The Empty Rhetoric of School Reform

Jeff Bryant

It’s getting really hard to look at the distorted rhetoric of today’s debate about public schools and NOT see it in the same whorish light as other political discussions of the day. Just as we’re being stoked with down-is-up claims that tax cuts balance government budgets and giving more money to rich people creates jobs, much of what we hear in the conversation about our nation’s schools reflects the same sort of pretzeled logic where words are turned on their heads and factual evidence is thrown to the wind.

“A set of stock phrases, sound bites, and buzzwords has come to dominate the public discourse on education,” Sean Cavanagh recently observed in the professional trade newspaper Education Week. And although all involved in the debate about our nation’s schools purport to be pushing what’s best for “the children,” it’s hard to believe – after disassembling all the verbiage being thrown around – that something much more cynical isn’t afoot.

Take the term “reform,” for instance. As Cavanagh explains, the word is “summoned reflexively, it often seems, by elected officials and advocates who speak a shared, accepted language.” And those who consider themselves to be the “reformers,” tend to portray themselves as battling a “status quo” that is often identified with teachers’ unions or just “the education establishment.” “The rhetoric,” Cavanagh explains, “tends to divide the world in two: between those who favor ‘reform’ and those who don’t.”

“References to ‘reform’ and ‘status quo’ fill policy papers churned out by advocacy groups and opinion pieces from newspaper editorial boards,” Cavanagh elaborates, “as well as the remarks of forceful and charismatic advocates, such as former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.”

Arrayed under the reformist banner is an agreed-upon policy agenda that tends to include expanding charter schools, evaluating schools and teachers based on high-stakes test scores, standardizing curriculum, recruiting nontraditional teachers, and sanctioning and closing schools that don’t meet specific performance benchmarks. But what’s immediately puzzling about this self-proclaimed “reform” movement is that the policies it seeks to enforce have been, since the last time Federal education policy was revised, the law of the land. And they have been for the past ten years since the passage of that legislation, known as No Child Left Behind.

Furthermore, this nation’s leaders, arguably the most powerful people in the world, in the cockpits of control in Washington DC and state capitals and legislatures – from President Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to state governors such as Chris Christie and Scott Walker – have donned this mantle of being “reformists” battling the “establishment.”

And topping it all off, one of the richest men in the world as well as an array of extremely wealthy foundations have also taken up the brave “reform” cause. So rather than being an “anti-establishment” crowd, reformists, for all intent and purpose, seem to be the establishment.

And who is the “Goliath” that these upstart “Davids” want to take on? It appears to be a bunch of little people who happen to disagree with them. And they appear to have some good reasons.

Many of the ideas that are on the reformists agenda – ideas that have been the law of the land for a decade at least – don’t seem to be panning out too well. As veteran education journalist Ron Wolk recently commented, all these “years of unprecedented effort and enormous expenditures has not improved student performance, reduced the dropout rate, or closed the achievement gap.”

Charter schools, for instance, don’t appear to do any better – and in fact may do worse – than public schools in increasing student achievement. Paying teachers more money if they happen to increase student test scores may actually hurt student achievement. And teachers who come from alternative pathways to the classroom don’t seem to stay around for very long

People at the levers of power in DC and elsewhere continue to maintain that “reforms” are going to take more time. But people who have their ears closest to the ground are skeptical. Although it’s widely reported that classroom teachers are less than pleased with the testing and targets enforced not only in NCLB but also the Obama-Duncan Blueprint, school board members as well don’t share the interests of the “reformists.” In fact, a recent survey of the local officials elected to direct our community schools found very little enthusiasm for the most popular top-down mandates.

Forty percent of the school board members surveyed attached little or no importance to recruiting nontraditional teachers, and more than 50 percent felt that way about increasing within-district school choice. The report also found that 60 percent said the same about a year-round school calendar, and more than 80 percent put little stock in the creation of new charter schools to promote student achievement.
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Nearly 90 percent of the school board members surveyed also said that student success needs to be broadened to include more factors than academic achievement.

And it’s not just teachers and school board members who are wondering whether “everything” that we claim to know about education reform is really wrong.

Last week’s first-ever International Summit on Teaching, convened in New York City, got the attention of Linda Darling-Hammond and many others because it “showed perhaps more clearly than ever that the United States has been pursuing an approach to teaching almost diametrically opposed to that pursued by the highest-achieving nations.”

As Darling-Hammond observed, in nations such as Finland and Singapore, that lead the world in international comparisons of student achievement, there is “no teacher-bashing, no discussion of removing collective bargaining rights, no proposals for reducing preparation for teaching, no discussion of closing schools or firing bad teachers, and no proposals for ranking teachers based on their students’ test scores.”

Echoing this very theme – that current education policies in the US are horribly out of step with countries that lead the world in achievement – a new study released this week enumerated (pdf) the best educational practices from around the world, only one of which – high standards – appears on the national agenda coming from DC. The most glaring difference was on the issue of how our country treats educators. While our country seems preoccupied with how we can pay them less, leading countries expend “substantial amounts of time and money to nurture and develop the talents and leadership abilities of teachers and principals”.

Nevertheless, despite all the evidence otherwise, the reformist agenda for educational policy rolls along unquestioned in the media.

But whether or not you agree with the message of school reform, it’s time to hold these messengers to higher standards. Anyone who cares about public schools or who attempts to report on them needs to make these powerful proponents of questionable policies come out from behind the empty rhetoric of school reform. Anyone making pronouncements on education that prove to be based on questionable claims needs to be questioned about their real intentions. And “being for the kids” doesn’t count.

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