End of Education Reform?

Four years ago, I first described the parallels between cops and teachers. A year after the election, I wrote about unions and asked, again, why the GOP was so intent on attacking teacher protections when cops and other government workers get the same advantages. I mean, even the bitching about gender imbalance is ridiculous, since law ennforcement is far more male than teaching is female.

Then came Ferguson and the start of a bizarre microtrend. Conservatives began this absurd habit of blaming teachers and crappy schools for black kids getting shot by white police officers and ensuing riots. “Choice would end this chaos!” they’d thunder. I’m paraphrasing, but as the sources  show, I’m not exaggerating.

So I’ve been writing about the parallels* between these two jobs since the early days of this blog. But I also—rather presciently, I must say—observed that “acceptable targets change over time” and that maybe we teachers should hunker down and wait for cops to take their turn in the hot seat again.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if the pendulum has swung back, if teachers are getting a breather while the cops take the bulk of the scrutiny.

Just four years ago when I wrote my first essay, cops were politically beyond reproach by either party. Since Ferguson, our police forces are increasingly under rhetorical attack, and the Democrats are “balancing” their comments less often. Those on the right are starting to make noises about police unions. Moreover, while the  attempts to prosecute the police officers for high profile shootings have failed, the pressure to bring these efforts has increased.The brutal murders in Dallas, Baton Rouge of course add to this horrible climate.

Meanwhile, the new K-12 education law replacing the reform-designed No Child Left Behind, has utterly dismayed reformers on both right and left by stripping away a lot of federal control and leaving education back to the states. Conservatives, who gave birth to the reform movement, are now unhappy because social-justice warriors have taken over education reform.

Let’s take a look at the three legs of education reform:

Testing? Extremely unpopular, particularly with suburban whites–and if suburban whites aren’t testing, then there’s no benchmark to beat teachers up for when the black and Hispanic students don’t meet it. Kidding. Kind of.

Teacher value add measurements? Reformers are forced to argue that the American Statisticians Association supported VAM because it says that “teachers account for about 1 percent to 14 percent of the variability in test scores”. As I wrote earlier, I don’t think VAM will last much longer. Teachers are being judged by test scores in some states, but the energy is on rolling back those laws, not adding more states to the list.

Student achievement gap? Jerry Brown actually said hey, someone’s got to be a waiter. Stop waiting for me to close the achievement gap. Ain’t going to happen. The man went unscathed after this heresy. I’m still shocked. But the thing is, once people start rejecting standardized tests, demanding other solutions to “the gap” is sure to follow.

Or, as this paper asked: Can High Standards and Accountability Exist? Their answer: Not easily. My answer: No.


I’m not rehashing the Common Core wars. I will remind you, however, that the governors and education reformers never really cared about the curriculum unless it would drive accountability. As of today, just 20 states are using the Common Core tests. The rest have opted for less stringent metrics.


Choice lives! Well, kind of. Barack to Hillary is a huge step back for reformers. Barack, Arne, and John King were all “neo-Democrats” on education, which means teachers didn’t like them much. Hillary is very popular with teacher’s unions, even if the teachers themselves wanted Bernie. But neither Bernie nor Hillary are big on choice.

The Donald? The most attention an education policy got at the RNC convention was Donald Trump Jr’s line comparing teacher tenure to Soviet-era stores and then only because his speechwriter had used it in an earlier column. Kind of like Carol Burnett: “Don’t pollute, folks!” Puppy chow for conservatives. It’s not a random happenstance that the presidential candidate most dedicated to traditional education reform barely finishied in the top five and is   back pitching the same old ideas that the GOP voters didn’t even bother to consider before rejecting.

Choice will stay around, but I don’t see it having a strong supporter in the White House.

The philanthropy may be shifting, too. Bill Gates admits he’s spent millions on schools to little effect. Mark Zuckerberg wants to convince us that his $100 million in Newark wasn’t wasted, but most of the world thinks he got schooled. So the “billionaire philanthropists” are backing off of education.

But Michael Jordan has just donated $2 million to non-profits in what is clearly a thoughtful and hopeful effort to support community policing.  Perhaps his act is a one-off–or perhaps we’ll see more wealthy African Americans funding ideas and programs that benefit both urban youth and the police serving their communities. I wish them more success than the billionaires had with schools.

Education reform, the era that began with Nation at Risk and traveled through the explosion of choice, the testing era of No Child Left Behind, the imposition of Common Core–well, it may be over. We’ll still have choice in urban areas where many desperate parents are willing to submit to absurd behavior standards in order to get some semblance of peer selection. Voucher programs will have periodic disruptions. I suspect, though, that ongoing regional teacher shortages  will limit charter expansion (same amount of kids, more teachers). I wonder if the public will ever notice that private schools get created simply to grab the voucher money, and whether they will find it unseemly. Or maybe vouchers will continue to exist as a way for parents who can afford tuition to get a discount. Ed tech will continue to disappoint. But I see more of a whimpering out over years, not a sudden bang, if I’m not nuts about this.

And if I’m nuts, well, at least one of the granddaddies of education reform, Checker Finn, agrees with me.

I’m not gloating, not about the potential end of reform and certainly not about the increased scrutiny and pressure that’s being placed on our police forces. I just sense a shift. We’ll see.


*I don’t overstate the parallels.The police are tasked with public safety with all the demands that entails.  We teachers are charged with education and student safety while they’re in our purview. Those are non-trivial differences; the police are compensated with higher pay, overtime, easier access to disability, and better pensions. I’m not complaining.


**I’m in a new phase, apparently, where my new essay ideas come from my tweet storms.

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27 responses to “End of Education Reform?

  • Mark Roulo

    I would expect the reform to move from Accountability/Curriculum/Choice
    to simply Curriculum.

    The current curriculum battles have been mostly held at the national level.

    We can go back to fighting them at the state and local level (while having the arguing at the national level).

    The US has been fighting about curriculum for 100 years (*)! We aren’t going to stop now.

    (*) In reading we have gone something like this:
         pre-1930: Mostly phonics
         1930 – ~1960: Whole Word (Look Say)
         ~1960-ish: Back to mostly phonics
         ~1980s: Whole Language (not Whole Word)
         ~2000s: Blend of Whole Language and Phonics

    In K-8 math, the US has been all over the map:
        *) “Traditional” up until about 1960
        *) New Math for about a decade
        *) 1970s: Back to traditional
        *) Calculators yes/no?
        *) NTCM (should algebra de-emphasize abstract symbol manipulation?)
        *) MathLand
        *) Singapore Math

    History, of course, is very charged.

    So … I don’t expect “reform” to end … just the current flavor.

    • Hattie

      Yes, it would make – more – sense to move curriculum battles to state and local arenas. There’s no reason that one curriculum would work for everyone.

      But would that be “reform” as it’s currently meant?

  • jay

    I’m not sure what it would be called other than reform.
    That said, I think you are correct in that accountability has gone as far as it could without people advocating outright government parenting of children. After all, research shows that we need to get kids into a vocabulary-rich environment or else they will never make it in first grade, or something.

    Curriculum should be next, but I hope the focus on it makes accountability more realistic. If we say that everyone gets a high school diploma, but the ACT and colleges disagree that they meet the course standards, then they could try backing away from setting the bar at three maths above Algebra I. Getting students who are supposedly Algebra I superstars in 8th grade through senior Calculus tests a high school math department enough.

    There has been some movement in tiering diplomas, which is similar to lowering graduation requirements but less offensive. I see a problem in tiers in that a CTE track, in Walt Gardner’s view, is for those students with “neither the desire nor aptitude for a four-year bachelor’s degree”. The upshot of that students who opt for business, programming, or engineering in high school. but who are not on fire for learning won’t be exposed to the liberal arts in high school or college when they are in fact capable.

    • educationrealist

      The problem is that right now, we’ve downgraded the cognitive ability needed for college to the point that kids who can’t make it in college aren’t really eligible for voc-ed.

      • jay

        I think I’m on your wavelength. So we have a system right now where the low-mid-range ability students can attend college, and once that is unsuccessful they can do…something that K-12 won’t help them with because voc-ed has been fashioned into training akin to graduate school.
        It comes back to ‘Just a Job’ for me, and I hope that curriculum reform pulls voc-ed back from the cutting edge and into the space that will actually help the students who don’t have a career path, at least not one that’s settled at high school age.

      • educationrealist

        Actually, we’re getting quite a few kids in the midrange through college, in degrees like business administration. Or they’re getting a couple years and improving their prospects. And I still think a lot are going into trades, but trades deal with a lot of illegal workers.

      • Mark Roulo

        “So we have a system right now where the low-mid-range ability students can attend college, and once that is unsuccessful they can do…something that K-12 won’t help them with because voc-ed has been fashioned into training akin to graduate school.”

        I think I’d phrase it a bit differently. And I also think that as a society “we” have an implied difficulty stacking order that looks something like this:
             *) College (grad school)
             *) College (4-year)
             *) College (community college)
             *) Voc Ed
             *) “Unskilled”

        But “Voc Ed” (as I think of it) includes things that run the range from EMT (I see 19-day and 2-month training courses offered on the InterWebs) to Tool-and-Die maker (if we have those anymore).

        I’d suggest that becoming a trained Tool-and-Die maker requires more intelligence and skill than graduating with a degree in “General Studies” (a real major!) from a non-descript 3rd tier college.

        So the stacking order is very wrong and misleading.

        Because lots of kids in college will switch to an easier major if the first choice isn’t working out (e.g. Biology to Sociology) rather than just drop out, by the time we are talking today about the folks who “couldn’t hack it” at college, we are also often talking about the folks who aren’t going to do well as Voc-Ed for a well paying trade job.

        Things are more complicated than just this, of course. Some folks do well with “hands on” and not so well with “sit and read” (my son may fall into that category), so a good manual Voc-Ed track would be great for them. Still, today, I’d expect most of these folks to try to force themselves through at least an AA degree and *THEN* go find something they like doing. Again, the ones who drop out often aren’t going to have the smarts/skills/whatever to do well in a well paying Voc-Ed career. Again, because we get *SO* many through college today (whether the degree signifies very much or not).

      • educationrealist

        Mark, I’ve been saying that for a while. People don’t understand who they are talking about with voc-ed. If you’re smart enough for voc-ed, you’re smart enough for college these days.

  • Roger Sweeny

    Arnold Kling has often mentioned “the null hypothesis in education.” I think his original (April 7, 2013) statement was:

    In education, the null hypothesis is that nothing makes a long-term, scalable, replicable difference. That is:

    1. Take any pedagogical innovation or educational intervention.

    2. Subject it to a controlled experiment.

    3. Evaluate the experiment’s outcome several years later.

    4. If the experiment works, attempt to replicate the experiment in more situations.

    By the time you reach step 4, if not sooner, you will be unable to show that the innovation makes any difference in outcomes. What this suggests to me is that in the long run it is the characteristics of the students that determine outcomes, at least on average. Think of an individual student as “predestined” to reach a certain outcome. An educational intervention can disturb their path to the predestined outcome but will not change the outcome. I do not literally believe this model, but it is a null hypothesis that is difficult to disprove.

    So Robert Weissberg’s Bad Students, Not Bad Schools would be an extended argument that the null hypothesis is true.

    This all leads me to a great puzzlement: For decades most people (ordinary people and politicians) seemed to believe 1) young people weren’t learning nearly enough and didn’t have nearly enough skills, 2) this could be fixed.

    If people stopped believing one or both of those, it would be logical for “ed reform” to die. But what young people know and can do hasn’t changed much over the last several decades.

    Will people start believing things can’t be made much better? I personally think our expectations are wildly unrealistic and self-defeating. But I don’t hear anyone making that case.

  • J Oliver

    To some conservatives law enforcement is an unavoidably a Government function, teaching is not. They would argue that as citizens what we owe our fellow citizens is to fight with them for them when they are unjustly attacked from internal or external forces.

    On the left they are so committed to blank slate idea that they strongly believe that better schools must be a powerful tool to making blacks like the upper half of whites academically and behaviorally. A committed Democrat believes that if you took all whites at birth and put them in black families in black neighborhoods with black majority schools and did the opposite with black children, blacks would be the educationally and income wise at the top and whites would dominate the NBA.

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  • surfer

    I’m glad the charters exist. I don’t care if they do better because of being allowed to kick bad kids out. To me, that is useful for two reasons.

    1. It is better for the kids who are at the charters not to have to deal with the problem kids.

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    I don’t think you understand that direct actions (just changing the public schools) are less likely to get through if there is no counterexample.

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