Ed reform: Major combat isn’t over

Education reformers seem to be winning the day, but two Education Next commentaries warn against declaring victory.

In A Battle Begun, Not Won, Paul Peterson, Checker Finn and Marci Kanstoroom warn that “nothing can be done at the national level” to transform education.

Most of the crucial decisions about how U.S. schools run and who teaches what to whom in which classrooms are still made in 14,000 semi-autonomous school districts, nearly all of them run by locally elected school boards, often with campaign dollars supplied by those with whom they negotiate collectively, and managed by professional superintendents, trained in colleges of education and socialized over the years into the prevailing culture of public education.

That culture is in no way reform-minded. It believes that educators know best, that elected school boards are the embodiment of democracy in action, that colleges of education are the path to true professionalism, that collective bargaining is necessary to protect teacher rights, and that any failings visible in today’s schools, teachers, and students are either the fault of heedless parents or the consequence of incompetent administrators and stingy taxpayers.

Teachers unions wield great power at the state level, where they’ve blocked or weakened reforms.

In Washington, reforms are limited to Race to the Top, “an executive-branch initiative lacking a clear legislative mandate.” In the new Congress, “more Republicans than ever are worshiping before the false god of local control.”

Union leaders may pose as agents of change, but local unions “almost always kill any but the mildest changes.”

Furthermore, the U.S. public is lukewarm on education reform. Many think other people’s schools are no good but their own children’s schools don’t need changes.

Pyrrhic Victories? by Frederick M. Hess, Michael J. Petrilli, and Martin R. West sees broad but shallow support for reform ideas.  In polls, Americans say they support charter schools — but don’t know what they are.  They want accountability but are reluctant to close low-performing schools or fire ineffective teachers.

Reformers push overly ambitious ideas, risking “Icarus syndrome,” the authors warn. No Child Left Behind’s mistakes could be repeated by Race to the Top, which pushes states to adopt “a very prescriptive set of policy reforms” to get federal funding.

Just as definitions of Adequate Yearly Progress, Highly Qualified Teachers, and other core elements of NCLB, circa 2001, soon grew obsolete and problematic, so too will today’s conventional wisdom around teacher evaluations, charter caps, and all the rest. Rather than encouraging problem solving and policy tinkering, these “shoot the moon” initiatives freeze reform in one moment in time. And they run the risk of backlash if and when early results prove disappointing.

Obsessed with “closing achievement gaps,” reformers “signal to the vast majority of American parents that school reform isn’t about helping their kids.” That’s not the way to build wide support.

We need less cheerleading and more humility, they conclude.

About Joanne


  1. Something MUST be done at the national level to improve education – BUT it won’t come from current “reform” efforts.

    Bill Evers explains why here:

    Bill Evers is a research fellow at Stanford University’ Hoover Institution and member of the institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. He served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education from 2007 to 2009 and was a member of the California Academic Standards Commissions in the late 1990s and again in 2010.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I don’t care if Bill Evers is the fair f***ing godmother. Spitting up a mini-CV like that is obnoxious and makes your post seem like hastily scrawled spam. Maybe even robo-spam. Plus it’s obnoxious in a deeply impersonal way.

    I will not be going to find out what Bill Evers thinks, though he seems like a fine fellow, pun intended.

  3. Mark Roulo says:

    Furthermore, the U.S. public is lukewarm on education reform. Many think other people’s schools are no good but their own children’s schools don’t need changes.

    I think this has been true for decades.

    And until the public decides that the problem isn’t always at someone else’s school I just don’t see much change happening.

    On the other hand, if the parents are, in general, happy, maybe we should stop trying to fix things. Yes, the kids may get a lousy education. But until the parents/students think things need to change, I don’t think that they will.

    And propaganda/marketing campaigns to convince parents that the schools *their* kids are going to suck seem doomed to failure.

    Maybe it is time to back off and just figure that we’ve got what we’ve got.

  4. Michael Lopez, what on earth are you talking about?

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I’m talking about how I find concerned’s post annoying and offensive.

    I have issues with people who are reciting rather than communicating. There’s very little in the world that I hate more than that.

    Have you ever been to a public forum and had people ask the speaker, “I’d like you to speak to (insert canned recitation of questioner’s pet cause’s manifesto here)” ? That’s the same feeling I get from concerned’s post.

    Although I admit I left the “y” out of fairy.

  6. I completely disagree that nothing can be done at the national level… federal funding mandates have done so much to screw up the system.

  7. On the other hand Race To The Top has clearly highlighted the obstructionism of unions with regard to reform.

    At least here in Michigan it has where the MEA’s intransigence cost the state $230 million if RTTT funds. I imagine that’ll be a consideration when union lobbyists sob about how poorly-funded education is in Michigan.

    From a political standpoint RTTT makes NCLB look positively amateurish. The unions are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Damn, that’s terrific.

  8. If union obstructionism is holding back “reform” than why is it the states with the worst results have the weakest teachers’ unions?

    For example, here in Texas the unions are nearly powerless; they cannot collective bargain and teachers cannot strike. Yet, after nearly 2 decades of “reform” Texas ranks horribly against other states.

    Paul Peterson, and Checker Finn are to children, what cancer is to humans. I don’t know enough about the other person mentioned, but if she hangs around with these 2 clowns I have no respect for her already.

  9. If anyone wants to look at serious educational reform, they only need to look at the report – A Nation at Risk which was published in the early 80’s (and it’s follow up report A Nation Still at Risk). We had a blueprint for educational reform, but it hasn’t been followed at all.

    Politicos always jump on the education bandwagon, but seriously, what do ANY of them know about education (or )? I know that each generation always thinks the generation after them is dumber than rocks, but in looking at my parents and my generation, it has become clear that many students graduating today simply do not possess the skills which students who graduated in the mid 80’s and before took for granted (basic math, writing, etc).

    In looking at another posting on here, many students have high ambitions, but in reality, only 27% of all persons aged 21 or older possess a college degree of any sort (and in the post, 3/4th’s said they wanted a masters, Ph.D, or professional degree). Many students never finished a degree (even after 6 years), and a sobering statistic here folks (the more remediation a student needs (2+ classes), the chances of them ever completing a degree of any sort is practically nil.

  10. I don’t think “change the subject” questions like yours will fly in the Michigan legislature the next time the budget comes up for review Mike.

    The union will, as always, demand a bigger slice of the state budget for K-12 but this time around, hanging in the background, will be that $230 million Michigan public education didn’t get specifically because of union intransigence.

    Care to come up with an artful dodge that avoids the unions responsibility for missing out on a couple hundred million federal education dollars here in Michigan? I’m sure some expert excuse-making skill would be welcomed.

  11. Well Allen, first you’ll have to fill me in on what you’re talking about.