Are We Addicted to ‘School Reform’?

I recently came across a blog I posted in early 2012, one that was ‘liked’ by more than 4,700 readers.  It’s called “Drowning in a Rising Tide of….” and I wrote it while the latest National Commission was studying the state of public education.
Here’s part of what I wrote back then, followed by what the Equity and Excellence Commission eventually reported, and then by my own observations.

MY BLOG EXCERPTS: “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

Surely everyone recognizes the 5-word phrase. Some of you may have garbled the phrase on occasion — I have — into something like ‘Our schools are drowning in a rising tide of mediocrity.”

But that’s not what “A Nation at Risk” said back in 1983. The report, issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, was a call to action on many levels, not an attack on schools and colleges. “Our societyand its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling,” the Report states, immediately after noting that America has been “committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” (emphasis added) Schools aren’t the villain in “A Nation at Risk;” rather, they are a vehicle for solving the problem.

Suppose that report were to come out now? What sort of tide is eroding our educational foundations? “A rising tide of (fill in the blank)?”

This is a relevant question because sometime in the next few months another National Commission, this one on“Education Equity and Excellence,” will issue its report. This Commission clearly hopes to have the impact of “A Nation at Risk.”

However, the two Commissions could hardly be more different. The 1983 Commission was set up to be independent, while the current one seems to be joined at the hip to the Department of Education.

Consider: Ronald Reagan did not want a Commission to study education because he wanted to abolish the U. S. Department of Education, which had been created by the man he defeated, Jimmy Carter. So Education Secretary Terrel Bell did it on his own.

The current Commission has the blessing of the White House and the Congress.

Secretary Bell asked the President of the University of Utah, David Gardner, to chair the Commission. He knew Gardner and trusted him to oversee the selection of the Commission members. Dr. Gardner then hired Milton Goldberg as Staff Director and they selected 15 members, plus two reliable political conservatives the White House insisted on. They asked the key education associations to nominate five candidates, then chose one from each association. They ignored the teacher unions and selected that year’s Teacher of the Year as a Commissioner. Meanwhile, Secretary Bell stayed on the sidelines, cannily keeping his distance from an effort that his boss was not in favor of.

Unlike Ted Bell, Education Secretary Arne Duncan seems to have been involved from the git-go. He has spoken to the group and recently intervened to extend its deadline. His Department named the co-chairs and all 28 members, who represent every possible constituency in the education establishment: rural, urban, African American, White, Hispanic, Asian-American, Native American, conservative, liberal and so on.

Rather than delicately balancing his Commission to be politically correct, Gardner, a University President, put five other people from higher education on his Commission and famously declared there would be “no litmus test” for Commission members.

Duncan has touched every base, at least once. Well, almost every base — no classroom teachers or school principals serve on Duncan’s Commission.

Gardner included out-of-the-box thinkers like Nobel Laureate Glenn T. Seaborg and Harvard physicist Gerald Holton. Duncan’s Commission is depressingly predictable, with the exception of Netflix founder Reed Hastings. Why no Tim Brown, Deborah Meier, John Seely Brown, Sal Khan, Laurene Powell, Larry Rosenstock or James Comer?

Because the “Risk” commission had no ex officio members, it had limited contact with the Department or the White House. Staff Director Milton Goldberg recalls that Secretary Bell read the 31-page draft report for the first time just one week before its release. (“Golly, it’s short,” was his initial reaction, Goldberg recalls.)

The current Commission has seven ex officio members, including Roberto Rodriguez of the White House and Martha Kanter, who is #2 in the Education Department. Not only that, it appears that the Department’s PR people are on hand at all times. No secrets, no surprises.

The earlier Commission held most of its meetings and hearings around the country. The current Commission held seven of its 12 meetings at the U. S. Department of Education, including the final five.

Given all that, it’s difficult to think of this as an ‘independent’ Commission. End of the day, it’s Arne Duncan’s Commission, established for the express purpose of finding ways to close the ‘resource gap’ in spending on education for poor kids in this country.

That’s a worthy goal, because the spending gap is huge. However, closing it won’t be easy. States are pretty much broke these days, so the money will have to come from Washington.

And that’s a problem, because no one in Washington seems to trust states or local school districts, which, after all, are responsible for the ‘savage inequalities’ in the first place. Because education is not a federal responsibility, Washington can send money and make rules but cannot send in the troops to punish misbehavior. As Michael Casserly, long-time Executive Director of the Council of the Great City Schools, dryly noted in the January meeting, “We haven’t really resolved this question about where state responsibility ends or where their capacity and willingness end, and where the federal government’s willingness and capacity and authority begin.”

There’s some history here. Earlier efforts to equalize spending haven’t worked all that well. The early days of Title One of ESEA saw federal dollars that were supposed to be spent on disadvantaged kids going instead to build swimming pools for suburban kids or for ‘teaching machines’ that gathered dust in locked closets. States and local districts — seemingly by instinct — took the federal money and then cut their own spending by that amount, until the feds made that illegal.

And there’s also the knotty problem of past experience with spending more on poor kids. It hasn’t produced results in Newark, NJ, or Kansas City, or anyplace else as far as I know.

More than a few of the Commissioners see the 15,000 local school boards as an impediment; they are, however, a fact of American political life. It should be noted that the Commissioner who wrote the first draft of the forthcoming report, Matt Miller, is also the author of “First, Let’s Kill All the School Boards,” which appeared inThe Atlantic in January/February 2008.

Nation At Risk

The Commission wants more preschool programs and the most qualified teachers to work in low income districts, and so on, but those are local or state decisions, and most members of the Commission — those speaking up at the meetings — do not seem to trust anyone but Washington.

So if Washington can’t just write checks to close the resource gap because it can’t control states and school districts, what does it do? Several Commissioners spoke approvingly of a more “muscular” federal governmental role in education, but it’s not clear how it would flex those muscles.

End of the day, the Commission’s big goal is to energize public opinion, just as “A Nation at Risk” did.

Read through meeting transcripts (as I have been doing) and you will find lots of discussion about how to sell the public on the big idea of what Co-Chair Edley calls a “collective responsibility to provide a meaningful opportunity for high quality education for each child.”

Shorthand for that: spend more to educate poor kids.

Slogans emerge in the discussion:
“Sharing responsibility for every child,”
“From nation at risk to nation in peril,” and
“Raise the bar and close the gap”

At one point a Department PR man took the microphone offer a suggestion. “In the communication shop, myself and Peter Cunningham, my boss, are always happy to help you guys through this process, to the extent to which you — you know, you’d like our help. But “one nation under-served” would be kind of a way that to kind of capture that, and harken back to sort of patriotic tones and kind of a unifying theme, and the fact that you know, we’re not hitting the mark we should, as a country and international competitiveness. So, I just put that out there.”

What will probably be ‘put out there’ in April will be a document designed to make us morally outraged at the unfairness of it all and, at the same time, convince us that failing to educate all children is going to doom America to second-class status in the world. Expect rhetorical questions like “Would a country that’s serious about education reform spend twice as much on wealthy kids as it does on poor kids?”

THE NEW COMMISSION: Counting town meetings and the like, the Commission held a total of 17 meetings before issuing its report in April, 2012.  Here are some excerpts from the full report, which you can find here.

The most widely-quoted lines could not be more blunt: “America has become an outlier nation in the ways we fund, govern and administer K-12 schools, and also in terms of performance. No other developed nation has, despite efforts to the contrary, so thoroughly stacked the odds against so many of its children.   Sadly, what feels to be so very un-American turns out to be distinctly American.”

The preface is also direct: This report summarizes how America’s K-12 education system, taken as a whole, fails our nation and too many of our children. Our system does not distribute opportunity equitably. Our leaders decry but tolerate disparities in student outcomes that are not only unfair, but socially and economically dangerous. Our nation’s stated commitments to academic excellence are often eloquent but, without more, an insufficient response to challenges at home and globally.

And:  Ten million students in America’s poorest communities—and millions more African American, Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander, American Indian, and Alaska Native students who are not poor—are having their lives unjustly and irredeemably blighted by a system that consigns them to the lowest-performing teachers, the most run-down facilities, and academic expectations and opportunities considerably lower than what we expect of other students. These vestiges of segregation, discrimination, and inequality are unfinished business for our nation.

However, unlike “A Nation at Risk,” the Equity and Excellence Commission speaks strongly but endorses incremental change.  Rather than suggesting that past reforms might have failed, it says, “The direction of school reformers over the past 30 years has been guided by the polestar of world-class standards and test-based accountability. Our country’s effort to move in this direction has indeed led to important progress. But it has not been enough.”

What would be ‘enough,’ in the Commission’s view?   “For Each and Every Child” presents a casserole of familiar ideas, which it calls a five-part framework of tightly interrelated recommendations (weak and wonky terminology that is certainly not a call to action:

1)Equitable School Finance systems ‘so that a child’s critical opportunities are not a function of his or her zip code’;

2) More effective Teachers, Principals and Curricula;

3) Early Childhood Education ‘with an academic focus, to narrow the disparities in readiness when kids reach kindergarten’;

4) A wide range of Support Services; and

5) Better Accountability Systems, with consequences for performance.

And how do we get there?  By “coordinated reform efforts in all the states, and their 15,000 school districts, together with federal agencies.”

In short, it’s the Obama Administration’s agenda, including more rigorous pre-school and test-based accountability for teachers. Despite the efforts of some foundations and activist groups, ‘For Each and Every Child’ seems not to have had much impact, perhaps because it’s old wine in a new bottle.

I recognize that a report from 2012 is old news. I only bring it up now because I’m thinking it’s high time we declared an end to School Reform and its incremental progress or, as likely, running in place.

I now believe  have become addicted to school reform. It’s our drug of choice, allowing us to feel good for a while without actually accomplishing very much.

The book I should be working on now, instead of blogging, is called “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program for American Education.”  Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, The New Press will publish it in the Spring.








5 thoughts on “Are We Addicted to ‘School Reform’?

  1. You omitted the most crucial fact about A Nation at Risk: It was dishonest. It was predicated on the alleged fact that students’ performance had declined precipitously. The Sandia Report in 1992 proved that this was simply false. Test scores (which are unimportant anyway) had actually gone up in every subgroup at that 1983 juncture. It was all politics and bad statistics and has driven 33 years of educational insanity.

    Then, as now, the problems in America were racism, poverty and re-segregation of America’s communities by race and class. Education reform is cyanide for a misdiagnosed disease.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I would take your thoughtful argument one step further and suggest that our nation has not only become addicted to school reform, but, much like our medical world where the pharmaceutical companies have begun to dictate how our country practices medicine, our nation is now fully in thrall to those who have heavily invested in test-making, curricula-writing and a technology-based testing. Who’s REALLY calling the shots in how educators are now expected to educate?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I wonder about your 12 steps. It takes only one or two to make everything work. Kid-focus is one, and engaged activity is another. Abandoning the Carnegie Units and industrial models is already very old “innovation,” and reminding people of their past failures hardly frames them, their teachers, kids or schools for new success. Instead, find a few very good and evocative models, and scaffold that success to engage, to involve parents and others, to shed the “common core” of content for a community of learners who teach each other, and, more importantly, to incorporate that teaching in their lifestyle. The most important educational “innovations” are no longer in school, but, rather, in places like your blog and sites like this and others – many of which kids build themselves. Status and elite committees are just a waste of time and money. If Duncan knew what he was doing, he’d stop doing it.


  4. I am confused about something.

    The reformers are claiming that the suburban schools are also mediocre since after all, according to the international standards they keep pretending are so valid, so many of those suburban kids just aren’t doing as well as kids in other countries. Their schools basically suck, according to Arne Duncan and his pals, and their parents (really just the moms Arne despises) are deluding themselves that their kids are learning anything.

    So why are they then claiming that if only the kids from failing schools could attend the schools in the suburbs they would be fine? They have just made a big point of telling us those suburban schools are nearly as bad.

    I also find their desire for “better accountability” to be a joke. The DOE has abandoned any desire to force charter schools who receive tens of millions in grants to be accountable. Have they made sure those charters weren’t losing lots of low-performing kids? Not at all! Are they directing money into companies wholly owned by their administrators? Who cares! The same DOE is perfectly happy if a charter school tosses out the low-performing kids and claims good results, and will turn around and chide the public school teachers for not teaching those kids the schools they heavily fund toss out the door! The same DOE will report on “wasted money” because it’s simply tragic that retired teachers are getting those promised pensions when they should be eating dog food and the pension money sent to those self same charter schools that get “good results” by forcing undesirable kids out. I don’t think Milton Friedman could have asked for a better DOE than the one President Obama created.

    I find it funny that the report says nothing about creating schools modeled after the private schools where Arne Duncan sends his kids. Why? Aren’t they working?


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