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The “Education Reform Establishment:” Defenders of the Status Quo?

It’s a strange evolution. The loudest voices for education “reform” have now become the protectors and enhancers of the status quo. The new “Education Reform Establishment” is represented by groups such as the Heritage Foundation, Fordham Institute, Education Sector and other conservative or neo-liberal think-tanks.  For instance, even though there are forty states with charter school laws and we have twenty years of solid research that shows charter schools perform about the same as (and are not any more innovative than) traditional public schools, they keep pushing the same charter school remedies. It would seem that after the NCES study, the CREDO studyand the new Mathmatica/ CRPE study, there might be some respite from such ill-grounded obsessions. But this is more about expanding and protecting turf than it is about improving learning.

The mother claim, high stakes test-based accountability will cure-all, likewise continues to be parroted by our fixated foundations even though the National Research Councilfound this approach offers only small gains at the elementary level and may actually increase drop-outs. This perseverance is apparently based on the theory that if it didn’t work the first twenty years we tried it, we didn’t do enough of it.

As for the great social inequalitiesthat represent our true problem, the education reform establishment chants the mantra that minority, poverty and special education student test score deficiencies can be cured by the “shining of the light” on low scores. Of course, few resources or programs are directed toward these needy populations --particularly since the 2008 recession. Pretending the gap can be closed by a healthy dose of light (and maybe Vitamin D) these proponents of failed strategies continue to call for top-down, test-based punishments of the very educators with the toughest jobs.

Despite critical external review, the nadir of this shop-worn aggregation of nostrums is found in Jeb Bush’s traveling road-show, the “Florida Formula,” which repeats the same six points (grading schools, high-stakes testing, promotion requirements, bonus pay, alternative teacher path, and school choice) from one state to the next. Unfortunately, there is no scientific basis that says any of these programs caused test score increases (after all, the early gains might have been due to the new statewide reading programs). They seem to be the only people in the nation (other than Jay Greene) who have found retaining children in grade level to be a wise policy. The miraculous gains in Florida test scores attributed to Bush’s six points are considerably dampened by the Sunshine State’s failure to show gains on nationalassessment tests. Yet, the show rolls on.

The process is just as weary as the content. It always begins with a “crisis” which is used to declare, “public schools are failures.” In fact, if the results are not dismal enough, the reform establishment changes the way the score is kept.  The classic example is the retrofitting of the norm-referenced NAEP tests with new “proficiency” levels back in 1988. These new levels were set so high that no student body in the world could achieve them. This move was condemned as an invalid use of the tests, arbitrary and unrealistic by several prestigious panels across the nation. Yet, these erroneous NAEP markers established a platform, still in use today, to proclaim crisis and failure.

 In recent years, the definition of “drop-outs” has likewise been changed to show a more dismal patterns. In 2009, the federal government reported status drop-outs at a national figure of 8.1%based on the percent of the population ages 16 to 24 not graduated, not in school or not in the workforce.  (NCES also reported that drop-outs have been declining for thirty years). But this good news is not dramatic enough to declare a crisisor proclaim the need for “reforms.” The new definition now requires all students to graduate from high school, on-time, in four years. This change allows scary headlines claiming one-thirdof students are not graduating. This is misleading sleight of hand (and really bad educational policy) but it provides fodder for the education reform establishment.

For status quo-ers, data is also rearranged to support pre-existing beliefs.  For instance, showing some facility at damage control, Paul Peterson proclaims that recent NAEP gains are due to NCLB and top-down test based reforms. Alas, a closer look at Peterson’s chartsshow the greatest gains occurred in the years before NCLB was enacted or took effect.

In another age, these ideas would have long-since been relegated to the trash heap of failed reforms – simply based on the evidence. But this was in an age when the re-segregation of our educational system and society by extreme gulfs in wealth and opportunities was not politically or socially acceptable.  It was also an age when education was not seen as a public cash-cow for private entrepreneurs.

On education, President Obama said “the status quo is morally inexcusable.” He is quite correct. But the unrelieved failure of the reform establishment’s plans suggests the problem may lie more with the rigid and infertile ideas of the reformers than with the skills.  Ironically, education reform establishment leader Checker Finn recognized this stale sterility problem of his colleagues, “No new way of thinking has emerged to displace those that have preoccupied reformers for a quarter century.” Unfortunately, while there is little to indicate fresh new insights will be emanating from those quarters, his conclusion strikes home.  

William J. Mathis

William J. Mathis is a Senior Policy Advisor to the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the former superintendent of school...