School & District Management Opinion

Education Reform Has Jumped the Shark

By Anthony Cody — September 17, 2010 4 min read
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I wrote a few weeks ago that we had reached a tipping point. It is strange the way these things work. The education reformers have invested billions in numerous ventures that promote their vision. This next week, the release of Waiting for Superman, NBC’s Education Nation specials and teacher townhall, and Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates on Oprah -- all will create a crescendo of voices, images and the master narrative that has been carefully developed over the past decade. Our schools are failing. The only way to save them is to expand charters, remove due process for teachers so they can be fired, and further raise the stakes on standardized test scores.

But ideologically driven projects like this have a way of over reaching, over-promising, and overestimating their strength.
And the moment that they reach their apex is actually the moment they begin to collapse. Education reform has finally jumped the shark.

The signs of its imminent collapse are all around us.

They begin with the fundamental problem the education reform movement faces. We are more than ten years into a massive reform effort revolving around high stakes attached to standardized tests, and there is no significant growth in actual learning - even in terms of the test scores most valued by proponents. Charter schools likewise have shown themselves to be, on the whole, no better - and many times worse, than the public schools they are supposed to replace. Firing teachers is a poor strategy for turning around supposedly failing schools, as we are seeing at Fremont High in Los Angeles.

We are seeing an enormous propaganda effort to bolster the education reform agenda, but the public has been lost.

The public has turned against the project’s central device. The latest Time Magazine poll on education was released with fanfare for showing public support of education reform. But as Mathew Di Carlo points out on Shanker Blog, the poll actually reveals something quite different:

The vast majority of Americans believe that test-based accountability has either not worked or has actually been harmful. Asked about the "increased focus on standardized testing and data in public schools over the past decade," 33 percent feels that it has "had little effect," while 36 percent believes it has "actually done more harm than good." So, almost 70 percent say the testing explosion has had a negative or negligible effect. Only 22 percent feel that it has "done more good than harm."

Although the education reform agenda is nearly always justified by its supposed concern for students in poverty, voters have begun to reject it at the ballot box. The recent election of Vincent Gray in Washington, DC, means that Michelle Rhee will soon be gone. Mike Klonsky writes,

The vote was as much a rejection of Michelle Rhee's top-down, divisive, anti-teacher school-reform as it was of Fenty himself. It came despite frantic, last-minute campaigning from none other than the Sec. of Ed. Arne Duncan who has spent an inordinate amount of time recently, visiting schools with Rhee and Fenty, handing out obviously politically-motivated awards and grants, looking for photo ops and badly overstating the results of the Rhee reforms.

New York also saw pro-charter candidates defeated, as reported here:

Tuesday's primary was a disaster for charter school proponents and their hedge fund backers. They funded three insurgent state Senate candidates, only to see them lose by huge margins to incumbents viewed as hostile to charter schools: Sen. Bill Perkins in Manhattan, Sen. Velmanette Montgomery in Brooklyn and Sen. Shirley Huntley in Queens.

NBC has been promoting Education Nation, and soon will air a series of programs heavily dominated by the familiar voices of “reform.” It is sponsored by the Broad and Gates foundations, and a handful of other corporations. Poorly represented on the main stage, teachers are given a special event of our own, the Teacher Town Hall, which promises to bring together thousands of teachers from around the country. Any time you bring people together, the results are unpredictable. Every teacher who wishes to have a voice should register and attend, and everyone with an organization and further opportunities for teachers to stay involved and vocal should be there as well, so teachers understand we will need to get organized and hold our OWN town hall events if we really want results.

Lastly, the November mid-term elections are fast approaching. Democratic party turnout is likely to be lackluster, and a huge reason is the administration’s insistence on following a failed model of reform for our schools.

If Democrats do as poorly as projections indicate, they will need to do some soul-searching about this issue. Teachers and parents pushing for a change in education policy cannot be easily dismissed as “the professional left.” We are, potentially, some of the most powerful grassroots support a political party could have - but that support will be largely absent this fall. Professional Democrats will have to decide if they can afford to continue to do without that support in 2012.

Politicians are getting wise to this, and are starting to speak their minds. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said this week,

You leave no child left behind. You race to the top. Next year, you race to the bottom. Next year, you race to the side. Everybody's racing to something," Daley said. "Why can't you send us money to build our schools. ... All the teachers know that these are just political slogans. We should end it.

But projects of this sort do not fully collapse until a viable alternative appears. That means the ball is in our court to develop our vision for how schools can be improved. Organizations such as Teachers Letters to Obama have been organizing teachers so that our voices are clear and present in this discussion. Over the summer, we developed a set of seven principles to guide Congress in reauthorizing NCLB, and collected numerous letters from teachers and parents expressing our views. These letters are now available for download and distribution here.

Teachers Letters to Obama will be holding our own Teachers’ Roundtable, “Stop Griping, Start Organizing,” on Tuesday, Sep. 28. Panelists will include Jesse Turner, who has just completed his walk from Connecticut to Washington to protest federal education policies, NEA vice president Lily Eskelson, Chris Janotta, founder of Million Teacher March, and parent activist Leonie Hamson, of Class Size Matters and a founding member of Parents Across America. The online event will take place on Tuesday, Sep. 28, from 8:30 to 10:30 Eastern, and 5:30 to 7:30 pm Pacific Time. Register here.

Grassroots teachers and parents organized and fought hard to defeat Senate Bill 6 in Florida, designed to win Race to the Top dollars by tying teacher pay and evaluations to test scores. Governor Charlie Crist became their hero by vetoing the law. Now, Democratic candidate for governor Alex Sink has put forth an ad showing what happens when teachers make themselves a force to be reckoned with. Take a look. More evidence that the tide is turning:

What do you think? Has education reform jumped the shark?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.