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.