Education Reform: Warnings Confirmed, But Lessons Learned?

Soon after I began my career as an educator in 1984, I became a serious cyclist. An unexpected hobby sprang from that newfound activity—being my own bicycle mechanic. In fact, over the past three-plus decades, I have built up dozens of road bicycles from the parts for myself and my friends.

In the last 1990s, I bought my first titanium road frameset made by Litespeed. Not long after I began riding it, I noticed an irritating creaking sound and soon learned that the different metals involved in the various parts often created such problems, notably mating aluminum bottom bracket cups with the threaded titanium bottom bracket.

Several times, I rebuilt that bottom bracket fitting, cleaning, changing greases, and even using thread tape. I worked on the bicycle while mounted on my indoor trainer, and each time, when I tested the bicycle there, the noise was gone.

However, once on the open road, the same creaking returned.

Frustrated, I resigned myself to taking the bicycle to a shop mechanic. Like I did, he rebuilt the bottom bracket, multiple time, but each time he went out to test the bicycle, the creaking noise persisted.

After spending an inordinate amount of time fruitlessly working on the bottom bracket, the mechanic called me to report that he eventually discovered the noise was coming from the quick releases on the wheels. In fact, he also shared in exasperation that the mating of aluminum quick releases to titanium dropouts was a common noise problem.

The moral of this story? The mechanic and I were so focusing on a solution that we failed to properly evaluate the problem in the beginning. For the professional mechanic, this was particularly disturbing because he obsession with one solution clouded his ability to properly diagnose the situation.

For me, there is an added lesson: My process also failed because the bicycle was mounted on my trainer, which clamped the quick releases and created a false environment for testing the problem and the solution.

Overlapping my career as an educator and avocation as a cyclist have been nearly four decades of education reform in the U.S.

Recently, an interesting phenomenon has occurred, well reflected in this commentary from Education Week, Education Reform as We Know It Is Over. What Have We Learned?, that proclaims:

The education reform movement as we have known it is over. Top-down federal and state reforms along with big-city reforms have stalled. The political winds for education change have shifted dramatically. Something has ended, and we must learn the lessons of what the movement got right—and wrong.

Contemporary education reform in the U.S. has followed a pattern typified by those driving the reform wearing blinders and ear plugs. Around the early 1980s, with the publication of A Nation at Risk, the accountability era began, grounded in standards, high-stakes testing, and a laser focus on holding students and their schools accountable.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when I was a public school English teacher, that accountability movement marched forward, driven mostly by state political initiatives that seemed more committed to the next-generation standards and tests than to any sort of goals (which changed perpetually also).

Despite the disconnect between the promises and outcomes of accountability-based education reform, there were huge political benefits to accountability, best represented by George W. Bush translating the “Texas miracle” (which was thoroughly debunked as no “miracle”) during his tenure as governor of Texas into No Child Left behind as a signature feature of his two-term presidency.

Education reform shifted from a state initiative to a federal one with NCLB—but the outcomes remained quite underwhelming when compared to the promises associated with ever-new standards and tests as well as market-based solutions such as school choice, charter schools, and teacher evaluations linked to testing.

The presidency of Barack Obama may have best captured the failure that is education reform committed to accountability since Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan embraced and expanded the policies and ideologies begun under Bush—Common Core as the next-generation standards and concurrent next-generation testing, teacher evaluations linked to those tests and the Brave New World of value-added methods to identify the best teachers and remove the worst, and the rampant expansion of charter schools (although research repeatedly shows that type of schools—private, public, or charter—is not correlated with outcomes).

Throughout these four decades, political leaders and the media have pounded the same drum none the less—schools are failing in the U.S., teachers and administrators practice the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” and ratcheting up accountability with better standards and more testing will create schools that are “game changers,” proving finally that “ZIP codes are not destiny” in the U.S.

Education reform in this accountability era became mostly hollow sloganism—”no excuses” and “zero tolerance” as a couple more examples.

Yet, all along the way, educational scholars/researchers and classroom teachers firmly and consistently refuted nearly all of the claims of crisis as well as warned political solutions would not bear fruit.

And we were right.

In 2019, the crisis rhetoric of the Reagan era is no different than the complaints about U.S. public schools today.

Four decades of in-school only reform focusing on accountability have accomplished very little except to insure that children are left behind and to drive away legions of professional educators who can simply no longer labor under false narratives and impossible teaching and learning conditions.

The history of public education combined with the current accountability era of schooling in the U.S. has offered, in fact, some sobering realities about universal public education in the service of democracy.

Those sobering realities are simply so harsh against the myths that many in the U.S. embrace that we refuse to start our education reform by carefully identifying the problems and the causes of those problems—much as the bicycle mechanic and I wasted our time and energy on my bicycle creaking, much as I worked in a false environment to try find a solution.

Here’s one slogan you won’t hear too often: Public education has not failed its promise to U.S. democracy; we have failed public education.

And here’s another slogan you won’t hear, maybe at all: Public schools do not change society; public schools reflect and perpetuate all aspects of the communities and societies they serve.

Tax-funded community schools reflect in almost every way the challenges, flaws, and advantages found the communities they serve. Schools, regardless of the idealistic rhetoric, do not change their communities, or the children who walk their halls.

For just one example, my foundations in education students tutor in a nearby high-poverty majority-minority middle school. As we debriefed today on the last day of class, several students noted that they felt frustrated in the classes they were assigned because those students have had a revolving door of substitute teachers and spend many days without lesson plans or a clear focus on what they are doing.

I noted that high-poverty students often experience a great deal of transience and instability in their lives outside of schools, and were then having the same sort of unstable experiences at school.

That is not a game changer—but a game perpetuator.

In my 35th year as an educator, with over twenty-five as a scholar/researcher, I am deeply skeptical that anyone with the power to reform education or to reform the education reform movement has in fact learn the lessons I lay out above, or the ones addressed by Van Schoales in EdWeek.

The accountability paradigm was destined to fail because the problems with our schools had little to do with a lack of accountability. But this current era of reform has also done immeasurable harm to students, teachers, and public education.

Not only must we finally admit that education problems are a subset of social inequity, but also we must find ways to address that unnecessary harm done during decades of misguided reform—including billions of tax dollars wasted.

Those of us ignored during these times had the problems identified all along—gross inequities grounded in systemic poverty, racism, and sexism.

The education reform needed, then, is a herculean task that involves policies addressing social inequities along with educational inequities, and frankly, I doubt we have the political courage in the U.S. to acknowledge this or to do anything substantive about it.

I envision education reform 2.0 with blinders and ear plugs still firmly in place—and an annoying creaking providing the soundtrack.

See Also

An Alternative to Accountability-Based Education Reform

Thomas, P. L., Porfilio, B.J., Gorlewski, J., & Carr, P.R. (eds.). (2014). Social context reform: A pedagogy of equity and opportunity. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lost in Translation: English Learners, One Study, and the Dangers of Translating Research into Practice