-pound brains.’”

It seems to me that the biggest challenges faced by education reform in the years ahead stem from the same problems—that we have a myopic view of our work, that we’re failing to appreciate the complex ecosystem of which we’re a part, that we’re focusing on short-term matters and tactics instead of looking far ahead, taking the time, and showing the cheek necessary to bring about the “transformational” change so many discuss.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll give several examples that concern me. Here’s the first:

I believe we’ve made a huge political mistake that could have enormous costs unless we course-correct very quickly and in a sustained way; namely, I think we’re in jeopardy of having Republican and conservative officials abandon our cause.

Many of us are focused on providing better educational opportunities to low-income kids, especially those in cities. This is certainly where I’ve spent most of my time.

And for this reason, we’ve built organizations and pursued activities with this in mind. But as a result, our community has all but ignored the needs of suburban and more affluent families.

Our community’s reflexive response to this charge to date has been, “So what? We can only do so much, and urban ed reform is where we’re directing our scarce resources.”

But this fails to recognize that everything we do takes place in a political-policy context, and state legislatures and Congress include lots of people who represent suburban, middle-class, and affluent areas.

In the past, these members—many of them Republicans—have happily voted for ed-reform measures like vouchers, charters, and urban district takeovers because they aligned with their political philosophy and didn’t adversely affect their constituencies.

As a result, the ed-reform community has taken the political right for granted.

So today, the most prominent reform organizations have a dearth of Republicans and conservatives on their boards of directors. They have few Republicans or conservatives on their staffs. They have no “suburban-schools” agenda. Despite massive human capital efforts in other areas (and virtually all of which are commendable), they’ve not invested here, abstaining from developing a bench of young Republicans or conservatives.

So part of our base has been slowly eroding, but no one took notice. Things seemed fine. But then the ed-reform agenda changed, and more and more initiatives started to touch outlying areas.

Educator-evaluation reform is now affecting all teachers. Common Core and common assessments are affecting all schools. Charters are creeping into leafy suburbs and “stealing” district funding. In an age of fiscal austerity, state-funding formulas that increasingly redistribute dollars from higher-income to lower-income areas are becoming more conspicuous to voters.

Suburban legislators like their schools, and now they’re getting an earful from friends and neighbors about all of these policies. They begin to question the ed-reform agenda. They look at the ed-reform organizations advocating these changes and see that they are led and staffed by the political left, that they focus on urban ed issues, that they have no real plan for helping non-urban schools.

And then Tony Bennett gets taken on by the establishment. The reform community thinks, “No problem. Bennett’s a reformer. Indiana is heavily Republican. It’s conservative. He’s safe.”

But Bennett is defeated handily, as thousands and thousands of Republicans vote for the Republican candidate for governor but against Bennett and reform.

Our community assumed the existence of a silent, Republican, pro-ed reform political bulwark. But it had crumbled. A similar story played out in Idaho.

This is chilling foreshadowing.

Our generals, paraphrasing Ricks’ assessment of Franks, failed to understand the link between daily tactics and the far-larger strategy.

We got into this quagmire through errors of commission and omission over many years. We won’t be able to extricate ourselves quickly. It will require sustained effort.

So, if you lead or work for an ed-reform organization, you might want to begin with this:

Consider your board, staff, strategy, and tactics. Then imagine that you have a meeting with an important Republican elected official. Think about the aide charged with preparing that elected official for your meeting and the research she will do.

Now, imagine you are about to walk into that meeting, and the official quietly pulls the aide aside and asks her, “Does this organization reflect the needs and interests of my constituents?”

What will she say?

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