Education Opinion

We Can’t Go Back

By Peter Greene — July 08, 2015 3 min read
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Those of us who argue against reformster policies in education sometimes fall into the mistake of wanting to go back, to roll back the clock to the days before high-stakes test driven accountability, federally-coerced standards, and privateering began messing with public education in earnest.

We can’t, and we shouldn’t want to. Because there is real work we need to do.

Teacher Quality

The assertion that the education system is overrun with terrible teachers and that if we just root them out, all will be hunky-dory-- that’s a dumb assertion. But I am not going to look you in the eye and say there are not teachers who desperately need help or even teachers who just need to get out of the classroom. Those people exist. What often does not exist is any system or mechanism for helping them out and thereby lifting up the schools in which they teach,

Some of the work needs to be done on the administrative level. School leaders can do a better job of hiring and a better job of growing staff.

We also need to look at the supply chain. One of the unfortunate effects of thirteen years of assault on public education is some real damage to the teacher pipeline.

If only teaching were like other professions. Doctors, nurses, lawyers-- they control their own professional pipelines. To become a doctor, you have to go through a doctor-certified program and win the approval of other doctors. To become a teacher you just have satisfy a bunch of bureaucrats who haven’t a clue what you do.


People who hate No Child Left Behind still praise its disaggregation of results. Some folks are right now still arguing that we must test every student every year so that non-white, non-wealthy, special needs students will not be hidden and invisible. Yes, some of those folks are money-grubbing opportunists, but some are absolutely sincere, and they have a point.

We cannot just say, “Oh, just trust us to take care of those kids. We always did right by them in the past.” Because we didn’t. Not in some places.

Is it really that surprising to say so? Schools reflect their communities. If your community is racist, chances are racism is embedded in your institutions as well. If your community bows to the power of the wealthy, chances are your not-so-wealthy students are getting the short end of the stick.

Reform programs have not addressed equity issues. They have instead disenfrachsed community members and resegregated students. But just because someone has sold you snake oil, that doesn’t mean your illness isn’t real. We face the challenge of providing excellent education for all students, and we have to do a far better job of meeting that challenge.


Real accountability is not stack ranking, and it is not making many schools compete for limited resources. But we owe taxpayers a full accounting for what we do with the tax dollars they hand to us and the trust they place in us.

Schools have not always been great at transparency. We close the doors and tell our community, “Trust us. And leave us alone.” In some communities public schools really have behaved like the obnoxious monopolies reformsters accuse us of being.

Parents are entitled to know how their students are doing. taxpayers are entitled to know what they’re getting for their hard-earned dollar.

The Irony

There are some schools that have met and conquered these challenges, and the rest of us can learn from them. We need to learn from them.

The irony is that many reformster programs, like the high stakes testing currently under the legislative microscope, have been sold as solutions to all of these problems, when in fact they don’t solve any of these problems.

But in pushing back, we have to remember two things. First, don’t confuse pointing out the false solutions with dismissing the actual problems, second, don’t forget that the problems still need to be addressed.

We cannot go back, and even if we had a fully-tricked out DeLorean, we shouldn’t go back. The problem with reformster policies is not that they keep us from staying in a perfect past, but that they keep us from moving forward into a better future. That journey into the future, that pursuit of real solutions and real improvements that actually address our real challenges-- that’s what we need to reclaim.

The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.