Education ‘Reformers’ Have Lost Their PR War, So Now What?

Jeff Bryant

Americans have become accustomed to seeing the figureheads of big-money interests distort reality to suit their needs and get a lot of well-meaning folks to agree with them in turn.

Recall, if you will, as Jonathan Chait recently did in New York magazine, how Wall Street-backed elites “fomented panic” about the national debt and influenced policy leaders to promulgate devastating austerity measures. Now we know their forecasts of imminent financial disaster were wrong and their judgment was in error. Yet their well-honed PR machine continues to buoy their influence forward despite the evidence.

But every once in a while, there are exceptions to the supremacy of wealth-driven messaging, and you see foundational, progressive beliefs that remain resilient among Americans despite what they have been told again and again by the spokespeople of the 1 percent.

For instance, for some thirty years, influential power-brokers and political leaders have tried to convince Americans that their system of public education is broken to the extent it poses a “risk” to the nation’s prosperity – indeed, even a threat to national security.

Despite nearly a generation of browbeating and finger wagging, the efforts of the “education reform” campaign have completely and utterly failed.

Popular opinion appears to be more behind public schools than ever. Few of the measures that have been mandated by self-anointed “reformers” appear to be widely held in favor. And those reform measures that still have some support are not generally well understood by most people and therefore remain shaky.

Even those who have been pressing the case to remake public education into a program dictated by powerful interests are now realizing their campaign needs to be completely retooled. They increasingly realize their calls for an “accountability” agenda based on unfounded measures of “success” are not only counter to what most Americans believe, they aren’t producing anything that even resembles success.

For instance, a recent review by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) of SAT test results – an exam many believe to be a measure of college readiness – found that after years of these “reform” efforts, SAT scores have dropped and gaps in scores among racial groups have widened significantly. So much for “success.”

Fortunately, there are new and better directions being proposed by those who support public education and classroom teachers. And the best way forward for policy leaders and advocates is to push these new ideas into the forefront of public attention.

Support For Public Schools Remains Resilient

Last week, the daily news brief from Politico pointed us to new survey findings that voters “strongly back” increased funding for public schools and express “strong support and admiration for public school teachers.”

The survey, from Democrats for Public Education, “found that 79 percent of Democrats, 57 percent of independents and 45 percent of Republicans support increasing funding for public schools. By contrast, voters express serious doubts about reforms such as online learning, private-school vouchers, parent trigger laws, and handoffs that let private companies take over management of public schools.”

Delving deeper into the results, one finds that “the survey validates that those who castigate public schools and teachers are simply out-of-step and out-of-touch with the American people, parents and voters,” according to the report summary.

“Solid majorities back more funding for public schools and teacher pay, and overwhelming majorities rate local public schools and their teachers highly.” Plus, Americans aren’t at all happy about reform mandates that put “too much emphasis on testing,” threaten teacher “due process”, and push a rigid form of “accountability” that is “solely fixated on tests.”

Although privately operated charter schools – another favored policy point of the reform crowd – remain nominally popular, “there is confusion about them and a mixed verdict on the performance of for-profit charters.” Specifically, there is no common ground on the status – public or private – of charter schools or their academic track record.

The pollsters concluded that education policy ideas “aligned with Democratic or progressive principles” – such as smaller class sizes and increased funding – “test higher than positions normally aligned with reform, including using student scores on standardized tests to evaluate teachers, vouchers, and running schools “like a business.”

Reformers Now Hedge On ‘Reform’

The message that reform fads are fading is not lost on those who’ve claimed the label of reform and have been pushing these measures for years.

Most of the reform fads were originally framed as ways to ensure public schools and classroom teachers were made “more accountable.” As these accountability efforts – including more emphasis on standardized testing and harsher evaluations of teachers –increasingly fare negatively in opinion surveys (the poll conducted by Democrats for Public Education is not an outlier), even reform fans are now coming to the realization they need to rethink their agenda and call for a “new approach” to accountability.

One of the most prominent of those voices, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn, recently observed, “when it comes to statewide standardized testing of the sort that’s become universal in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era, a great many parents – and a huge fraction of teachers – appear to have had enough.”

Unfortunately, the “reboot” Finn prefers seems very similar to the current version: more “choice,” vouchers in the form of “attaching money to the child,” and substituting technology for high-quality teachers. Other aspects Finn outlines for Accountability 2.0 seem more like vague talking points – “transparency-oriented testing based on rigorous standards for the curricular core” (like Common Core?) and “customizing kids’ instructional experience” (without adding more costs for school staff and “customized” instructional materials, of course!) – rather than real accountability measures.

Reform champion Center for Reinventing Public Education admitted, “We are still struggling to get accountability right.” Their proposal, “New Start on Accountability,” stays true to their fervor to press the need for a “system of accountability” – something not generally in dispute – but their new recipe for accountability seems mostly to add more ingredients to the dish – more “indicators” of “progress,” more “options” (without any more money, of course), and more harsh evaluations of “schools, not just individual teachers.”

In reviewing CRPE’s list of “new start” principles, classroom teacher and popular blogger Peter Greene stated, “There is nothing remotely new about the list of Things To Do – it’s the same old, same old reformster stuff we’ve heard before.”

The only plus Greene could give to the reform movement’s “reboot” of accountability was to note that at least they included a “list of problem areas.” Greene added that there are “‘problems’ in the sense that gravity is a problem for people who want to jump naked off high buildings, flap their arms, and not get hurt. … But the recognition of obstacles shows some grasp of reality, and that’s always a nice sign.”

Fresh Ideas Please

While reform fans continue to reboot, renew, restart, etc., the real fresh thinking about education accountability is emerging from other sources.

For some time, Julian Vasquez Heilig has posed a plan for Community-Based Accountability that “would allow for a district to drive a locally based approach that focuses on the process of education for its one-year, five-year, and ten-year goals.” As an example, he offered San Antonio’s Café College resource centers that were developed when the city made higher education enrollment and graduation, rather than high-stakes testing outcomes, a priority.

Heilig returned to that idea more recently in a discussion posted on Education Week in which he said, “A bottom-up approach would enable local communities to focus on a set of multiple measures in addition to, or instead of, standardized high-stakes testing. … The role of the state and federal government would be to calculate baselines, growth, and yearly ratings for a set of goals that communities selected in a democratic process.”

Other examples of community-based accountability he brought up included a High Performance Coalition (HPC) of 20 districts in Texas a plan in 2012 and the recent move by the California Legislature to pass a locally based accountability approach for school finance.

Also in the interest of advancing a more authentic form of education accountability, the National Education Policy Center in Boulder, CO recently announced the Schools of Opportunity project to “recognize public schools for what they do to give all students the chance to succeed, rather than turning to test scores to determine school quality.”

The project, currently being piloted in Colorado and New York but eventually expanding nationwide, will recognize schools that “use research-based practices to close the opportunity gaps that result in unequal opportunities to learn, in school and beyond school.”

In reporting the announcement, Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post wrote, “The people behind the Schools of Opportunity project are Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District in New York, and Kevin Welner, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education who specializes in educational policy and law.”

Strauss republished on her site a post written by Burris and Welner stating, “As schools chase [test] scores, it is easy for us all to lose sight of the factors that truly matter in providing all students with a high-quality education.”

In contrast to that status quo, they expect their project will “recognize public high schools … for creating inputs that help close opportunity gaps and report improved outcomes.” The inputs include eleven practices – such as health and psychological services, fair discipline policies, and high-quality teacher induction and mentoring – that are identified and set forth on a Schools of Opportunity website.

Burris and Welner encouraged schools to apply for the recognition and concluded, “These are the stories we need to tell. These are the practices that should be emulated.”

Where We’re At

Self-proclaimed reformers have realized they may be losing the PR strategy for their campaign to accomplish, well, who knows what.

Unfortunately, that realization has not been accompanied by any fresh thinking on their part about what would be a better way forward. Fortunately, alternative options with real positive potential are emerging if political leaders are ready to take the initiative to advance them.

It’s clear that big money folks have not gotten their way on the nation’s public education agenda. This is both a testament to the strength of the progressive spirit in the country and to the vision that our founders had for a system of schooling that would lift the populace up to a well-informed citizenry capable of supporting a viable democracy.

Anyone who believes in a brighter future for the nation should celebrate this.

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