Curmudgucation: Essential Reading for Education Activists (and Wonks)

Corporate, privatized, market-driven education reform hasn't worked-- and now there's a book chock full of research to prove it. 

The National Education Policy Center is based at the University of Colorado (Boulder) School of Education. They look kind of like what I always imagined when I thought of an actual think tank-- one that was interested in real inquiry and research, and not just put together to lobby for a particular set of ideas. They've created a network composed of many of the top researchers in the education policy world (just look at this list of fellows) and they are a regular source of actual education policy research (as well as doing solid analyses of other research that is out there, even when it's just "research").

William J. Mathis and Tina M. Trujillo have put together an important (and huge) look at what's been going on in education. Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms is a collection of twenty-eight articles from a rather amazing array of top scholars in the field, looking at what has been tried, what hasn't worked, and the research says will work.

The preface, foreword, and introduction lay out the vision pretty clearly and forcefully. In the second paragraph of the preface, Mathis and Trujillo summarize where we are pretty succinctly:

Unfortunately, our review also confirmed that, despite decades of solid research evidence demonstrating the limited and contradictory effects of the market model on school reform, it is still the model that dominates education in this country, particularly in schools that serve low-income families and children of color.

In her foreword, Jeannie Oakes argues that cultural values have dominated the arena while pushing aside actual research-based approaches, and that the dominant value is a sort of behaviorism. Reformsters have "normalized the idea that school quality and equity will improve" as families shop in an unequal "competitive" marketplace. Oakes raises an idea that I confess I hadn't really considered-- that a market-based approach doesn't just fail to erase differences, but actually cements a marketplace of schools of varying quality. The implication is clear-- in a free market there must always be "bad" schools, and some students will be stuck attending them.

Instead of a system promoting equity and education as a common good

market-based, test-driven reforms have only reinforced the weak notion that a high-quality education is a scarce commodity that few schools provide and that families must compete for good opportunities for their children.

This despite forty years of research that provided an enormous body of knowledge about the causes and consequences of educational inequality.

If the subheading of the book ("Lessons for ESSA") concerns you, the introduction makes it clear that NEPC does not have rose-colored glasses on about the new education policy.

Unfortunately, research (such as in this book) plainly tells us that ESSA preserves most of the unproductive structures and reforms that NCLB prescribed... at its core,  ESSA is still a primarily test-based educational regime.

The introduction points at a culprit: "The faith in test-driven accountability and punitive techniques for fixing schools is the dominant operational philosophy." And the writers also summarize the bulk of the research in the book as pointing to "one unambiguous conclusion-- heavy-handed accountability policies do not produce the kinds of schools envisioned under the original ESEA."

And all that is while we're still in the part of the book where the pages are numbered with roman numerals.

There is plenty to chew on here (the book is, after all, almost 700 pages). But it is worth the chewing, and I expect that I will visit several of the chapters by themselves in blogs in the weeks ahead.

The book is built in four main sections:

Section 1: The Foundations of Market Based Reform

These four chapters look at what got us here, looking at the growth and change of policy starting all the way back with the New Deal. In particular, Harvey Kantor and Robert Lowe offer an interesting idea by characterizing policy change as "educationalizing the welfare state and privatizing education." Heinrich Mintrop and Gail Sunderman consider how the failure of sanctions-driven accountability was completely predictable (but that doesn't mean we won't stay stuck with it).

Section 2: Test-based Sanctions: What the Evidence Says

Four really important chapters here, looking at what the research actually says about school turnaround strategies (spoiler alert: not much good), the effect of school choice on achievement, and the real costs of school closures.

Section 3: False Promises

This large section contains eleven articles that each address one of ed reforms beloved bright ideas. Paul Thomas writes about "miracle schools," and the American Statistical Association's statement on the use of VAM for evaluation is here. Stan Karp effectively beats the dead horse that is Common Core. Several articles look at the civil rights angles of plugging reform, and Anne Gregory, Russell Skiba and Pedro Noguera look at how the achievement gap and discipline gap are related. Private contracting, school choice--there's even a look at virtual education.

Section 4: Effective and Equitable Reforms

Here are nine articles delineating what actually does work, considering everything from poverty to adequate funding to class size. There's some talk about T-PREP as a model for evaluating education programs as well as a look at some community organizing programs that have been successful.

Section 5: Bottom Lining It

At the end, Mathis and Trujillo return to the stage to make some final observations and recommendations for moving forward under ESSA.

Those recommendations include addressing the opportunity gap, admitting that high-stakes, test-based accountability doesn't help students learn, and accepting that privatizing schools hasn't worked very well, either.

Digesting

There's is a lot to read and digest here (did I mention it was almost 700 pages?) and my first pass through has been fairly cursory. Some of it is very, very wonky. And the odds are good that somewhere in those pages, you may find some ideas that you disagree with. If you are virulently anti-ESSA and anti-any-government-involvement-at-all, you may disagree with a lot.

However, it's well worth the time and effort to read work that is based on actual research as opposed to the kind of substance-free PR puffery that comes from reformsterland. Heck, it's even a good idea to take the occasional break from the ranting of various bloggers and absorb some actual scholarship.

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