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My first story for the Boston Globe was in Sunday’s “Ideas” section.

Researchers have long been aware that test scores drop between the end of spring and the beginning of fall, and many education reform advocates have suggested that shorter summer breaks could stop that backsliding, especially for students from poor families. Beyond that, however, it’s common sense that more time in school means more learning…

But a new study of Mexican elementary schools suggests common sense might not have it right… Despite ongoing efforts across Latin America to increase the time students spend in school, the researchers found that the time difference had little impact on students’ test results—and in the poorest districts, where students struggle the most, additional days seemed to have no effect at all.

Read the rest here.

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PH2009010701816The 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?


Standardized tests might have become all the rage among education reformers in the last decade, but that doesn’t mean the tests–or the frustrations that accompany them–are anything new. Boston, my adopted city, was the first to try standardized tests, with dispiriting results: just 30 percent of grammar school students passed. In an op-ed for the times, William J. Reese, author of Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History, relates what happened next:

The examiners’ report lambasted the schools. “Some of the answers are so supremely absurd and ridiculous,” the committee noted, that one might think the pupils were “attempting to jest with the Committee.” Pupils had memorized material they often did not understand. Those who could repeat lines from the famous poem “Thanatopsis” could not define the word in the title. Students could not explain whether Lake Ontario flowed into Lake Erie or the other way around.

In the century and a half since, ideas about what facts and skills children should apprehend have changed dramatically. The blame for their failure to do so, however, has not shifted:

The examiners believed that the teacher made the school, a guiding assumption in the emerging ethos of testing. Tests, they said, would identify the many teachers who emphasized rote instruction, not understanding. They named the worst ones and called for their removal.

Teachers were also caught cheating, an early “achievement gap” between white and black students was recorded, and the deficiency of the city compared to its wealthy suburb was bemoaned. In short, education coverage today might as well be cut and pasted from the annals of history. The curriculum may have improved– who really cares about which lake flows into another?–but we as a society have apparently learned little. Perhaps we can learn something from Reese’s important new book.

And in related news, this except of an early SAT test from Smithsonian is fascinating. Math and vocabulary may have been a lot easier, but the third section assumes a great deal of esoteric knowledge about such varied topics as building materials, department stores, European capitals, and breeds of chicken.

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My new story for ArchitectureBoston, which I reported last fall, was published in their spring issue. Check out the photos of these wonderful schools in Concord, N.H., designed by the Boston firm HMFH. The colorful, light-filled spaces are so different from the gray-and-beige dungeons where I went to school, and the flexible, collaborative classrooms look so much more fun that a grid of desks facing forward. I think I was born a couple decades too late.

This history of billionaires’ involvement in education reform was useful. “What works” in some contexts does not always work in others, and it turns out that business-style fixes are not always possible to translate for the non-profit sector.

It is now almost an accepted truism that successful schools offer lessons about “what works” and that those lessons can, in turn, be taken to scale.  It’s a nice, simple idea, and a particularly attractive notion for those put off by the tentative nature of educational research and the often lethargic pace of grassroots reform.  But despite the triumph of this vision, its expression in policy has produced only mixed results.

It seems like the backlash against this sort of education reform is growing, and one wonders what will replace it. No matter which side you’re on in the ed reform battle, everyone agrees that there are serious problems in American education. My hope is that we can fund more sound education science and put actual research-based ideas into practice, rather than just paying lip service to that concept, but slow, quiet science is always going to be less attractive to those with money than the bold, if ultimately ineffective, ideas we’ve seen in recent years.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney usually hesitates to remind voters that he hails from one of the bluest states in the union. But when it comes to Massachusetts schools, commonly ranked first or second among the 50 states’ public education systems, the Republican is happy to step up and take credit. But what did Romney do for Bay State schools?

In the introduction to a Romney campaign white paper laying out the candidate’s education policies, Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush notes, “During [Romney’s] time as governor of Massachusetts, the state’s students became the first to lead the nation in both reading and math in both fourth and eighth grade.” While it’s not entirely clear what Bush is referring to, the “first” here is most likely an honor by default, as Romney’s single gubernatorial term coincided with the earliest test results released under  No Child Left Behind. That law, one of President George W. Bush’s signature accomplishments (for better or worse), was the first to require nationwide standardized testing in fourth and eighth grades. In truth, Massachusetts’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress had been above the national average for more than a decade when Romney took office, a record largely attributable to the state’s 1993 education reform law, which predates Romney’s tenure by nine years.

Did Romney contribute to these great test results by expanding charter schools, as the campaign implies? Doubtful. Charters have had mixed results nationwide, but in any case the share of Massachusetts children enrolled in charters is just over 3 percent (.xls). Did Romney’s failed attempt to install a merit pay system help motivate teachers to work harder? No, even if the state’s teachers union hadn’t defeated it, studies have shown merit pay doesn’t work.

What Massachusetts really demonstrates is the importance of money to education– and that’s a lesson Republicans continue to resist. As an education reporter in California, I witnessed firsthand what happens when schools are chronically underfunded due to a shortsighted tax law: middle school classrooms jammed with forty kids, decrepit buildings, a near-absence of art, music and P.E. Now I live in Massachusetts, where we spend 50 percent more per pupil than California does. No, money is not a panacea– after all, D.C. splurges on schools with little yet to show for it– but states have to invest in education if they want to see students succeed.

Romney, who clearly knows the value of a buck, was governor when Massachusetts made the deepest education cuts per pupil of any state between 2002 and 2004. But that’s not the part of his record that he wants to talk about.

John Judis has a good piece in The New Republic arguing that education reform is pointless and ineffectual if we don’t address the increasing inequality that has become the defining characteristic of our economy in recent decades.

If you listen to education reformers, you would imagine that there is a huge demand for highly educated workers at the top that the lower tier schools are not meeting, but that is not the case. In employment projections to 2020, C. Brett Lockard and Michael Wolf of the Bureau of Labor Statistics list the thirty occupations that are projected to have the large numeric growth between 2010 and 2020. Of the top ten jobs, only one–postsecondary teachers–would require a doctoral or professional degree; one–registered nurse–would require an associate’s degree; and the rest–and that includes retail salespersons, home health aides, food preparer and servers, and office clerks–would require a high school diploma or less. Of the top thirty occupations, only seven would require more than a high school degree.

Most education reformers are without a doubt well-meaning, but as I’ve written before, the billionaire contingent is capable of causing real harm when it pours money into market-driven reforms that have not been proven to boost schools’ performance. And worse still, philanthropists like Eli Broad and the Walton family, with their anti-union rhetoric and pro-privatization agenda, are reinforcing the very economic values that will prevent students from succeeding once they graduate.  As Judis points out,

Hedge fund honchos and other speculators, the oil rich, and Wal-Mart heirs who fund organizations like Stand for Children or All Children Matter bemoan the fate of America’s poor while contributing to Republican candidates and Super-PACs that are committed to widening the gap between rich and poor.

Broad is well-known as a Democratic donor, and politicians like Rahm Emanuel and Arne Duncan are ostensibly liberals, but that makes their failure to acknowledge the overwhelming and well-documented effect of poverty on children’s lives all the more galling. Children from poor families arrive in kindergarten behind their peers, they’re absent more and they’re less likely to graduate. Reformers are fond of the slogan “No excuses,” but it turns out poverty is a pretty convincing excuse.

The education reform movement has developed a one-track obsession with teacher quality, while ignoring other variables that may be even more important, such as family life, societal expectations and the regional disparities in funding for schools. It’s easy to declare that every child, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, should have access to a great education. It’s harder to ensure that every child is in a position to take advantage of what might be offered.