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School ‘Reform’: A Failing Grade

Eli Reed/Magnum Photos
Children on the playground of Fairbanks Elementary School, Springfield, Missouri

It is a well-known fact that American education is in crisis. Black and Hispanic children have lower test scores than white and Asian children. The performance of American students on international tests is mediocre.

Less well known are contrary facts. The black–white achievement gap, as a recent report put it, “is as old as the nation itself.” It was cut in half in the 1970s and 1980s, probably by desegregation, increased economic opportunities for black families, federal investment in early childhood education, and reductions in class size.1

Another little-known fact is that American students have never performed well on international tests. When the first such tests were given in the mid-1960s, our students usually scored at or below the median, and sometimes at the bottom of the pack. This mediocre performance is nothing to boast about, but it is not an indicator of future economic decline. Despite our students’ mediocre test scores, the nation’s economy has been robust for most of the past half-century. And the news is not all terrible. On the latest international test, the Program for International Student Assessment, American schools in which fewer than 10 percent of the students were poor outperformed the schools of Finland, Japan, and Korea. Even when as many as 25 percent of the students were poor, American schools performed as well as the top-scoring nations. As the proportion of poor students rises, the scores of US schools drop.2

To put the current “crisis” into perspective, it is well to recall that American education was in crisis a century ago, when urban schools were overcrowded, swamped with students from Eastern and Southern Europe who didn’t speak English. The popular press at that time warned that the nation was being overrun by a human tide from inferior cultures, and the very survival of our nation was supposedly at risk.

Then there was the crisis of the 1950s: influential authors such as Rudolf Flesch and Arthur Bestor bemoaned the sorry state of the schools in the early 1950s, and other critics such as Admiral Hyman Rickover blamed them when the Soviets launched Sputnik into orbit in 1957. Since then, the schools have been in nearly constant crisis. In the 1960s, civil rights leaders condemned the public schools for institutionalized racism. In the 1970s, critics like Charles Silberman discerned a “crisis in the classroom” and flayed the schools for “mindlessness.” In 1983, a national commission convened by US Secretary of Education Terrell Bell declared that “a rising tide of mediocrity” in the public schools put the nation at risk. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush convened the nation’s governors to agree on national goals for education. Since then, political leaders have agreed that what is needed to improve education is greater accountability, based on standardized tests.

A decade ago, President George W. Bush satisfied the demand for testing and accountability by proposing the legislation now known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), passed by Congress in 2001 and signed into law by President Bush in January 2002. It mandated that every public school in the nation must test all children in reading and mathematics from grades three through eight and classify the scores by racial and ethnic groups (white, African- American, Latino, Asian-American, Native American, etc.), low-income students, students with disabilities, and students with limited English skills. By 2014, every student in every category was expected to reach proficiency in those subjects, as defined by each state and measured by standardized tests selected by each state, or the school would face a series of escalating sanctions, culminating in firing part or all of the staff, closing the school, or handing control of the school over to the state or to private management.

Because of its utopian goals, coupled with harsh sanctions, NCLB has turned out to be the worst federal education legislation ever passed. Recently, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan predicted that more than 80 percent of the nation’s public schools would be labeled “failing” this year by federal standards, including some excellent schools in which students (usually those with disabilities) were not on track to meet the target. By 2014, if the law is unchanged, very few public schools will not be labeled “failures.” No nation has ever achieved 100 percent proficiency for all its students, and no state in this nation is anywhere close to achieving it. No nation has ever passed a law that would result in stigmatizing almost every one of its schools. The Bush-era law is a public policy disaster of epic proportions, yet Congress has been unable to reach consensus about changing it.

The Obama administration has offered to grant waivers from the onerous sanctions of NCLB, but only to states willing to adopt its preferred remedies: privately managed charter schools, evaluations of teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores, acceptance of a recently developed set of national standards in reading and mathematics, and agreement to fire the staff and close the schools that have persistently low scores. None of the Obama administration’s favored reforms—remarkably similar to those of the Bush administration—is supported by experience or evidence.

Most research studies agree that charter schools are, on average, no more successful than regular public schools; that evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores is fraught with inaccuracy and promotes narrowing of the curriculum to only the subjects tested, encouraging some districts to drop the arts or other nontested subjects; and that the strategy of closing schools disrupts communities without necessarily producing better schools. In addition, the “Common Core State Standards” in reading and mathematics that states must adopt if they hope to receive a waiver from the US Department of Education have never been subjected to field-testing.

So, yes, there is a crisis in education, a crisis caused by ill-considered federal legislation that sets utopian targets and then punishes schools and educators when they cannot meet impossible goals. As a result, cheating scandals have been discovered in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Baltimore, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. Some people do terrible things when faced with unreasonable targets and draconian punishment.

The response to the current crisis in education tends to reflect two different worldviews. On one side are those who call themselves “reformers.” The reformers believe that the schools can be improved by more testing, more punishment of educators (also known as “accountability”), more charter schools, and strict adherence to free-market principles in relation to employees (teachers) and consumers (students). On the other are those who reject the reformers’ proposals and emphasize the importance of addressing the social conditions—especially poverty—that are the root causes of poor academic achievement. Many of these people—often parents in the public school system, experienced teachers, and scholars of education—favor changes based on improving curriculum, facilities, and materials, improving teacher recruitment and preparation, and attending to the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children. The critics of test-based accountability and free-market policies do not have a name, so the reformers call them “anti-reform.” It might be better to describe them as defenders of common sense and sound education.

Steven Brill’s Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools celebrates the improbable consensus among conservative Republicans, major foundations, Wall Street financiers, and the Obama administration about school reform. Brill, a journalist and entrepreneur, portrays the leaders of today’s reform movement as heroes. They include Wendy Kopp, who created Teach for America (TFA) and raised some $500 million for the organization over the past decade; Jonathan Schnur, whom he credits as the architect of the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion competition called Race to the Top; Michelle Rhee, chancellor of schools in the District of Columbia from 2007 to 2010; Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City public schools from 2002 to 2010 and now chief adviser to Rupert Murdoch; Eva Moskowitz, leader of the Harlem Success Academy charter school chain; and David Levin and Michael Feinberg, founders of the KIPP charter schools.

Brill also lavishly praises the billionaire equity investors and hedge fund managers who have financed the reform movement, including Whitney Tilson, Ravenel Boykin Curry IV, John Petry, and Joel Greenblatt. Brill writes reverentially about their glamorous world. Curry, for example,

seems the typical preppy socialite. He and his wife have homes in Manhattan (Central Park South), East Hampton, and the Dominican Republic. His father, Ravenel Curry III, also runs a money fund. He and his wife frequently appear in society columns, and she’s a well-known high-end interior decorator.

A graduate of Yale and the Harvard Business School, Curry is deeply involved in school reform.

The financiers of public school reform described here live in a world of spectacular wealth. They believe in measurable outcomes; their faith in test scores is greater than that of most educators, who understand that standardized tests are not scientific instruments and that scores on the tests represent only a small part of what schools are expected to accomplish. The Wall Street men have found a cause that is both “exciting and fun” and, as Curry IV puts it, “because so many of us got interested in this at the same time, you get to work with people who are your friends.” It is unlikely that any of them have close personal connections to public education, yet they have made it their mission to change national education policy. School reform is their favorite cause, and they like to think of themselves as leaders in the civil rights movement of their day, something unusual for men of their wealth and social status.

In 2005, the financiers formed an organization called Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) to promote ideas such as choice and accountability that were traditionally associated with the Republican Party. They set out to change Democratic Party policy, which in the past, as they saw it, was in thrall to the teachers’ unions and was committed to programs that funneled federal money by formula to the poorest children. DFER used its bountiful resources to underwrite a different agenda, one that was not beholden to the unions and that relied on competition, not equity.

While it was easy for the Wall Street tycoons to finance charter schools like KIPP and entrepreneurial ventures like Teach for America, what really excited them was using their money to alter the politics of education. The best way to leverage their investments, Brill tells us, was to identify and fund key Democrats who would share their agenda. One of them was a new senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, who helped launch DFER at its opening event on June 3, 2005. The evening began with a small dinner at the elegant Café Gray in the Time Warner Center in New York City, then moved to Curry’s nearby apartment on Central Park South, where an overflow crowd of 150 had gathered.

DFER also befriended Congressman George Miller from California, the powerful leader of the Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee. DFER supported Cory Booker, who eventually became mayor of Newark. A DFER fund-raiser produced $45,000 for Congressman James Clyburn, “the most influential member of the Congressional Black Caucus,” who returned home to South Carolina to champion tuition tax credits and charter schools. Brill writes that DFER sent a memo to the Obama team immediately after the presidential election, naming its choice for each position. At the top of its list, for secretary of education, was Arne Duncan.

  1. 1

    Michael T. Nettles, Preface, in Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley, The Black–White Achievement Gap: When Progress Stopped (Education Testing Service, 2010), p. 2, available at www.ets.org. 

  2. 2

    Howard L. Fleischman, Paul J. Hopstock, Marisa P. Pelczar, and Brooke E. Shelley, Highlights from PISA 2009: Performance of US 15-Year-Old Students in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy in an International Context (National Center for Education Statistics, December 2010), p. 15, available at nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2011004. 

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