Education Reformers Keep Pushing the Same Old Stuff

One of the people I respect most, in edu-journalism, is Joan Richardson. Mostly, this is because I used to read her fine pieces in the Detroit Free Press, and later, her work as editor of Kappan magazine, and she always seemed like the epitome of a concept that gets lots of lip service but is rarely achieved: fair and balanced.  Plus—she once met me for coffee, and afterward, sent lots of questions and even some writing assignments my way, looking for the perspective of an actual teacher.

So when I saw her applauding Mike Petrilli’s overblown puff piece about what education reformers believe, I was surprised:

This piece is written by a conservative with whom I rarely find common ground. But he’s done a stunning job of capturing the key issues in education reform today. While I remain fervently opposed to charter schools, I agree with virtually everything else in this essay, and would love to hear others talk about this.

You asked for it, Joan.

Petrilli starts strong, with a list of universal beliefs about education: Education is key to a truly democratic nation, every child deserves a good school, teachers are important and worthy of gratitude, and post-secondary education does not necessarily need to involve a college degree for success in life.

Bravo. But in the very next paragraph he goes directly to the Reformers’ Motto: There are only two perspectives around educational change—the (noble, innovative) ed reformers’ and the (recalcitrant, bottom of the barrel) status quo.

The counter-principle has been expressed ad nauseum, in books, articles and panel discussions for two decades, but I guess it must be said again: Most current educators—the ones who want to see their schools change, improve and thrive—cannot be included in that ‘status quo’ bucket. Andrea Gabor just wrote a book with multiple examples of how teachers and school leaders did just that—innovated with positive, even amazing, results. And none of them were ‘ed reformers,’ working for deep-pockets non-profits, following the Fordham playbook. Nobody likes the status quo, Mr Petrilli.

Petrilli’s next bullet points:

Good schools deliver strong results for students—and all schools should be held to account for their results. Petrilli doesn’t define, in his explanatory paragraph, precisely what those results look like, but instead meanders about saying that some schools have caring adults and happy kids but they’re not meeting their education mission. This is code language for ‘test scores.’ So all that work toward helping kids love learning and develop self-confidence, all the investment in books and a clean and inviting learning space? Meaningless unless the data threshold is met.

Our schools as a whole could be delivering much stronger results for all their students, but especially for disadvantaged children. Hard to disagree with this, but Petrilli’s rationale is muddied by questionable statistics—only one-third of American kids read at the (undefined) proficient level, kids aren’t ready for college, and so on. We all think that too many kids of color and kids in poverty are underserved. The question is what to do about it—and that’s where reformers, whose bright ideas (like siphoning kids out of underperforming public schools into no-excuses charters) haven’t worked well, might want to re-think.

One size does not fit all, so we should embrace a pluralistic school system. That sounds SO good, doesn’t it? It sounded good to Al Shanker when he first proposed charter schools, 31 years ago. The fact is, we have always had a pluralistic school system. There were private independent schools and exclusive boarding schools and religious schools—and public schools. And enormous (one might say pluralistic) variance between the public schools—kids in Connecticut, Wyoming and Alaska experience public education very differently. As they should.

In fact, what has impeded pluralistic, custom-tailored education is the uptick in federal influence and top-down policy: Common Core standards, competitive grants for states that mostly closely follow federal guidelines, mandated standardized tests (which, in turn, standardized curriculum), shifting public money to privately-managed CMOs. School leaders who are eager to innovate often have to do so while skirting or ignoring state and federal policy. Not to mention the ‘same goalposts’ mantra adopted by the education reform community: Test scores are real, and that should drive change, nationally.

Side note: ‘Pluralistic’ must be the new code word for ‘charter.’

Petrilli winds up the paper with a classic reformy blueprint for how reformers are going to change Ed World. Seeing as how they’ve had little positive—and plenty of negative—impact in the past two decades, this feels like a combination of bravado and re-hashing all their ineffective policy ideas.

Some highlights:

Academic standards that aim for readiness in college, career, and citizenship.
We already have these, of course, and states are rapidly fleeing from them, or disguising them with new titles because they’ve invested so much in materials and assessments.  Standards can be useful—but the Common Core can’t produce anything remotely close to ‘readiness for citizenship.’ Only high-quality instruction, caring adult role models and a functioning community can do that. The same goes for CCSS-‘aligned assessments’ (‘Tests worth preparing for!’) and school rating systems.

Another side note: Petrilli–no fool–never mentions the Common Core in this mini-manifesto.

Strategies for intervening in, and/or replacing, chronically low-performing schools. Petrilli equivocates a bit here, saying that some reformers are still willing to try to save chronically low-performing schools, although grants have dried up. Others, of course, demand that we close these down and replace them, now, probably with charters. The entire ed-reformy mess in, say, New Orleans or Detroit, seems to have escaped reformers’ notice.  There are plenty of strategies for intervention in low-performing schools and virtually all of them begin with an infusion of cash and resources that won’t go away when the grant ends. Nor are leadership or community input into saving these schools mentioned.

Educator quality.  Petrilli suggests that we reject the view that anyone can become a great teacher, regardless of their training—although he’s predictably not a fan of traditional teacher preparation. In fact, it’s hard to discern exactly who he thinks should be in the classroom and front office, beyond the ‘well-educated’ who arrive at their teaching placements via ‘flexible pathways.’ I take that to mean that only some Teach for America corps members or similar recruits with degrees from prestigious colleges are worth keeping, long-term.

For Petrilli, good teaching is all about the smarts and the willingness to accept feedback toward their growth as an educator. I basically agree with that (although I would never define intelligence by test scores or attending a big-name college)—people who aren’t curious, humble, and determined to keep improving shouldn’t pursue teaching.

I should point out that these promising candidates also expect to be compensated with a living wage and supported by their colleagues and administrators as they work toward excellence, a big factor in beefing up the teacher pipeline. Petrilli says no teacher should get tenure unless they’ve proven to be ‘effective’—but again, what that means is murky.

Charter Schools Here, Petrilli, is on familiar turf and goes, full-tilt, into a defense of the Very Best Charters, without examining what diverting public funds to privately managed schools has wrought, across the country. He uses words like ‘onerous’ and ‘oversight’—concepts that have somehow not managed to reliably manifest themselves in states with low-regulation charter legislation. He makes his shaky case even weaker by demanding MORE money for charter schools, claiming they could do so much more if we just ‘fairly’ funded them.

It’s at this point that anyone reading this defense of education reform might be tempted to say: Hey. You’ve had close to twenty years to prove that weakening teacher pathways into the classroom, establishing ‘rigorous’ standards and assessments, shutting down low-performing schools and experimenting with private school governance models work.

They don’t work. We now have (unfortunately) plenty of evidence, and more rolls in daily.

But there’s more.  Petrilli tucks a few Suggestions for High Schools into his closing paragraphs. One is ‘a diploma that means something’—a concept we were arguing about when I started teaching, in the 1970s. Good luck with defining that one or proving that holding back the foundational block for a young citizen to get a job and start being an adult has done anything worthwhile for society.

He also encourages early college programs (OK) and Advanced Placement courses and International Baccalaureate models in high schools (each worth a column by itself, but not The One Answer to improving high school for the vast majority of kids).

And then—he quietly suggests that we start to ‘personalize’ education to let each student ‘move at his own pace.’  Which may be our hint that ed reformers are jumping on the one-kid/one-computer teach-yourself education bandwagon as the Next Big Thing.

Finally, there are a few potshots at the difference between right-wing (‘character, morality and patriotism’) reforms and left-wing (‘social justice and creative expression’) reforms. And finally—the frosting on the cake—he sticks a toe into the idea that private and religious schools should also get public money.

In case you were wondering what education reformers were up to these days, that’s a summary of Fordham’s big, innovative ideas. Comments?

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13 Comments

    1. She *did* invite me to respond. And–if this is any kind of defense–if you only read the bullet points, it sounds kinda, sorta like a plan to re-think, re-imagine, deliver strong results, aim for citizenship readiness, yada yada. And his stuff that everyone agrees on is true.

      Still, if this is the best that reformers can muster in March 2019, I might be willing to believe that the ed reform movement is bankrupt.

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  1. Thanks, Nancy. I am running my old comic strips from 2001 on my website, and nothing has changed in 18 years – except the names for things. It’s pretty depressing, but all we can do is keep telling the truth. Thanks for doing so.

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  2. The “citizenship” piece worries me. While it’s actually one of the big motivating reasons I teach, as it is with a lot of social studies teachers, I don’t like that reformers are grabbing this language for a couple reasons. 1- It makes me think they’re coming for social studies next, which will be…mixed at best for a subject largely ignored in all the testing mania. But mostly I worry that 2- they’re using low reading test scores to claim that people can’t read, and therefore shouldn’t be citizens/voters/etc. It hasn’t been THAT long since we had “literacy” tests to determine voting eligibility (I hope we all remember the racism behind those) and this feels like language designed to take us in that direction when it comes from reformers.

    Or maybe it’s just another case of them stealing language from passionate educators in hopes that we and our supporters will come to their side, and I’m just chicken little-ing.

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    1. I’m an admirer of the Fitzfinkle world, so keep re-running those old strips. You’re right–the only thing to do is to keep telling the truth.

      I have been teaching a graduate course and doing smaller-scale workshops for over 10 years on ‘Teacher as Change Agent.’ It happens over and over again– teachers in the course say the same things: We need teachers at the policy-making table! When will they listen to us? We have expertise that could inform policy! Genuine teacher leadership could make everything so much better!

      It feels like a new concept to them–teachers leading! Unfortunately, we’ve been talking about that for over 20 years, and not much has happened.

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  3. LT–The citizenship piece worries me, too. I’m so used to seeing ‘college and career’ that it was jarring to see ‘citizenship’ in the line-up. And I think you’re right–they’re finally getting around to the idea of developing standards and tests for social studies, to complete the Big Four, Either that, or they’re planning to blame the mess our country is in on social studies teachers (I’m not joking–remember, Condoleezza Rice called public education a national security risk).

    At one time, I would have been highly skeptical of your theory that we could return to literacy tests–but not any more. The stuff that happened in the last election was downright chilling. Vacating the Voter Rights Act? Scary.

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  4. Here are some ideas I drew from John Dewey’s Experience and Education this weekend:
    You cannot train for an uncertain future. It destroys meaning in the current experience.
    Current experiences should be worthwhile and provide growth. (And that means teaching what students want to know now…not later.)
    The meaning of an education can only be determined at maturity. (And not by a test.)
    and there is “…no such thing as educational value in the abstract.” (And I believe that our past reform initiatives made EVERYTHING an abstraction, and therefore did not educate.)
    Sigh. I do believe teachers can be grown, especially if they work with and are trained by teachers who are effective first.

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    1. All good stuff, Mary. But it’s the first one that catches my interest. When I think of all the times I have been told–by a ‘reformer’–that we’re training kids for jobs we can’t yet imagine, and that our century-old ‘factory model’ schools are what’s crushing their creativity and intellect, it makes me cringe.

      We have completely lost the idea that education is a universal public good–that having an educated citizenry is our ultimate goal, not job training or credentialing. And I agree that teachers can be grown–if they’re curious and humble and willing to keep improving. What Petrilli seemed to be saying was that in order to be ‘well-educated,’ teachers needed to attend a ‘good’ college or university. That’s perhaps the most discouraging thing about his manifesto, the dividing of teachers into ‘well-educated’ and ‘not good enough’ buckets.

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      1. I also agree that teachers can be grown, but I think the most important characteristic they need to begin with is caring – about the students, about making a difference – and empathy.

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  5. After nearly two decades of reform failure, its time to ask: Why does anyone still listen to fools like Peteilli? His soapbox has collapsed yet he continues to spew BS while buried in the rubble. Sorry Mike, but you and your ilk are now complaining about the failure of a system that you created. The standards-based, test and punish model wss the wrong tool for the wrong job – and you could not have gotten it more wrong. The curtain has been pulled back on the charlatan charter solution and now your personalized learning sales pitch is exposing you as wildly ignorant of classroom dynamics and the mind set of young adolescents. Please just stop with the edu-meddling and just go away.

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    1. I know your question–Why does anyone still listen to Petrilli?–is rhetorical, but let’s unpack it.

      Why does anyone still listen, if the ideas are stale and proven ineffective? Well–follow the money. Who’s paying Petrilli to write stuff like this (because you know he wouldn’t be writing, if there weren’t a revenue stream supporting it)? Who wants these ideas to be out there, and widely disseminated? Even as evidence rolls in that charters are an open playing field for corruption, profit-making and school-to-prison-pipeline practice, there are still plenty of private funders who want to see money going to charters, and away from public schools. Who are those people–and what’s in it for them?

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