The utter collapse of ed reform in 2016 and beyond really hasn’t received much notice in the mainstream media, although the conservative branch of the old movement certainly talks about it. So prompted by Spotted Toad, I’m expanding (of course), the rise and eventual fall that I began in response to a question in a comments section. As an aside, if you haven’t read Spotted Toad’s outstanding article referencing this collapse, do so after finishing this piece, however long it becomes, the better to appreciate his sublime analogy.
While education reformers were of both the left (Howard Fuller, Theodore Sizer, Andrew Rotherham) and right (Checker Finn, Rick Hess), the Republican party eventually seized the agenda and made it their own. Most teachers (raises hand) considered the GOP adoption as a weapon to weaken teachers’ unions, but motives aside, the school reform movement was traditionally considered as conservative policy, primarily because teachers, whose unions are very much of the left, were the opposition. But ultimately, education reform efforts in this era were shared and then arguably taken over by Democrats.
Understand that there’s always education reform going on in our country, so I’ll be specific: in the late 80s/90s, several highly influential books created momentum for specific public school reforms. Public education was, these people argued, corrupt, inefficient, incompetent, and expensive. Proposals to address its failures fell into three categories, broadly. First, give parents public money to spend freely on their own educational choices. Second, invest and examine instruction and curriculum. Finally, tie up federal education funds with demands that the dollars are being spent well, holding schools accountable. (For more on choice and accountability, see my thoughts here.)
During the Clinton administration, Democrats were still eager to prove they weren’t McGovern leftists. California and Minnesota already had authorized charter schools by 1993, when Clinton became president. Clinton and Congress passed a new version of the ESEA, Charter Schools Program, which gave a whole bunch of federal money to charter schools. From the start of Clinton’s presidency to the end, charter school growth increased by 1, 992 schools–literally, from 1 to 1, 993.
I was surprised to learn while preparing this piece that most states had authorized charters during the Clinton administration–by my count, 36 states had charter laws and charter schools by the time Clinton left office.
One of the two most famous charter chains and the only one that really tries to reach throughout the nation, KIPP, was founded in 1994–and arguably created the market for charters as selective schools for inner city African Americans and Hispanics whose public schools were chaotic and/or academically undemanding. KIPP’s success, which was originally evaluated without controlled comparisons, seemed miraculous and charter advocates saw an immediately compelling “killer app” (to use the parlance of the times). While many advocates were honestly interested in improving educational outcomes for poor African American and Hispanic students, it’s hard to believe they would have gotten as much funding for their efforts if wealthy conservative organizations didn’t see the growth of charters as a way to wipe out teachers’ unions and their Democratic party donations. It’s hard to escape noticing that neither educational advocates nor charter funders have ever been much interested in improving academic outcomes for poor whites.
Alternative Teacher Credentialing
In 1990, billionaire Ross Perot gave half a million dollars to Wendy Kopp to help her get a new organization,Teach for America, off the ground. Based on the premise that the education gap was created by ignorant teachers, Kopp got corporate funding and political support by making it attractive for elite college graduates to teach for a few years in inner city schools. TFA attracted idealist 22 year olds who also, pragmatically, saw the value of a TFA stint on their resume–as Kopp herself put it, she wanted TFA to be the equivalent of a Rhodes scholar award.
It was during the Clinton era that it first became common to think of public school teachers as dull mediocrities. Credential tests for elementary school teachers started to show up in state requirements by the late 1980s, and the Higher Education Act of 1998 required them. Eager to dethrone ed schools as a means of teacher production, education reformers succeeded in including a requirement for ed schools to publish their credential pass rates, certain that outrage at teacher incompetence would push parents and politicians to join with reformers in demanding alternate education credential paths.
Republicans had been targeting teacher tenure and unions as the obstacles to educational excellence since at least “A Nation at Risk”. But Terry Moe, a Democrat, started making such heresy popular among Democrats (at least the neoliberals, as some called them) in the late 80s. Increasingly, critics of teachers held them responsible for student test scores, and compared them unfavorably to non-union charters.
Another notable development during the Clinton era was the high school exit exam, although the media really only began to notice during the Bush and Obama administrations. A number of states had very simple exit exams (called MCE for minimum competency exam) in the 1970s, but the “Nation at Risk” report led to the cancellation of many of these. Texas instituted a more difficult test in 1985; that’s the earliest I could find of a more typical high school exam requirement. But the rise of the modern high school exit exam is definitely linked to the Clinton administration. Somewere between 24 and 26 states required a high school exit exam by 2002, and increasingly these exams required passage for a diploma.
(note: I added the above the next day.)
Ascending to Glory
In 2000, George W. Bush’s election put school reform in the driver’s seat. For the next dozen years, reformers achieved almost all of their major policy goals with two consecutive, supportive presidents–as my title notes, the era will be named after them. There’s at least one book on the subject already.
No Child Left Behind
The decade started with the rewrite of ESEA famous enough to get its own name: No Child Left Behind. NCLB was bipartisan; Democrats George Miller and Edward Kennedy were co-sponsors. Accountability was always a key component in the education reform agenda. In a nutshell, NCLB required that all students in all categories score at proficient or higher by 2014, leading to the absurd demand that all students be above average. Schools that didn’t meet what was called “adequate yearly progress” in state-defined proficiency were put on “program improvement’; students were allowed to go to any other public school that accepted them. Oddly enough, the threat of students leaving wasn’t all that terrible, as students who wanted to go to charters were already leaving, and public schools weren’t terribly interested in accepting students outside their geographic district. But there was plenty left that was horrible about program improvement, including the never-ending relentless focus on test scores.
TFA had solid growth during the Bush era, although it wasn’t the soaring rates that they’d see next term.
Absolute growth slowed from 2001 to 2011. As a percentage, though, the decline from 2001 to 2011 was steep, slowed slightly but still declined through 2017. Part of this is because most states had authorized charters before the Bush administration; from 2001 to 2008 Iowa, Maryland, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Wyoming authorized charters.
However, charters saw a major boost because of a natural disaster. Education reformers were a little too ecstatic about the “opportunity” provided by Hurricane Katrina, when the Louisiana legislature summarily fired the vast majority of New Orleans teachers, 71% of whom were black women, in order to turn New Orleans’ schools over to the State Recovery District. (More than half of these teachers never taught again.) New Orleans became a predominantly charter school district after that, and less than 50% of its teaching population is black (as of five years ago).
New Orleans became the crucible for education reformers. Finally, they’d been able to completely scrub (one might say bleach) a school district and redefine it the way they thought schools would run. Overwhelmingly, they believed that New Orleans would serve as an impetus for more cities to go full charter, or at least full-scale choice.
Another famous charter network, Success Academy, was founded in 2006 when Eva Moskowitz lost her election for the NYC council and needed a backup job.
Charters were still being primarily targeted as a method to improve black and Hispanic student outcomes, but Summit Prep in the Bay Area, California was began as a suburban charter in 2003.
School and district takeovers continued to be an important strategy to institute charters and choice. TFA alum Michelle Rhee was appointed the head of Washington DC schools by mayor Adrian Fenty after the DC Board of Education was stripped of its power. Joel Klein, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s support, instituted choice throughout the NYC school system and supported dramatic growth in charters.
The outcry against ed schools got stronger, aided in no small part by the National Council on Teacher Quality (which, in my view, is the educational equivalent of the Southern Poverty Law Center). Founded in 2004, NCTQ is well-known for providing research fodder for sympathetic education reformers that is generally ignored by teachers, even more than they ignore most research.
NCLB built on the 1998 Higher Education Act to require that all states define “highly qualified teachers” that test in through credential test or other rigorous standard. In many states, middle school teachers had to meet the same requirements as high school teachers (although existing teachers were grandfathered in). The credential test created significant challenges for new black and Hispanic teachers.
One crushing blow, however, to ed school critics, was the failure of the 1998 HEA to create an ed school ranking system. Ed schools were required to publish their graduates’ credential test pass rate which critics expected to be low for many schools. This, they hoped, would create a ranking system and thus an opening for alternate credentialing programs to break the near-monopoly of university-based ed schools. Alas, ed schools bit hard on a bullet and simply denied diplomas to any ed school candidates who couldn’t pass the credential tests. Thus, the vast majority of ed schools had a 100% pass rate, and alternative ed school programs simply copied the prevailing requirements. Curses! foiled again.
However, this new ed school policy, coupled with NCLB’s demands for teacher quality, led to many black and Hispanic teachers losing their jobs. In the 90s, ed schools simply issued diplomas to everyone who completed a program, leaving the credential test an open issue. Teachers who couldn’t pass the tests (a disproportionately black and Hispanic population) just applied for an emergency credential and kept teaching with that, sometimes for years. No Child Left Behind eliminated the emergency credential, thus forcing teachers, sometimes with a decade or more experience, to take the credential tests.
So this became much longer than I expected. I split it into two sections.