Plain speaking

Edu-agitprop can be unhealthy, Rick Hess wrote last week in considering the season’s education reform movies. As an antidote to simplistic moral crusading, he recommends Fordham’s forthright book on the institute’s efforts to “help launch new schools; to fix broken older schools; to assist needy families to make their way into better education options — and to duke it out with powerful institutional resistances, reform-averse politicians, and adult interests bent on maintaining the status quo.”

Ohio’s Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the Frontlines by Checker Finn, who runs Fordham, Terry Ryan, the vice president for Ohio, and writer Mike Lafferty concedes that reform is hard. Very hard.

The authors showcased their take in a terrific column for Fordham’s Education Gadfly recently, one in which they unapologetically described Fordham’s adventures in charter school authorizing as “humbling.” They recounted, “One of our sponsored schools imploded in a fashion worthy of a Greek tragedy. Just a few years ago, the W.E.B. Dubois Academy in Cincinnati was visited by the (then) governor [and] lauded in the U.S. Senate (as a praiseworthy example of a school narrowing achievement gaps)… But fast forward a few years and the school’s dynamic founder was pleading guilty to five counts of theft in connection with charges that he misused school funds and services to improve his home. The school he founded was closed–for weak academic performance–just last month.”

One of the book’s lessons is that a charter school “has the opportunity to do things smarter and better,” but inept founders may blow it, Hess writes.

Another is that choice doesn’t guarantee quality. “The education marketplace doesn’t work as well as we thought — or as some of our favorite theories and theorists assert,” the Fordham authors admit.

In practice, the authors note that atrocious schools can roll comfortably along for years, fully enrolled–undermining blind confidence that the mere presence of parental choice will serve to encourage academic excellence and discipline lousy schools.

Finally, “they detail how seemingly zealous reformers can quickly morph into defenders of the new status quo, as charter school operators and others find themselves grasping for dollars, resisting accountability, working to stifle competitors, and generally deciding that there’s no need for further change.”

The book isn’t just for Ohioans, Hess writes. It’s for those who “prefer hard truths to airy rhetoric when it comes to improving schools.”

John Merrow of Learning Matters also has a new book, Below C Level: How American Education Encourages Mediocrity – and What We Can Do about It.