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Living in Dialogue: Will Corporate Reformers Ever Admit They Were Wrong?

It’s sure fun to watch corporate school reformers forming a circular firing squad. For a generation, conservative and neoliberal reformers sang from the same hymnal, even as they privately suppressed their many internal disagreements.  Now, accountability-driven, charter-driven neoliberal micromanagers are openly attacking their former allies who were primarily devoted to a market-driven agenda.

After years of denigrating classroom teachers and unions who did not see the supposed righteousness of test-driven, competition-driven reform, neoliberals now condemn conservatives with the same venom for not agreeing to the top-down imposition of incentives and disincentives. Now they ridicule conservatives, as they did educators, for not agreeing that a corporate system of rewards and punishment are supposedly essential to making education reform the “civil rights movement of the 21stcentury.”

We can unambiguously celebrate this new education civil war because conservative reformers deserve equal criticism. Too many of them are completely preoccupied with the free market, and merely beating down the public sector and unions. They’ve gone along with the “it’s about the kids” spin, but their hearts obviously weren’t in it. The principle that they truly embrace is their version of: “It’s the Economy, Stupid.”

In fact, the single best – and most honest – illustration of the frustration prompted by the multi-front counterattacks being launched against conservative reformers was revealed at the beginning of article that ordinarily would have been a victory lap. The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke wrote in the Daily Signal, “It was an honor to be at this White House event to watch Trump, along with Vice President Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, applaud the students who participate in the District of Columbia’s school choice programs.”

Burke’s proclamation was followed by a “Dear Readers,” temper tantrum:

Reporters at the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Wall Street Journal are attacking The Daily Signal for our press access at the White House.

They are afraid The Daily Signal is providing an alternative to the usual left-wing or establishment media spin. Now, they are using their “mainstream” media megaphones to diminish The Daily Signal. …

We need your help! …

Wow! How much would Burke be wailing if they had been subjected to the venom dumped on teachers and unions in the name of “reform?”

When teachers challenged the conservative and neoliberal dogma that accountability, competition, and “High Expectations!” was enough to transform even our poorest schools, our realism was dismissed as “Excuses.” So, a full data-driven, social engineering experiment was imposed on forty or more states. The alphabet soup of multi-billion dollar experiments, the RttT, SIG, VAM-driven teacher evaluations, etc., was an embarrassing failure.

The Bill Gates/Arne Duncan agenda subsidized a charter school bubble and, since 2012, charter applications have declined by 45%. The inability of accountability hawks and charters to make good on their grandiose promises, and the election of Donald Trump, have reinvigorated the conservatives’ love affair with vouchers.

The Friedman Foundation’s Greg Forster now admits that the Louisiana voucher program has failed. It was “ruined” by being subject to the same test-driven accountability system that they and neoliberals helped impose on traditional public schools. He claims, “Louisiana’s (voucher program) is now the first school choice program ever shown by empirical research to produce worse academic outcomes.” Of course, other voucher programs have flopped. So, he is on firmer ground in saying that recent research on the destructive effect of testing mandates “is now rocking the education world.”


Another indictment of test-driven accountability was issued by Jay Greene, who writes, “If you mostly care about test scores, private school choice is not for you.” Greene explained, “If what you really care about is raising test scores, you’d be pushing no-excuses charter schools.” He then repeated the same analysis of the fundamental flaw of test-driven reform that even some of the smartest and most sincere neoliberal reformers still can’t seem to comprehend. Greene reports, “Unfortunately, no excuses charters don’t seem to produce long-term benefits that are commensurate with their huge test score gains.” Greene adds:

While of course we would generally like to see both test score gains and improved later life outcomes, the thing we really care about is the later life outcomes.  And the near-term test scores appear not to be very good proxies for later life outcomes.

In contrast to conservative reformers like Forster who continue to spin the weird claim that all but two empirical studies show that choice improves academic outcomes at public schools, Greene cites the scholarly studies that show how several voucher programs have failed to increase student performance as measured by test scores. He doesn’t deny the findings of the recent IES study which found that the D.C. voucher program had a negative impact on the reading and math test scores of elementary school students.

Usually, I have less respect for the neoliberals’ arguments than the conservative reformers.’ Conservatives go through the motions of spouting out soundbites about equity, but it’s not high on their agenda, so they don’t need to twist themselves into pretzels trying to claim that charters accept and retain the kids with the challenges that we serve in neighborhood schools. An exception is Tulane’s Doug Harris. I admire his work with the exception of his incomprehensible conclusion/assumption that even with schools that focus unflinchingly on test scores, that increases in those “outcomes” provide much evidence for an increase in meaningful learning.

Just as Greene’s argument against neoliberal reformers should be seen as a knock-out blow against their faith in what Harris calls “managed competition,” Harris makes a powerful case against the scaling up of vouchers. He argues:

Scaled-up voucher programs like those previously advocated by Secretary DeVos show the worst effects. … The Florida study is inconclusive, and the others show large negative effects. … In terms of providing convincing results, the Indiana and Ohio programs, are somewhere in between, but these show negative results as well.

And that gets to the fundamental problem with both conservative and neoliberal reformers. Both tout the benefits of choice, but they deny the damage it has done. By now, even the truest believers in charters and vouchers acknowledge that they don’t serve the same concentrations of kids from generational poverty who have endured extreme trauma. Consequently, there is no logical way of denying that neighborhood schools now have to wrestle with the even more extreme critical masses of the most at-risk kids who are left behind in traditional public schools.

It’s hard to contemplate a scenario where competition-driven, test-driven reform hasn’t scaled up the damage that was inflicted on my inner city students. Common sense would predict that the increased segregation and the mandating of teach-to-the test, drill-and-kill instruction has most hurt our poorest children of color.

So, maybe the most professional of these choice supporters could try an experiment. Greene could conduct a comprehensive, qualitative and quantitative, cost/benefit analysis of the scaling up of charters. Harris could produce the same for vouchers.

Naw, that’s not going to happen. Besides, watching the formerly-united reform community engage in a battle royale is so much fun.

What do you think? Will corporate reformers admit that their gambles failed? Will divisions over testing, vouchers, and the Trump/DeVos agenda tear them apart?

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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...