It Was a Bad Week for Education Reform at the End of an Awful Era of Corporate School Reform

The title of Jeff Bryant's Education Opportunity Network piece says it best: Education Reform's Very Bad, God-Awful Week. Bryant reviews the resignation of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, President Obama's apology for contributing to over-testing, and the stagnation and even the decline of the reliable NAEP scores after decades of growth.

Bryant also surveys the national news on charters. A series of new stories in several states document how the lack of oversight opened the doors for financial irregularities by charter school operators, and the number of other reports documenting underperformance by charters continues to grow. Of course, the documentation of how Success Academy pushes out more-difficult-to-educate kids and Eva Moskowitz's arrogant response was a huge blow to reformers.

Bryant concludes his impressive catalogue of recent reform failures with the words of teacher/activist Jesse Hagopian:

It should be clear that this national uprising, this Education Spring, has forced the testocracy to retreat and is the reason that the Obama administration has come to its current understanding on testing in schools. However, the testocracy, having amassed so much power and wealth, won't just slink quietly into the night.

The first decade of school reform was an outgrowth of Reaganism. As Karl Rove explained, conservatives sought to destroy public sector unions in order to cut off funding for the Democratic Party. He endorsed NCLB in order to split Democratic constituencies in an effort not to defeat, but to outright destroy, the party.

Test-driven, market-driven reform became exceptionally destructive when conservatives were joined by liberals and neo-liberals. As contemporary reform movement morphed in corporate school reform, the big donors' public relations gurus spun it into a supposed "civil rights" issue. That unholy alliance is now unraveling, and even the conservative wing of the movement is disagreeing with itself, as well as breaking with their allies on the Left.

Fordham's Mike Petrilli and the American Enterprise Institute's Rick Hess have been increasingly critical of value-added teacher evaluations. In advance of the release of 2015 NAEP outcomes, though, Petrilli spun the bad news that he anticipated as a legacy of the Great Recession. Until recently, mentioning factors outside of school to explain low test scores would have been condemned as "low expectations."

As is often the case, the most concise refutation of the reform spin comes from the conservative reformer Rick Hess, who counters, "Some education pundits are even trying to blame the 2008 recession for the results (though it'd be a remarkable recession that managed not to affect test scores in 2011 or 2013, only to crush them in 2015)." Hess then continues to be an equal opportunity puncturer of balloons as he turns his guns on the top-down micromanaging of schools by the Duncan administration:

It's not clear what, if anything, might persuade Duncan to rethink his push to federalize school reform or his cheerleading for the Common Core. Happy results are vindication, and poor results are just a sign that change is hard. The thing is, the Obama administration's fevered spinning matters less and less. Duncan will be gone in a matter of weeks. Hillary Clinton has already been endorsed by both major teachers' unions. Public support for the Common Core has plummeted. The Republican field has shown zero attachment to Obama's education policies. Against that backdrop, fairly or not, these dismal NAEP results could serve as a blow to big parts of Obama-era education reform.

In a commentary on the NAEP downturn, and in his analysis of the recent decline of SAT scores, Hess asks why test score "gains in elementary and middle school aren't showing up at the end of high school." He's not convinced by "the conventional response in education circles" that "we're continuing to get high school 'wrong' -- that all of the frenzied efforts to adopt new teacher-evaluation systems, standards, and curricula, digital tools, and the rest have had a big impact in K-8 schools but not in high schools."

Hess tells the hard truth that it is unclear whether test score gains "reflect meaningful learning." He knows that, "The acid test is whether they carry over to what matters: success in high school, college, and beyond." Looking at both the decline in SAT scores and flat NAEP results for 17-year-olds, Hess says, "Perhaps, though, we should be asking how valid those prized elementary and middle-school gains are if they're melting away before students are even out of school."

If this dissent by conservative reformers wasn't a bad enough result of "education reform's very bad, god-awful week," the conservative architect of NCLB, Sandy Kress jumped into the fray, arguing "we have had a terrible run of scores since 2009 that cumulatively leave us flat in the last six years. Whatever has been done in the past six years hasn't moved the needle one bit." Kress also offers an "eyeball review" of the NAEP outcomes for the nine states that won the most money through Race to the Top grants.

Kress concludes that "no state raced to the top or anywhere near the top over the past six years. Indeed most of the studied states not only failed to keep up the pace of previous progress but also were in most respects altogether flat in their achievement trajectories." He also broke down the outcomes by race. Because I believe that 8th grade reading is the most important indicator of how schools our doing, I'll focus on that. Black scores were slightly up in one RttT state and declining or remaining flat in the rest. Hispanic and white results were just a little better. By the way, none of the outcomes for the other tests were noticeably better.

There are even more conservative critiques of Duncan's implementation of the corporate reform agenda (that once supported by all types of market-driven reformers.) Petrilli now admits that NAEP scores also declined in states where the economy is growing, as well as states suffering economic challenges. In an aptly named article, If the Obama Administration Wants Fewer Tests It will Have to Give Up Test-Based Teacher Evaluations, he praises other reformers who oppose the use of test score growth models in evaluating teachers.

Moreover, Robert Pondiscio, even though he has become a loyal supporter of Eva Moskowitz, still has doubts about the teach-to-the-test path to school improvement. He concludes, "Our relationship with testing is like holding a wolf by its ears. We can't hold on and we can't let go."

Of course, educators could easily let go of high stakes testing and shift our attention to holistic efforts to improve schools. As the corporate reform coalition unravels, it should stop "sucking the oxygen" out of non-punitive efforts to improve learning for poor children of color and close the achievement gap.

Conservatives will still have a rational goal, even though I oppose it. Too many of them seek the defeat of unions and undermining the finances of Democrats, as well as the benefits (and wages?) of teachers. If they want, conservatives can focus on improving already high-performing schools for the affluent and producing elite graduates who can be economic gladiators in the global marketplace.

However, neo-liberal and liberal reformers can no longer pretend that they are fighting for equality and justice. If anything, it appears more and more clear that they are not advancing civil rights but exhibiting hurt egos and seeking revenge against the teachers and unions who they blame for undermining their beautiful theories. Their test, sort, reward, and punish approach to school improvement can no longer be seen as a path to helping students. Its only possible outcome would be the fracturing of Democrats. If this education civil war puts conservatives in the majority, it will be a very bad, god-awful political era for America.

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