What Contribution does “The Fight Club” Make to Progress in Education?

On May 17, 2012, political science professor Patrick McGuinn posted a paper titled: Fight Club Are advocacy organizations changing the politics of education? where he discussed a network of education reform advocacy organizations (ERAOs) that regularly meet to plan strategy for advancing their agendas that includes charter schools, alternative teacher preparation, and an emphasis on test scores.  It is a fascinating account of a network of organizations that many people know little or nothing about and yet have been busy over the last several years with ambitious and in some ways aggressive advocacy.  Fight Club was also the title of a movie that featured a group of young rebels who get together in secret to fight in protest to advertizing and an age of cynical commercialism.  The movie Fight Club features eight rules, the first two are that one should ever talk about the fight club.  McGuinn’s short feature helps peel back the curtain on this world – a community heavily funded by foundations with business connections – and some of the themes that run through this broad community as well as some of their differences.  This paper should be required reading for an education policy student.  It has received only modest, but high-profile attention.  Diane Ravitch blogged a critical response of these organizations and their funders.  I believe McGuinn’s Fight Club raises important questions about how the field approaches reform efforts and the organizations attempting to achieve them as well as how we understand these organizations.  I have three types of questions about the Fight Club article.

  • First, the Fight Club paper and the type of information McGuinn provides in his account is an important contribution and one that should be an example for more studies.
  • Second, I have concerns about the “Fight Club” name as well as other types of names McGuinn uses, including “corporate reformers,” “blobs,” and “the big three.”   As any school child knows, sticks and stones can break bones, but names never hurt.  I argue that the names do matter in these discussions and there are questions about how we use such labels.
  • Finally, I am interested in how the “Fight Club” organizations – the ERAOs – intersect with educational research and contribute to the research knowledge base.

The Fight Club Paper

There are reasons that this paper was written by a political scientist and not an educational researcher.  Educational researchers almost exclusively work inside of traditional educational organizations of districts and schools. While some educational researchers have made reference to a complex world of “external organizations” that help influence education, it is rare that those accounts are specific or detailed as McGuinn’s paper is.  McGuinn discusses different organizations and who their funders are.  He discusses that coordinate in some respects, but often differ in their focus.  My sense was that this was a balanced account; that McGuinn wrote in a way that allowing the reader to ask important questions as a result of his paper.

This paper provides some cultural context and the name Fight Club both evokes the sense of a club and also that the members of this club do not always agree, except in the need for reform.  Without quoting anyone specifically, it talks about how those working in the ERAO community see themselves working against the traditional education stakeholder community of unions and trade associations that some refer to as “The Blob.”  Later in the paper, McGuinn brings out this term again in referring to a “Reform Blob.”  He discusses how the largely white, young, and well schooled staff at ERAOs are met with suspicion by others in education who are often older, more experienced in schools, and frequently of color. He talks about the common thread of funders:

Many reform groups are funded by the same foundations, particularly the “big three”—Walton, Gates, and Broad. The support of conservative foundations and the embrace of market-based school reforms have led some observers—and many critics in the education establishment—to label the ERAOs “corporate school reformers.”

This is a valuable a paper and I found myself wanting more information and more detail about this aspect of the educational world that is rarely discussed in the educational research literature.   I believe that at a minimum they are shaping the conversation and applying pressures that cause other organizations to need to respond.  Perhaps they are doing much more.  Without more studies and papers like McGuinn’s Fight Club it will be hard to tell.  It is an important piece of the educational landscape that should be required reading of education policy scholars.

The Fight Club Name

While I think McGuinn’s piece is an important contribution to the field, I am conflicted about the use of the name Fight Club.  On the one hand, it conveys much about the nature of this group if it is accurate.  But it is not clear that it is.  I am also uneasy about other terms used by McGuinn and others, including The Blob, The Big Three, Corporate Reformers, and Ravitch’s famous Billionaire’s Boys Club.  The issue for me is not only that these names can be pejorative.  It is really that they are vague and are often not attributed to specific individuals.  While McGuinn’s paper gives us a hint as to who might have coined the term Fight Club, there is no quote from any individual using this term.  Would the ERAO community consider themselves this way?  The same is true for the other terms.  Are they widely used in this community or only by some members?  As readers we are given a general impression – often not a good one – without much detail that would help us to draw our own conclusions.  It should be expected that in a area as important as education that there will be different views and McGuinn gives us some glimpses of the variation among the EAROs in terms of priorities.   However, is it appropriate for scholars and researchers to use these types of terms in describing others?  What are the impacts of these choices in language to describe another’s work?

Educational research suffers from many problems.  It is often disconnected from other research.  It is usually divided itself into small communities that rarely overlap and many important topics fall outside of established communities and are easily bypassed in the constant churn of familiar studies for the audiences that grant tenure and promotion.  These are reasons why McGuinn’s focus on ERAOs is so important.  Educational research also suffers, in my view, from a problem with overgeneralization.  Small samples of teachers can be represented as “Teachers” in a study neglecting to show how those observed teachers relate to the 3-4 million that work in many different types of classrooms.  Similarly, concepts such as schools and districts are frequently used in research with little attention to the tremendous variation that exists across the areas studied.  I believe this over generalization is one of the reasons much of educational research is has been difficult to apply productively in practice.

McGuinn’s Fight Club paper then seems to fall into this same trap.  While at the same time he does discuss the variation that exists in the ERAO organizations and its bipartisan constitution, he uses broad terms like Corporate Reformers and in ways that contrast with democrats.  His reference to the “big three” foundations is reminiscent of the three leaders of World War II – Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin – leaves the reader with an impression that these foundations have made a pact to support ERAOs.   Do we know that this is this case or is this speculation?  If we look at the funding that different ERAOs receive would we find some measure of predominant support from these foundations over others?  As with many types of educational research, this excellent paper stops short of the kinds of specifics that could allow the reader to make their own judgments about what level of influence these foundations have and how coordinated their work is.  It is not that McGuinn’s portrait isn’t valuable.  I believe it is.  It is that these types of general terms without attribution can get in the way of deeper understandings about important aspects of the complex educational ecosystem by using a character concept like the fight club.

The Value of Fight Club Organizations

One of the biggest questions those inside the ERAO community, their funders, and those who oppose them are interested in is what difference they are making.  Are the millions – hundreds of millions – that are being donated to these organizations doing more than providing employment for young and well educated staffers?  Are they leveraging public opinion and changing laws that lead to changes in education and are these changes the ones anticipated?  Do these changes lead to the desired results in terms of policies and student success?   For many of these questions where one stands will likely depend on where they sit with traditionalists and reformers (oops broad categories) seeing the same policies differently.  However, for both cases we may often not know enough to be able to form a clear judgment as there has been little study of the work that ERAs do.

The ERAO organizations, even as they gain influence, may not be as well informed by research as they could be.  There is a divide between those who work in and fund the ERAO community and educational researchers.  Some educational researchers ignore or resist these organizations rather than looking for ways to develop partnerships and provide these organizations with relevant research.  In an age where education schools and education researchers are under greater pressure to prove their worth;, there is much to be gained by engaging this community that bring important perspectives and funding to the table.  That engagement will no doubt be more difficult whenever broad and pejorative terms are used and also when these organizations are written about without consultation.  I ran into this with my own recent book that discusses the roles of some of these foundations and advocacy organizations and I took care to include these organizations in the study and get confirmation from them that what I was writing was accurate.  I believe the book will be much better for it.

At the end of the day, I am a believer in acknowledging and seeking to understand those who we might not always agree with.  As McGuinn does show us, this community of ERAOs is complex and has many different interests just as educational researchers do.  We should not hesitate to work across these communities and use specifics rather than broad generalizations.  While they are easier for the reader and author, they are often wrong and can be unfair.


Dr. Piety is a national expert in educational data. He is on the faculty of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland where he teaches information and database technologies, cloud computing, and social media. He is the author of Assessing the Educational Data Movement, a book on using data to improve school success.

Posted in Research, Signs of the times, Uncategorized

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