Why you should be wary of 'carpetbaggers' - Education Matters Magazine

Opinion, The Last Word

Why you should be wary of ‘carpetbaggers’

Dr Stephen Brown

Echoing the sentiments of Professor Gary Martin, ‘carpetbaggers’ and the voices of so-called experts in education should be treated with caution, writes Dr Stephen Brown, managing director of The Brown Collective.

The term ‘carpetbagger’ is used exclusively as a pejorative term. It originates from the carpet bags – a form of cheap luggage made from carpet – that migrants from America’s northern states carried to the south after the American Civil War.

Every day I observe – through social media and the like – a vast array of individuals, consultants and for-profit companies selling and promoting their wares to educators, schools and systems. Schools and the education sector make up a very large and lucrative market these operatives target.

Many are highly reputable, have a demonstrated experiential base that informs their work and are committed to research – using corroborated evidence and investing in independent evaluation.

There are others that are ‘carpetbaggers’ or ‘snake-oil salesmen’. They sell their ‘pots and pans from town to town or school to school’ with their focus on making the next sale.

Typically, they see the transaction and the dollars as primary goals rather than the long-term positive impact on schools and the profession. Every week, I observe activities promoted to the education community as best practice, best-ever and as having great impact.

When one looks for evidence and rigour to support such assertions, generally, one is disappointed. There is little or no evidence, but simply a glib set of statements made for marketing purposes. I often wonder where they have successfully undertaken and/or completed work that signifies that they are self-declared ‘experts’ in their nominated area of practice.

Professor Gary Martin (2024) notes that in today’s era of digital self-promotion and personal branding, the term ‘expert’ is thrown around like confetti at a wedding. He contends that the dilemma we face is that too many people are in a rush to claim their expertise, making it increasingly difficult to discern genuine or real experts from those who are still learning the ropes.

Some of the self-declared experts morph overnight from being experts in one subject then focus on another that seems to be ‘on trend’.

The following extract from a blog, Bluffer’s Guide to Evidence Based Practice, notes: “The wide-ranging interest in education and lack of quality controls means that it’s pretty easy for dodgy initiatives and fads to take hold.”

Moreover, I am seeing a trend to more and more of what I term ‘edutainment’.

Around Australia – and indeed the world – this phenomenon is alive and well. This is typified by conferences with speakers who go from one stage to another delivering their ‘solutions and elixirs’ with ‘bells and whistles’ in the form of slick Powerpoint presentations, augmented with the latest animations.

Some of these ‘edutainers’ live far from the realities of the daily life of schools – scarcely spending extended periods of time working within schools and with their staff. Sustained meaningful change takes time, is responsive to context and requires hard work.

The global commentary on the fourth industrial revolution brings into sharper focus issues such as:

  • the exponential growth of knowledge
  • evidence and research cycles
  • the ethical use of knowledge
  • knowledge curation and validity.

Commentary on all aspects of schooling and education is pervasive and unrelenting. What constitutes an authoritative voice in this context is questionable. Rick Ginsberg and Yong Zhao (2023) in their text, Duck and Cover, provide a fascinating commentary on confronting and correcting dubious practices in education.

Consultants, companies, think tanks, global for-profit enterprises, high-profile ‘gurus’ along with traditional sources of informed argument – like universities – are regularly offering panaceas about how to address the various challenges of our schooling sector.

From practitioners to policymakers, the ongoing challenge is to discern and discriminate between the fact, folly, fancy, and fantasy espoused by such sources. Einstein notes that notes that “information is not knowledge. The only source of knowledge is experience. You need experience to gain wisdom”.

Emeritus Professor Alan Reid in his seminal article titled Renewing the public and the role of research in education (2013) notes that “…reinvigorating and deepening public debate about education must be based on quality research.”

The challenge for decision-makers is to engage in informed discourse and not be seduced by the views of a few lone voices or research (Eacott, 2017).

The ongoing challenge and seduction are the temptation to reduce the dynamic of the core elements of schooling to a set of numbers or a set of principles deemed to be applicable in all settings.

Context matters – geographical, spiritual, cultural, historical, global, and ‘local’. Acknowledging context and listening to the profession must be at the forefront of shaping any collaboration or support to schools, students, teachers, leaders, and the community.

Given the intensely human interactions that shape such a process, a certain amount of mystery and scope for teachers to weave their magic will always be a part of what works in education.

All of us who care deeply about the moral purpose of education and schooling must remain vigilant and protect our work from the churlish advances of carpetbaggers.

Carpetbaggers? I have deliberately left the definition unvarnished for you to ponder. I’m sure you can identify a few examples.

References

Carpetbagger. (2018). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carpetbagger.

Eacott, S. (2017). School leadership and the cult of the guru: the neo-Taylorism of Hattie. School Leadership & Management, DOI: 10.1080/13632434.2017.1327428

Martin, G, Opinion: Beware those calling themselves experts, Courier Mail, 9 January, 2024.

Reid, A. (2013). Renewing the public and the role of research in education. The Australian Association for Research in Education. DOI: 10.1007/s13384-013-0116-x

William, D. (2014). Why teaching will never be a research-based profession and why that’s a good thing. [powerpoint]. https://www.dylanwiliam.org/Dylan_Wiliams_website/Presentations_files/2014-09-06%20ResearchED.pptx

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