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Living in Dialogue: Uncovering Lasting Lessons from Decades of Education Reform

Learning from the Federal Market-based Reforms: Lessons for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), edited by William Mathis and Tina Trujillo, details the numerous “opportunity costs” that resulted from a generation of test-driven, competition-driven reform.  The money and energy devoted to the test, sort, reward, and punish approach to school improvement precluded a serious commitment to holistic and humane science-based efforts.  The market-driven reform movement ignored decades of social science research. Often it has devolved into “magical thinking.”

Mike Rose begins the anthology by considering “how this economic focus, blended with the technology of large-scale assessment, can restrict our sense of what school ought to be about: the full sweep of growth and development, for both individuals and for a pluralistic democracy.” Rose notes that “this narrowing of discourse, this pinching of what we talk about when we talk about school,” has defined down what we discuss in the broader public sphere. He challenges us to, “Think of what we don’t read and hear.” He calls for:

Public talk that links education to a more decent, thoughtful, open society. Talk that raises in us as a people the appreciation for deliberation and reflection, or for taking intellectual risks and thinking widely—for the sheer power and pleasure of using our minds, alone or in concert with others. We need a discourse that inspires young people to think gracefully.

As Gary Orfield explains in “A New Civil Rights Agenda for American Education,” we must first Do No Additional Harm. We must reject the judging and punishing of teachers using metrics that are invalid and encourage teach-to-the-test. “We should fund no more intentionally segregating charter schools,” writes Orfield, and “schools should stop suspending large fractions of their young men of color.” We shouldn’t expand graduation requirements without first laying a foundation for success. We must also go beyond the stopping of failed school reforms, and quit building subsidized housing that increases segregation.

Orfield further explains how we should resume a “Long-Delayed Discussion” that addresses education and social and economic inequality.  It is not enough to complain that society has failed to talk about these issues since the 1960s.  We can voice regret about the “reversal of good and successful policies,” and the way that corporate school reform infused “wedge-issue politics.” But, we must “stop feeling sorry for ourselves about the dismal trends we see.”

One of the great things about Learning from the Federal Market-based Reforms is that it includes a full array of solutions.  In four posts on this anthology, I haven’t given proper attention to its treatment of issues such as English Language Learners, tracking within schools, and education’s contribution to the school to prison pipeline. Mathis and Trujillo have compiled great essays on Common Core, virtual schools, class size, community organizing, evaluating teacher training programs, and many more aspects of the public relations attack by elite reformers on traditional public schools and on fact-based discussions. The contributors also describe the ways that stress prompts hyper-vigilance in many poor children, and its negative effect on classroom behavior, and on the need for “authoritative,” not authoritarian teachers. Neither have I paid proper attention to Steve Barnett’s update on what works with early education.

Although the entire 697 page anthology should be read and reread, space determines that I jump to its conclusions.  First, there are differences between the new ESSA and NCLB, but, as the conclusion states, “from a teacher’s view, the new law continues the same basic operations and principles of the previous law. It is fundamentally a test-driven, top-down, remediate and penalize law.”

If states don’t want to repeat the failure of NCLB, they must focus on the “Opportunity Gap.” They must recognize that “privatizing schools has not produced across-the-board or meaningful learning gains.” As Gary Miron and Jessica Urschel document, “‘cumulative results from charter school research indicate, that, on the whole, charters perform similarly to traditional public schools.’”  But, “more troubling than the lack of gains in test scores is the mounting evidence that charter schools segregate students by race, income, language, and handicap.” Moreover, states should replace flawed, metrics-driven accountability with data-informed self-evaluations and school inspection teams.

As Mark Warren concludes, we must build the social foundation for school change. We must heed the wisdom of Tony Byrk who documented the need for social trust in the highest-poverty poverty schools. And, as Jeannie Oakes says, we need a “vision of a richer common good.”

What do you think? Surely we can scratch our way back to the public education goal of meaningful learning for all.  But, will the reform battles have to continue before schools can focus on engaging and respectful instruction?

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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 n...