The Obituaries for Data-Driven 'Reform' Are Being Written

Once we reject the silver bullets proposed by "the billionaires boys club," we can commit to a humane vision of school improvement that respects the dignity of teachers and students.
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Newsweek issued last week's most public analysis of the failure of data-driven reform, but it was only one of the latest accounts of how the accountability hawks have wasted billions of dollars, while forcing their pet theories on schools. Only 60 percent of the districts that were immersed in the billionaires' money have improved faster than the rest of their states. That is just ten points higher than a coin flip.

Despite millions of dollars in investments by the Gates, Broad, Dell, and Walton foundations, Newsweek reported that graduation rates in the favored districts of Oakland and Houston fell by 6 percentage points. Newsweek recalled how Gates has abandoned his $2 billion high-school campaign, emphasizing small schools. (To their credit, though, when New York City was drowning in money and invested in small alternative schools, its graduation rates increased.)

Similarly, the Walton Foundation's $8 million investment in Milwaukee's charters failed. Broad also scaled back its $46 million effort to train principals. Eli Broad, however, refuses to learn the lessons of his organization's failure, explaining "The fact that I don't concern myself about criticism or pushback helps."

We should pay equal attention to reports by the Education Trust and the McKinsey Group. Both pioneered the use of multicolored graphs to spin the inaccurate message that instruction-driven reform has turned around significant numbers of high-poverty neighborhood schools. The Education Trust, an organization of the last, liberal true believers in NCLB-type accountability, used to claim that schools alone could close the achievement gap. It dismissed calls for high-quality preschool, and other supports, as "excuses." The Education Trust even ridiculed Education Week as "Sociology Week" for publishing the Casey Foundation's "Kids Count."

So the Trust's "Stuck Schools Revisited" is doubly important. It shows how data-driven accountability has largely failed to improve low-performing schools or the outcomes of the lowest performing children of color in higher performing schools in Maryland and Indiana. At first glance, Maryland seems to be one of the few success stories of NCLB, as it improved its reading and math scores dramatically between 2005 and 2009. In 2005, two-thirds of black students attended schools that were low-performing for their subgroup. But by 2009, only 10 percent of Maryland schools improved performance for the bottom quartile of black students. Results were similar for Latinos, and the very different state of Indiana.

According to the latest report by the McKinsey Group, just three school systems serving less than 157,000 students have moved from "fair" to "good." That represents 0.3 percent of the nation's public school students. That sorry record was explained by a quote from ex-Chancellor Joel Klein: "You can mandate awful to adequate, but you can not mandate greatness; it has to be unleashed." But, it was accountability hawks like Klein who copied McKinsey's examples of South Africa and India in resorting to rewards and punishment. They have unleashed only a favored few from their micromanagement. McKinsey now concludes that creating good and great schools requires "a shift from central guidance to school-based collaboration and self-evaluation."

To understand where the data-driven crowd went wrong, we should back up to McKinsey's 2009 report, "The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools." Their case that data-driven, instruction-driven reforms can close the achievement gap was summarized on page 72.

A huge part of the McKinsey argument for data-driven accountability was based on New York City. Since then, state test standards were raised and the NYC miracle largely disappeared. McKinsey had stressed the success of New York City under Joel Klein in moving poor children of color up the performance ladder from third to eighth grade, but their own data acknowledged that eighth grade reading scores for black students declined under Klein. (Even then, NYC only moved 13 percent of students in the bottom quartile into the top 50 percent.)

McKinsey's second big argument, presented in a dazzling array of charts, was borrowed from the Education Trust. They claimed Latino students in Ohio score better than whites in Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia, and ten other states. I could not make this up! Only 3 percent of Ohio is Latino, and Ohio spends up to 25 percent more per student than the states where white achievement was so low. In other words, McKinsey and the Education Trust used a factoid out of context, but made up for the lack of substance with state-of-the-art graphics.

Their other two pieces of evidence that schools can close the achievement gap stand in refutation of the data-driven policies advocated by McKinsey and the Education Trust. As explained by Diane Ravitch and Linda Darling Hammond, traditional reforms, as opposed to the NCLB-type mandates, significantly closed the gap through the 1970s until the late 1980s. And in the last 15 years, New Jersey has closed the gap by using the strategy that the Education Trust ridiculed. It improved outcomes for poor children of color through high-quality pre-school so that children could read by third grade.

So, we should not rejoice in a return to the 1970s. But the sooner we throw the data-driven accountability hawks on the ash pile of history, the sooner we can get back to reality-driven school reforms. Once we reject the silver bullets proposed by "the billionaires boys club," we can commit to a humane vision of school improvement that respects the dignity of teachers and students.

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