The Coming Revolution in Public Education

Why the current wave of reforms, with its heavy emphasis on standardized tests, may actually be harming students
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AP312514903178.jpgDefendants in Atlanta's school cheating scandal turn themselves in. (David Goldman/AP)

It's always hard to tell for sure exactly when a revolution starts. Is it when a few discontented people gather in a room to discuss how the ruling regime might be opposed? Is it when first shots are fired? When a critical mass forms and the opposition acquires sufficient weight to have a chance of prevailing? I'm not an expert on revolutions, but even I can see that a new one is taking shape in American K-12 public education.
 
The dominant regime for the past decade or more has been what is sometimes called accountability-based reform or, by many of its critics, "corporate education reform." The reforms consist of various initiatives aimed at (among other things): improving schools and educational outcomes by using standardized tests to measure what students are learning; holding schools and teachers accountable (through school closures and teachers' pay) when their students are "lagging" on those standardized assessments; controlling classroom instruction and increasing the rigor of school curricula by pushing all states to adopt the same challenging standards via a "Common Core;" and using market-like competitive pressures (through the spread of charter schools and educational voucher programs) to provide public schools with incentives to improve.*

Critics of the contemporary reform regime argue that these initiatives, though seemingly sensible in their original framing, are motivated by interests other than educational improvement and are causing genuine harm to American students and public schools. Here are some of the criticisms: the reforms have self-interest and profit motives, not educational improvement, as their basis; corporate interests are reaping huge benefits from these reform  initiatives and spending millions of dollars lobbying to keep those benefits flowing; three big foundations (Gates, Broad, and Walton Family) are funding much of the backing for the corporate reforms and are spending billions to market and sell reforms that don't work; ancillary goals of these reforms are to bust teacher unions, disempower educators, and reduce spending on public schools; standardized testing is enormously expensive in terms both of public expenditures and the diversion of instruction time to test prep; over a third of charter schools deliver "significantly worse" results for students than the traditional public schools from which they were diverted; and, finally, that these reforms have produced few benefits and have actually caused harm, especially to kids in disadvantaged areas and communities of color. (On that last overall point, see this scathing new report from the Economic Policy Institute.) 

Fueled in part by growing evidence of the reforms' ill effects and of the reformers' self-interested motives, the counter-movement is rapidly expanding. Here are some reasons why I predict it will continue to gain strength and gradually lead to the undoing of these market-based education reforms.

  • It's what history teaches us to expect. In this country, we lurch back and forth between efforts to professionalize and efforts to infantilize public-school teachers, and have been doing so since the beginning of public schools in America. Neither kind of effort accords teachers much respect. Because teachers are chiefly employed by local governments  (unlike doctors or lawyers who are typically employed in private enterprise), there has always been a tendency on the part of some groups of people to try to exert greater central control over teachers, not believing them to be professionals who can be left to do their jobs according to their own judgment. When those skeptics hold sway, the "solutions" they impose favor quantitative/metrics-based "accountability," top-down management, limitations on teachers' autonomy, and the substitution of external authority (outside measurers and evaluators) for the expertise of educators themselves. (See William J. Reese's op-ed piece Sunday on the early history of the "testing wars" in America.)

  • Education policies based on standardization and uniformity tend to fail. The policy alchemists' notion that a "Common Core" or standardized curriculum, along with standardized tests, are appropriate measures for "fixing" American education is uninformed by an understanding of history and practice. Twenty-five years ago, two of our wisest scholarly analysts of educational reform, Richard Elmore and Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin, observed, based on their study of education reforms over the decades: "Reforms succeed to the degree that they adapt to and capitalize upon variability [from school to school and classroom to classroom]. . . . Policies that aim to reduce variability by reducing teacher discretion not only preclude learning from situational adaptation to policy goals, they also can impede effective teaching." Today's corporate reformers are flying in the face of experience.
  • Policies based on distrust of teachers tend to fail. The current crop of reformers also roundly ignored another fundamental principle laid down years ago by Elmore and McLaughlin on the basis of their exhaustive research: policies and practices that are based on distrust of teachers and disrespect for them will fail. Why? "The fate of the reforms ultimately depends on those who are the object of distrust." In other words, educational reforms need teachers' buy-in, trust, and cooperation to succeed; "reforms" that kick teachers in the teeth are never going to succeed. Moreover, education policies crafted without teacher involvement are bound to be wrongheaded. When the architects of the Common Core largely excluded teachers from involvement in its development, they simultaneously guaranteed its untrustworthiness and its ultimate failure.
  • Judging teachers' performance by students' test scores is both substantively and procedurally flawed. A teacher's instruction matters in student performance, but too many other things (a student's socioeconomic background, upbringing, parental involvement, motivation) also matter for students' test scores to be a reasonable indicator of a teacher's merit. As The Nation magazine reported in 2011: "The research consensus has been clear and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent."

    Moreover, using students' test scores for such judgments is poor policy from a procedural standpoint. The news reports in recent weeks that teachers and administrators in various jurisdictions (Atlanta and Washington, DC, for example) have cheated by manipulating test scores carry a powerful message, but not the one many observers may first think. The message is not that educators are venal or mendacious, but that rewarding or punishing teachers based on students' test scores is a fundamentally flawed process that fails to take into account Campbell's Law, one of the best-known maxims in the literature on organizational behavior: if you impose external quantitative measurements to judge work performance that cannot be easily and clearly measured, all you will achieve is a displacement of goals -- in this case, some teachers and administrators will be more concerned with maximizing scores (even through cheating) than with helping kids learn.
  • More people are realizing that many of the organizations involved in "corporate reform" seem to need reforming themselves. A great irony of the corporate reform agenda is that the mission to bring business-like accountability and efficiency to public education has been hampered in part by the colossal incompetence of some of the companies involved. A good example is Pearson, which calls itself "the world's leading education company," a slogan which, if true, should give all of us great pause. This big testing company, like its testing-industry competitors, has been screwing up over and over again for more than a decade now, with news of its most recent colossal mistake coming just this past week. Moreover, despite their screw-ups, these companies are enriching themselves and their executives from taxpayers' dollars - Pearson's pre-tax profits soaring by 72 percent in 2011. And in the you-can't-make-this-stuff-up vein, we got the news in the last few days that Pearson is allowing embedded plugs for commercial products (LEGO and Mug Root Beer, anyone?) in the exams for which taxpayers are footing the bill. No wonder growing numbers of people are rebelling against the intrusion into public education of the sort of gross commercial greed and incompetence the testing-industry represents. (If you want to read a detailed and damning appraisal of the secretive and error-ridden testing business, read this 2003 report by Kathleen Rhoades and George Madaus of Boston College's Lynch School of Education.)
  • People wonder why reformers themselves aren't held accountable. Accountability is a central tenet of the market-based reforms. So people naturally find it disturbing when the architects and advocates of the reforms elude accountability for wrongdoing they knew about. Despite a U.S. Department of Education Inspector General's report that found no evidence of widespread cheating during her tenure, the behavior of Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. school commissioner who was once the darling of the reform movement, has done genuine harm to her cause by countenancing or ignoring the misbehavior on her watch.* (See here and here.)

There are more reasons why there is a growing rebellion against the reigning reform agenda. But you get the picture: the reforms are ill-conceived, and their implementation is leading to growing distrust and dissatisfaction.

Even if all this is correct, you may ask, where are these signs of growing rebellion?  Here are but a few: teachers in various cities (Seattle, for example) have refused to administer standardized tests, and support for their stance has spread; many parents are choosing not to let their kids take the standardized tests, preferring to "opt out," and those whose kids go ahead with the tests are complaining vociferously about them; legislators in various states (even Texas!) are reconsidering standardized tests and expressing concerns about Pearson and the testing industry; corporate-reform proposals (vouchers and state-not-local authorization of charter schools) got stopped last week in the legislature of Tennessee, a state that previously was friendly to the agenda.

And here's one more: When Gerald "Jerry" Conti decided a month ago to go public with his reasons for deciding to retire from his teaching career after 27 years at Westhill High School in New York, he leveled blistering and impassioned criticisms against the corporate reforms that, he says, are harming our educational system. Conti's cri de coeur went viral on the Web,  embraced by a massive audience of teachers and parents, who found in it a clear and moving expression of their own dissatisfactions. Others are joining the chorus. See, for example, this recent plea by David Patten to "let teachers teach."

What, then, do the critics of the corporate reform agenda propose? Surely they can't be defending the status quo, content with the current state of schools. No. Without being too unfair to the diversity of views on this, the key consensus is that the most important step we could take to deal with our education problems would be to address poverty in the United States. We don't have an "education problem." The notion that we are "a nation at risk" from underachieving public schools is, as David Berliner asserts, errant "nonsense" and a pack of lies.

Rather, we have a poverty problem. The fact is that kids in resource-rich public school systems perform near the top on international measures. However, as David Sirota has reported, "The reason America's overall scores on such tests are far lower is because high poverty schools produce far worse results -- and as the most economically unequal society in the industrialized world, we have far more poverty than our competitors, bringing down our overall scores accordingly." Addressing poverty and inequality are the keys to serving America's educational needs.

For a broader summary of an alternative agenda, let's turn to Diane Ravitch, the eminent educational policy analyst and most notable of those who once supported the accountability reforms and now ardently oppose them. This is an excerpt from a statement on Ravitch's website, in which she lays out the rationale for a plea that people "take action now" to push back against the corporate reforms:

What we need to improve education in this country is a strong, highly respected education profession; a rich curriculum in the arts and sciences, available in every school for every child; assessments that gauge what students know and can do, instead of mindless test prepping for bubble tests. And a government that is prepared to change the economic and social conditions that interfere with children's readiness to learn. We need high-quality early childhood education. We need parent education programs. We need social workers and guidance counselors in the school. Children need physical education every day. And schools should have classes small enough for students to get the attention they need when they need it.

We cannot improve education by quick fixes. We will not fix education by turning public schools over to entrepreneurs. We will not improve it by driving out experienced professionals and replacing them with enthusiastic amateurs. We will not make our schools better by closing them and firing teachers and entire staffs. No high-performing nation in the world follows such strategies. We cannot be satisfied with the status quo, which is not good enough for our children, nor can we satisfied with the Bush-Obama-Duncan "reforms" that have never been proven to work anywhere.

If I am correct that a new educational revolution is under way, it will need its own Thomas Paine, speaking "Common Sense" and urging action. Diane Ravitch is one voice advocating  that kind of action: at the bottom of her website, Ravitch provides suggestions about specific steps parents and teachers who think that corporate reforms are misguided, wrong, and harmful can take to "push back" against the corporate reformers. Anyone who agrees with her view can look there -- or to their local school board and state legislators -- for ways to carry the message forward.



* This post has been updated: a) to clarify a point about teacher-salary incentives for maintaining student performance on standardized tests and b) to reflect the findings of the U.S. Department of Education's Inspector General regarding allegations of widespread cheating in D.C. school testing. We regret the prior imprecision and omission.

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John Tierney

John T. Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a former professor of American government at Boston College. He is the author of Organized Interests and American Democracy (with Kay L. Schlozman) and The U.S. Postal Service: Status and Prospects of a Government Enterprise.

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