In Friday's Washington Post, Mike Petrilli and Chester Finn, the current and former chiefs of the right-tilted thinky tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute, set out to create a quick, simple history of modern education reform. It's aimed mostly at saying, "Look, we have most of the bugs worked out now!" But it also lays bare just what failed assumptions have been behind fifteen years of failed reformster ideas.
They start by throwing our gaze back a decade to when "US education policies were a mess." Then:
At the core of the good idea was the common-sense insight that if we want better and more equitable results from our education system, we should set clear expectations for student learning, measure whether our kids are meeting them and hold schools accountable for their outcomes, mainly gauged in terms of academic achievement.
And there are most of the problems with the reformsters approach, laid out in one sentence.
if we want better and more equitable results from our education system, we should set clear expectations for student learning
Yeah, that sounds sort of sensible, but the problem that first lurked in the background and then erupted with the advent of Common Core is that the way to make expectations clear is to make them specific, and before you know it, you have one-size-fits-all standards, and one-size-fits-all standards suck in the same way that making all US school students wear a one-size-fits-all uniform and eat one-size-fits-all food.
It is like saying that we can fix the divorce problem in this country by setting clear expectations for getting married and holding everyone to those expectations. Fordham sages tried to get around this with their "tight-loose" formulation, but they failed. Meanwhile, the standards themselves are amateur-hour constructions that take a definite side in arguments that experts don't find at all as neatly settled as the standards assume (e.g. is reading a complex relationship between reader and text, or a set of skills and behaviors-- the Core insists on the latter, but actual educators favor the former).
if we want better and more equitable results from our education system, we should... measure whether our kids are meeting them
Also sounds sort of sensible, and yet we do not know how to do it. It really is as simple as that-- we do not have a large-scale, standardized instrument that can measure all learning for all students in a standardized, one-size-measures-all manner. Instead of asking, "What's the best way to measure critical thinking" test manufacturers have asked "What's something we could do on a standardized mass-administered test that would pass for a critical thinking measure?"
The Fordham has just released a report that tries to argue that the latest next-generation tests are achieving great feats of measurement. They aren't. And trying to measure student learning as if it occurs in just two dimensions on a single track is just such a meager, inadequate, stunted approach as to be useless. Well, worse than useless, because doing it leads some people to think they're actually accomplishing something.
if we want better and more equitable results from our education system, we should... hold schools accountable for their outcomes, mainly gauged in terms of academic achievement.
"Outcomes" just means "test scores," and that, again, is such a truncated, inadequate vision of the mission of US public schools. Ask a taxpayer, "What are you paying schools and teachers to do?" I doubt that you will hear the answer, "Why, just to have students get good test scores. That's it. That's what I'm paying them to do."
This is not to claim or pretend that there are not schools that are failing to fulfill the promise of public education. But that failure belongs not to the schools alone-- student success exists at the confluence of teachers, schools, communities, and local, state, and national leadership. Reformsters have been enthusiastic in their calls to hold teachers and schools accountable, but when it's time to hold state and federal governments accountable for bad regulations, unfunded mandates, and grotesquely inequitable funding of schools, reformsters fall silent. The fans of ed reform could, for instance, devote themselves to ferreting out districts where local and state authorities have underfunded schools to the point that students attend in unsafe crumbling buildings, but that's just not happening.
We know beyond the remotest shadow of a doubt that poverty is a huge factor in education. Not insurmountable, not inescapable, not hopelessly overpowering-- but still a major factor. We know that teachers are a large factor inside schools. But somehow we want to a big accountability hammer to land on teachers, but when it comes to holding anyone "accountable" for poverty, reformsters have nothing to say (well, except for those who suggest that the only people accountable for poverty are poor people).
And about that common-sense insight...
The notion that all of these things-- the clear and specific standards being measured by a test leading to "accountability" measures taken against the schools that come up short-- are common sense? Well, we have to call them "common sense" because we can't call them "evidence based" or "scientifically proven" or even "sure seemed to work well over in Location X" because none of those things are true. They haven't worked anywhere else, and now that we've been trying it for over a decade, we can see pretty clearly that they don't work here, either.
The best we get from reformsters is a circular argument-- "this tool is a valid measure and means of improvement, because when I measure the progress of this tool by using this tool, I see success."
There are other unfounded assumptions underlying the reformster approach that depend on these other bad assumptions. For instance, the whole idea that the power of the free market can be unloosed to improve education rests on the idea that we can measure definitively which are the best schools producing the best students who are taught by the best teachers. But we can no more do that than we can list the hundred best marriages in America, or the hundred best friends.
They remain convinced that we must have one-size-fits-all standards so that we can measure all students against them so that we can compare all students and schools so that we can.... what? We still don't have a real answer. It's common sense. It's something you just have to do, because not doing it clashes with reformsters beliefs about how the world is supposed to work. They literally do not understand how education works, and when they approach the world of education, they feel like OCD sufferers in a museum where all the paintings are hung crooked. They want to "fix" it, and they want to ask the people who work there, "How can you possibly function like this?" They can't see that the paintings aren't crooked at all.
The whole reformster approach is based on measuring a cloud with a meter stick, measuring the weather with a decibel meter, measuring love with a spoon.
Reformsters want to drive the school bus by setting a brick on the gas pedal and strapping the steering when into place, and every time the bus hits a tree, they say, "Oh, well, we just need a next-generation brick, and to fine-tune where we strap the steering wheel into place." They will tweak and improve and re-tweak, and they will keep failing because their approach is fundamentally wrong.