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Living in Dialogue: Rich Reformers Reject Research

As test-driven, competition-driven school reform gets closer to scrap heap of history (at least in terms of improving schools), we will see more great journalists, such as Dana Goldstein, Dale Russakoff, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Paul Tough document its failures. We can expect more analyses where the contemporary reform movement’s defeats are cited, and the writer says that we have learned a lot more about cognitive science, teaching, and learning since accountability-driven reformers sought to scale up school improvement. It is not worth quibbling over such diplomatic statements. For the record, however, we now know much more about the reasons why output-driven, market-driven reform was a mistake, but that is only part of the story.

Long before corporate reformers began their technocratic quest, a huge body of social science explained why their top-down movement was unlikely to improve actual schools. One of the great things about Learning from the Federal Market-based Reforms: Lessons for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), edited by William Mathis and Tina Trujillo, is that it reviews that research as it also provides new understandings of why the test, sort, reward, and punish school of reform failed, and why it did so in such a predictable manner. Unfortunately, it also explains why the educational failure of corporate school reform might continue along with more short-term, political victories for market-driven, competition-driven policies.

Venture philanthropists at the Gates, Broad, and Walton foundations, and other members of the Billionaires Boys Club have made an incredible mess, but the problem isn’t inherent in education philanthropy. The Forward of Learning from the Federal Market-based Reforms is written by Jeannie Oakes, the former Director of Education and Scholarship of the Ford Foundation. She observes, “We have a long history of ignoring research when it is out of synch with ideology, parochial interests, or other preconceptions.” Oakes explains, “Researchers over the past 40 years have produced and replicated an enormous body of theory and evidence that explains the causes and consequences of educational inequality.”

Sadly, the contemporary reform movement sought shortcuts for battling poverty. It abandoned our “vision of a richer common good,” and replaced it with “market-based, test-driven reforms [that] have only reinforced the weak notion that high-quality education is a scarce commodity that few schools provide and that families must compete for good opportunities for their children.” On the other hand, Oakes reminds us, social science research provides “clear directions for remedies” that could drive a more humane, holistic, evidence-based, upcoming era of school improvement.

Similarly, “The Predictable Failure of Federal Sanctions-Driven Accountability for School Improvement,” by Heinrich Mintrop and Gail Sunderman, grounded accountability-driven reform in the 1990s when “new information and data warehousing technologies” made it seem plausible that a central planning agency could set goals, establish incentives and sanctions, and monitor outcomes. Ignoring a long history of the failure of central planners across the globe to engage in successful social engineering, reformers ignored the protests of “disbelieving teachers” and repeatedly asserted, “Accountability is here to stay.” Of course, the “combination of quotas and sanctions connected to new data processing” was needed to coerce practitioners into compliance with experiments that so many practitioners knew were bound to fail. This paved the way for NCLB which was “the simple policy answer to that complex problem.”

Mintrop and Sunderman review the overwhelming evidence about how and why the “accountability systems fashioned after NCLB principles violate core professional norms of educators and produce widespread frustration and de-moralization among those charged with carrying out needed school improvement efforts.” Teaching to the test spun out of control, and “as a result, teachers widely report that they need to compromise standards of good teaching when striving to meet accountability goals.” Now, “negativism is the prevalent mood.”

Even after NCLB had been dismissed as the “most negative brand” in education, the Obama administration tried to put its accountability system and faith in the Market on steroids. One of the best examples of the Obama administration’s doubling down on the stress of testing and competition to overcome the stress of poverty, which undermines student performance in the inner city, is its School Improvement Grant (SIG) gamble. Betty Malen and Jennifer King Rice, in “School Reconstitution as a Turnaround Strategy,” draw on a body of turnaround studies that predate the SIG, as well as the “The Turnaround Challenge” (2007), which Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cited as “his bible.” Rather than draw upon social science (and I would add, rather than heed much of the main advice in “The Turnaround Challenge”), the risky SIG strategy was often “based on case stories cast as case studies, informal conversations with various stakeholder groups, and/or references to research.”

Had Duncan moved beyond this “fragile base” and its “generic” advice, he could have anticipated that many school leaders would respond “to the threat of reconstitution by becoming more directive, rigid and controlling in their interactions with teachers.” This would result in strained relationships where pressured teachers conformed to questionable practices that would fail to improve instruction or promote equity. Those predictions proved accurate as “some teachers were motivated to work harder but … their intensified effort focused on short-term, superficial and arguably detrimental strategies that may hold promise for getting schools off probation, rather than on long-term, substantive changes that may help all children improve academically.”

Being an academic historian before committing to inner city teaching, I particularly enjoyed the way that Learning from the Federal Market-based Reforms reprinted David Berliner’s classic, “Addressing Poverty: Our Impoverished View of Educational Reform.” Berliner introduces his prescient analysis of NCLB by noting that the “2005 data report is only slightly different from the data I would use today, but only slightly. More important is that the relationships I describe and the arguments I make would be exactly the same!” Berliner cites what “we now might call many of the problems I describe an opportunity gap.” In retrospect, he nailed one reason why NCLB advocates ducked the challenge of tackling poverty because, “In our country, so prideful of the fact that we are the land of opportunity, existence and growth of this gap is even more abhorrent and more embarrassing than it might be elsewhere.”

As Berliner writes, NCLB was “a near perfect case of political spectacle, much more theater than substance.” Its architects ignored historians such as Lawrence Cremin who warned against the test-driven model back in the 1980s. It also forgot the wisdom of the New York Times’s James Traub. Berliner wrote that Traub:

Noted that it was hard to think of a more satisfying solution to poverty than education. School reform, as opposed to other things we might do to improve achievement, really involves relatively little money  and, perhaps more importantly, asks practically nothing of the non-poor, who often control a society’s resources. Traub also noted that school reform is accompanied by the good feelings that come from our collective expression of faith in the capacity of the poor to overcome disadvantage on their own. Our myth of individualism fuels the school reform locomotive.

Berliner then used 2003 data to show that in international comparison of “rich” nations, “the United States ranked fourth at $37,750 per capita [in Gross National Product], while Mexico ranked 80th with $8,900 per capita.” Mexico was the only nation that ranked below American Hispanic and African American students on the 2000 PISA math and science tests. However, the average results of American White students were 7th and 4th, respectively, on those tests. Berliner then showed how impressively high affluent American students ranked on 2003 TIMMS scores and how low the scores were for students attending schools with a low-income rate of 75% or more.

As incomprehensible as it seems, reformers pretended that such evidence didn’t call their top-down reforms into question, and ignored the gorilla in the room – poverty. Their refusal to embrace early education was equally hard to believe. Berliner cites the standard, widely (universally?) accepted agreement about the all-important first three years in life. But, he also reviews some history on why we should have remembered how the negative income tax revealed that increases in family income “resulted in increased school attendance and better school achievement for the families that gained in income.” He notes “the slope of the poor children … showed growth in school readiness over the three years. Most interesting of all, the poor children in families whose income went up, ended up scoring as well as the students who had never been poor.”

Berliner cites “equally intriguing” research which showed “that raising the income of families to improve the lives of poor children was actually a bit less expensive than the annual cost per-child of attending Head Start. It is impossible not to speculate about what the results might be for our society if we combined both approaches to school improvement, providing both high quality early childhood programs and better incomes for the poor!”

Berliner, Mintrop, Sunderman, Malen, Rice, and others document the failure of corporate school reform. Unfortunately, this excellent anthology also explains why predictions about the political death of test-driven, market-driven reform have been premature. (I’ve been especially guilty of the second mistake.) Both sets of analyses are worthy of careful reading and rereading.

What do you think? Will the failure of school reform to improve schools prompt new respect for evidence-based policies? How long will corporate reformers keep up the political battle for their discredited policies?

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighbo...