Education Reform, on the other hand, was a Napoleon-Invades-Russia near-total victory followed by collapse—new teacher evaluation, curriculum, and testing systems were adopted across almost every state, implemented in almost every district, and promptly drove almost everybody crazy—suburban and urban parents and teachers alike—while promised results failed to appear. We are now, it appears, in the “gaunt, haunted French soldiers scrambling westward in blind fear across Poland” stage of the Napoleonic story of recent education reforms. Mass charter conversion, new multi-day online tests, new quantitative test-based teacher evaluation systems—states simply can’t drop the reforms they adopted just a few years ago fast enough. More than a pendulum swing, it has become a panicked rout.
Spotted Toad, Waking From Meritocracy
Over a year ago, just after Toad’s epic article hit, he suggested I write a “single coherent summary” of the education reform era–expand on the glorious extended analogy he uses above. Yeah. And I’d keep it under a thousand words, too.
And now, the denouement: It all disappeared. Better yet, it all disappeared because the public hated it.
NCLB/Race to the Top:
Just as the Bush/Obama era began with No Child Left Behind, the 2001 version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) so it ended with the 2015 version of the same law, Every Student Succeeds. All the accountability, controls, and demands that the Republican-controlled 2001 Congress put in, the Republican-controlled 2016 Congress took out. The Department of Education became little more than a bank, so far as K-12 was concerned, leaving states to make their own decisions again while giving them block grants to succeed.
I hope readers of the entire series understands this point, but I meander sometimes.
It’s called the “Bush/Obama era” for a reason. It began with NCLB’s critical failure: the mandate that all students test above average. While No Child Left Behind was unpopular with the very schools it was intended to fix, it might have survived in a toothless form were it not for the deeply flawed assumption at the heart of the policy. NCLB was built on the assumption that good schools would not have an achievement gap. Alas. All schools have an achievement gap. Therefore, all schools, including all the excellent public schools in the suburbs, failed to meet that criteria, and thus all schools were threatened with “program improvement” status and a variety of unattractive restriction.
It was this terminal and universal state of restriction that created both the necessity for the NCLB “waivers” and the power the Obama administration had to enforce a new round of reform demands without the messiness of Congressional approval. This gave SecEd Arne Duncan tremendous power to enforce states to commit to value added testing and Common Core adoption. From 2001-2015, the federal government had profound control over state education.
And again: the public hated the results. Education reformers got almost everything they could conceivably want to convince the public of the value of choice, accountability, and curriculum reform and their nirvana was so despised that every bit of these changes were ripped out and states were given control of their own destiny.
Common Core and Value Added Metric Evaluations
Upshot: both rendered largely toothless.
Split in the Reform Movement
Much of the remaining story doesn’t make sense without understanding that the bipartisan reform movement splintered. On the Democrat side, the reform movement began as “neoliberals”, with moderates like Andrew Rotherham, but it’s really impossible to do anything as a Democrat without running into headcounts by race. As the left side of education reform moved away from ex-Clinton policy wonks and towards ex-TFAers, the movement’s whiteness became an issue. I’m not involved enough to know if the movement became progressive because the leaders became increasingly black and Hispanic or if the movement became progressive AND the leaders became increasingly black and Hispanic. Doesn’t matter, I’m just pointing out I don’t know which. But it most assuredly became really left of center.
Robert Pondiscio was, I think, the first person to point out that conservatives were being sidelined in education reform–describing in early 2016 actions that had been going on for a couple years. Making matters worse for conservative reformers (or reformers working for thinktanks funded by conservatives, at least), is that they were all never Trump or silent on the subject. Hillary Clinton was the friendliest Democrat teachers unions had seen in eight years, so they had no good options.
And then Trump won. So both sides of education reform were entirely out of power during the Trump administration, even though he appointed as SecEd reform moneybags Betsy Devos who never met a “government school” she didn’t want to raze to the ground. (Note: Devos was useless in K-12, thankfully, but in all other purviews, she did much better than I expected.) Meanwhile, the education reform movement schism grew.
The progressive side was completely radicalized. Most black reform activists had concluded, as Andre Perry wrote, that the education reform movement was too white to do any good. Many felt sincerely that the obsessive focus on test scores and failure was hurting black kids. Many now openly working for black schools and empowerment: Chris Stewart, Derrell Bradford, and most notably, Howard Fuller (“I didn’t get into this business to help white kids.”). I say that not in criticism, but it’s a huge shift from the marching orders that traditional reformers had, which was to expand suburban charters to get more white support.
Ironically, these progressive reformers have no institutional support. Teachers unions are back in the heart of the Democrats. So the progressives shat all over the conservatives but their own party is moving back hard against charters.
This split is, I think, permanent. As a result, education reform has been political crippled. The progressive reformers agree with the Dems and unions on everything except charters, so they will be taking a back seat. The conservative ed reformers, particularly those who have 20-30 years in (Hess, Petrilli) are among the few who understand what happened, and aren’t sure what to do about it. The Republican party and non-education reform conservatives are completely clueless as to what happened, but that’s because they get their talking points from The Big Book of Ed Reform Shibboleths, and there’s no money for a new edition.
TFA was beautifully positioned to be wiped out by crossfire in the reform split. By 2012,it was targeted for being too much a puppet of the charter school movement, even while it was being feted as the solution to the lazy, union-fed teacher population. Possibly suspecting her charmed existence was ending, Wendy Kopp quit TFA in 2013 and appointed two co-directors. One was a McKinsey consultant who got hired into TFA management. One was a teacher who worked up the ladder. One was a Hispanic woman. One was a white guy. One quit within two years, saying that “we spend a lot of time maintaining alignment, and we often speak in a voice that reflects our daily compromises”. One is still the director of TFA. Guess which one was more radical? (Hint: the resignation letter didn’t mention racism.)
Following Kopp’s departure, applications and cohort size cratered.
The organization recovered by emphasizing its diverse student body, but that may have further dimmed its appeal.
I suspected this back in 2014, when I wrote TFA Diversity and the Credibility Gap, about TFA’s much touted diversity push–or, as I indelicately asked, “How the hell can Teach for America have recruited 1000 African Americans?” It’s not that I don’t think a thousand or more could pass the credential tests, but elite black candidates have far better options. I go through the numbers in the articles that give rise to skepticism–but I also point out ways that TFA could scout out candidates, and I suspect they took many of these steps.
The thing is, and here’s another indelicate truth: you can focus on diversity or merit. Not both. Once TFA made diversity its brand, it seemed to become a lot less attractive to elite candidates.
Significantly, they no longer mention their application or cohort size. It’s difficult even to find their previous announcements, all 404-ed. Moreover, as Rise and Fall of TFA points out, Arizona State University is now a top source of admits.
Enrollment population is still growing, but charter school growth is becoming polarized, and previously strong blue charter states are slowing or reversing.
2016: Massachussetts voters crushed a proposition to lift the charter cap.
In 2019, California enacted a new law allowing school districts to consider financial impact when reviewing charter school applications, a major defeat for choice advocates.
In 2020, New York reached its charter limit and Cuomo hadn’t had any luck in getting the legislature to lift the cap.
In 2021, Newark charter schools, object of Mark Zuckerberg’s largesse, applied for an expansion and the state slapped them down.
For all the talk about charters being separate from those pesky union-run public schools, they are just as likely to be closed during covid19 as public schools are, which makes sense. Most charters are in Democrat-run areas, and Dem run areas are more likely to demand CDC guidance, social distancing, and more likely to have non-white parents who are worried about returning to school. Once again, reformers are let down by reality.
Reform advocates will cite New Orleans as a major success, but the scores are still dismal for African American students, and the dropout rate is hard to track but pretty scary. Besides, go right ahead and say “Hey, the trick to fixing schools is to fire all the black teachers!” and see how far you get. Bottom line, if you think that kids are actually doing better, go buy a bridge in Manhattan.
I don’t wish to overstate the case. Charters are private schools for free, and there will always be a market for them if parents are given a say. But eventually, the state is given a say, and charters turned out to be more expensive than anticipated.
New York, California, and New Jersey politics have seen a significant shift away from charters. According to Michael Petrilli, support for charters has declined in many states since 2016, but it’s more popular where white parents can use charters to get away from non-white public schools (my interpretation, obviously, not his). Which…has a limited shelf life, because most white parents like their schools, and they won’t like the diminished funding that comes along with white parents crafting their own private schools on the public dime. Probably. We’ll see. I’m not spiking the football on charters.
Like charters, mostly stalled. Vouchers are popular in the South, where white parents support them for private schools. The Supreme Court has been very friendly, ruling that vouchers could be used for private religious schools.
But courts can’t mandate vouchers, and for a fascinating look at how fast the public has switched, consider at Douglas County, Colorado.
2011: Voucher program established and instantly blocked by litigation by the ACLU, Citizens for Separation of Church and State (not unions, that I can see, but don’t quote me).
2015: Colorado Supreme Court blocked the voucher program.
2017: The Supreme Court established that religious entities couldn’t be denied public funds available to similar secular institutions in Trinity Lutheran and shortly thereafter ordered the Colorado Supreme Court to rethink its 2015 decision.
BUT! also in 2017: a head to head school board election, in which one slate CommUnity Matters, promised to undo all the reform changes of the previous six years and end the voucher program and give more support to teachers, while the other slate, Elevate Douglas County, promised to keep all the reform agenda. CommUnity Matters stomped Elevate Douglas County and the board rescinded the voucher program and all those lawsuits were for nothing.
Moral: Court decisions can’t get you past the voters.
As with charters, I’m not spiking the football. But vouchers and charters take money away from public schools, and most voters like public schools.
The money folks
Bill Gates has found his education philanthropy very disappointing. School children and teachers everywhere have let him down.
Mark Zuckerberg, humbled by the lack of results in Newark, has decided to listen to his wife, do more small bore stuff, and focus on efforts close to home.
Eli Broad suspended the Broad Prize in 2014, giving no more money to “good” urban districts. Three years later, California’s response to the leaked information about Broad’s plan to double the number of charters in Los Angeles was so hostile the organization was forced to regroup and claim they weren’t focusing on charters. No one believed them, and the anger may have led to California’s decision to give districts more power to deny charter applications (see above). A year later, Broad retired. His successor pulled up stakes from California and paid Yale to give them digs–the pandemic followed. I’m not saying it was a cause, or anything.
Betsy DeVos learned that writing checks to people who want her approval and trying to make policy by winning the approval of people who don’t need her money isn’t at all the same thing.
The 2012 Chicago teachers won their strike and won big, despite the active opposition of liberal columnists and wonks, in addition to the usual criticism by education reformers or just conservatives. Obama probably would have supported mayor Rahm Emmanuel in fighting for what were clearly the Administration’s priorities, but he was running for re-election and couldn’t alienate teachers. Yet in the face of all that Democratic establishment support, and the near-complete support of the media, polls showed that over 60% of black and Hispanics, and nearly half of whites, supported the teachers. (I was fascinated by those polls because “an extremely overweight, frowsy, no-bullshit, way the hell left of center black woman virtually coldcocked a younger, relatively good-looking hard ass Democrat mayor who’s best buds with the big O.” Just as had been the case two years earlier, when black voters kicked out Michelle Rhee’s boss so she’d have to be fired, the CTU strike showed the vast gap between the widely bipartisan establishment view of those greedy teachers and the ground view reality of the voters.
Unions lost a number of court cases, but it’s hard to argue it hurt them much. Vergara was overturned. Janus, the victory that conservative have awaited for 30 years, led to a minor loss of union membership but certainly didn’t yield the desired results. Almost immediately after the decision in 2018, a wave of red state teacher strikes proved successful. Unions have very little power in these states, and yet wild-cat unauthorized strikes were successful in winning pay increases. Why? Well, parents supported the teachers and it’s a bit difficult to fire all the teachers in an illegal strike if there aren’t any replacements waiting around.
Meanwhile, during the pandemic, conservatives have been shrieking about the corrupt union hold on public schools and how they are keeping the schools closed despite no covid19 risk. Now, this is also nonsense, but leave the details for another article. The larger point is this: it’s two years past Janus and Republicans are still blaming unions for their money and their power and their chokehold on Democrat policy. Again, nonsense. But what the hell did Janus do, if they’re still bitching?
The Tennessee Achievement School District, which took on all the state’s lowest scoring schools to be fixed and sent on their way by miracle worker Chris Barbic, has crashed and burned. (Barbic got out before anyone noticed.) Mark Zuckerberg and Corey Booker’s handpicked superintendent, Cami Anderson, was run out of town by an angry parent population. Joel Klein left his job running NYC schools after everyone learned that the great test score gains of the previous few years had been due to lowered cut scores. He then ran a Murdoch-owned education company Amplify that was a complete failure, and he’s out of education now as well. Quick: what’s the name of the next two NYC chancellors? You can’t remember, can you? (Cathie Black and, when she flamed out after a few months, Dennis Walcott.) Then diBlasio won, and while Governor Cuomo jerked him around with Success Academy, New York City schools have rolled back a lot of the reform movement.
And it’s no use blaming teachers unions money, either. Pro-charter Marshall Tuck outspent both Tonys, Torlakson and Thormond, for California superintendent and lost both times. In 2012, pro-union underdog Gloria Ritz beat Tony Bennett, literally the education reform idol, for state superintendent in Indiana, despite Bennett outspending her. Then Ritz lost to Republican Jennifer McCormack in 2016–but Jennifer, a special ed teacher, proved very union friendly, siding with the teachers time and again. Meanwhile, Bennett went to Florida to be state commissioner, and was fired in 2013.
It all really did come tumbling down.
Michelle Rhee has, last I checked, completely left education. Wendy Kopp doesn’t have nearly the visibility; her Wikipedia entry ends in 2013. Most of the school “fixers” of the reform era have moved on: Cami Anderson, Christopher Cerf, Chris Barbic, Joel Klein, John King, Tony Bennett. They’re consulting and think tanking, but not getting their hands dirty, and there’s no new generation of “miracle workers” in part because the media has moved left and is much more suspicious of reform.
Reformers move on. They’re movers and shakers. They got shit to do.
You know who’s still in the same job?
Randi Weingarten. Michael Mulgrew. Until recently, Lily Eskalen Garcia.
Go back and look at all those glowing articles on TFA and Success Academy and other reform miracles, and see how many of those earnest purveyors of excellence are still teaching.
Now do the same thing for real teachers, the teachers that the cool people talk shit about.
Remember back in 2010 when the Los Angeles Times evaluated every teacher in LA Unified for their value add, humiliating teachers. Some of those teachers wrote in and protested the entire effort. One of them was Joan Lavery, who was found “less effective than average“. A decade later, Joan’s still teaching with a National Board Certification (which I’m not that impressed by, but hey, she’s still here.) Irma Estrada of Gledhill Elementary got “most effective“. She’s still teaching, too. Rigobuerto Ruelas isn’t teaching, despite a passion that kept him on the job nearly every day for 14 years, but that’s because the LA Times reporting of his “low” achievement impact depressed him to the point of suicide. Yeah, low blow.
Teachers abide, is what I’m saying. A lot of them do, anyway. We just duck down and wait until you all move on.
And so, dear readers, I come to the end of my history. The pandemic was merely a Chinese whisper when I began, while now we have a vaccine but the schools are still closed. And everyone blames unions.
As I’ve said ad nauseum on Twitter, closures are supported by roughly half of non-white parents and about 1 in 4 white parents, meaning that in diverse school districts (translation: most large cities and almost all blue states), roughly half of parents don’t want to open schools. Democrat governors complicate matters with absurd demands that districts follow CDC guidelines, which force them to act as if there’s no vaccine and kids drop over dead the minute they are infected. Unions, being Democrat-run organizations, naturally oppose schools opening in the name of safety. That did them no good in Florida, Texas, or any other red state. They get what they want in blue states and blue cities because the people want the schools closed. It’s that simple.
But meanwhile, all you folks licking your chops at the notion that this, finally, will be the end of public school dominance: remember your history. Don’t get cocky.
Because at the end of the day, you’re trying to kill what the public means when it says public education. The public might not take kindly to your efforts.
Peace out, peeps.
The History of Education Reform:
(and this one)