The education reform movement means well, and its chief complaint, that poor children are falling perilously behind their richer peers, is true and tragic. But in recent months we’ve seen a growing backlash against the received wisdom about the causes of the so-called achievement gap. It will be interesting to watch this long-overdue debate play out.
David Sirota, writing in Salon, frames it like this:
[L]et’s review the dominant fairy tale: As embodied by New York City’s major education announcement this weekend, the “reform” fantasy pretends that a lack of teacher “accountability” is the major education problem and somehow wholly writes family economics out of the story… That key — and deliberate — omission serves myriad political interests… But we’ve now reached the point where the economics-omitting “reform” propaganda has jumped the shark, going from deceptively alluring to embarrassingly transparent.
In other words, the problem with education is not schools, not teachers, curriculum or unions. It’s poverty. But instead of trying to solve poverty, a monumental task which most of those in power don’t see as the government’s job, education reformers have tried to solve schools, a smaller-scale problem and one that, politically, is easier to tackle. Poverty, we’re told, is not the entire reason for the problem but merely an excuse, and we should accept “no excuses.” (Fixing schools is also a much more attractive proposition for American business, which in some instances has used market-based reforms to commandeer the movement for its own interests.)
The backlash against the idea that schools alone are at fault may have started with the first CREDO study in 2009, which found that the vast majority of charter schools are the same or worse than regular public schools when it comes to raising test scores. While the publication of those results was drowned out by the continued lobbying of school reform advocates, it was the strongest indication that the movement’s primary strategy was proving a disappointment. More recent CREDO data has been consistent with that first study, and other reform tactics, including technology, merit pay and other “silver bullets” have been similarly disappointing.
Former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee continues to personify the school reform movement, for better or worse, and the poor reception of her memoir is consistent with the backlash against reform itself. In a devastating review for The New Republic, Nicholas Lemann writes:
Rhee simply isn’t interested in reasoning forward from evidence to conclusions: conclusions are where she starts, which means that her book cannot be trusted as an analysis of what is wrong with public schools, when and why it went wrong, and what might improve the situation. The only topics worth discussing for Rhee are abolishing teacher tenure, establishing charter schools, and imposing pay-for-performance regimes based on student test scores….
The mystery of the education-reform movement is why it insists on such a narrow and melodramatic frame for the discussion. You’d never know from most education-reform discourse that anybody before the current movement came along ever cared about the quality of public education.
Granted, these are liberal publications, but there was a time when few writers would dare question education reform. To do so would have been to ally oneself with the “status quo”– failing schools, terrible teachers and even George W. Bush’s “soft bigotry of low expectations.” So if the conversation about school reform is changing, will we be able to channel it into a larger discussion about poverty in America, and the devastating effect it has on children growing up in the richest country the world has ever known? Or will we continue looking for scapegoats and easy solutions?