Tuesday, May 9, 2023

The End of Ed Reform and a Clue For Dems

Yesterday the Washington Post ran a piece from Perry Bacon, Jr., (whose usual beat is not education), and I cannot encourage you enough to read it. ‘Education reform’ is dying. Now we can actually reform education echoes many points already made by folks in the edu-sphere, but it does so in the context of a quick history of modern ed reform that is as compact as anything I've read. The opening paragraph tells the story:

America’s decades-long, bipartisan “education reform” movement, defined by an obsession with test scores and by viewing education largely as a tool for getting people higher-paying jobs, is finally in decline. What should replace it is an education system that values learning, creativity, integration and citizenship.

Bacon points out the effect of A Nation At Risk in focusing reform on measurables and a bipartisan support for education as an economic fix, as well as putting all the responsibility for fixing racism and its effects on schools "thereby shifting responsibility for Black advancement from the government to individual African Americans, as Republicans wanted." Racial, economic and education policy all tied up in one package.

That, as virtually everyone has noticed, didn't work. So the GOP has shifted to a policy of burn it all down and privatize the ashes, while Dems are just sort of stuck, unable to articulate much of a vision because they've still got ed reform smell all over them. Bacon gives Dems more credit than they deserve, but he uses the point to set up a real articulation that I really like:

I certainly prefer the “teachers, professors and public schools are good” perspective (the Democratic one) over “teachers, professors and public schools are bad” (the Republican one). But neither is a real vision for American education.

Here’s one: Our education system should be about learning, not job credentialing. Schools and universities should teach Americans to be critical thinkers, not automatically believing whatever they heard from a friend or favorite news source. They should make sure Americans have enough understanding of economics, history and science to be good citizens, able to discern which candidate in an election has a better plan to, say, deal with a deadly pandemic. They should foster interest and appreciation of music, arts and literature.

They should be places where people meet and learn from others who might not share their race, class, religion or ideology. Our schools and universities should of course also provide people the core skills for jobs that actually require higher education. They should provide a path to becoming a doctor, lawyer, professor or any profession that requires specialized training without going into debt.

What our education system should not be is 16 years of required drudgery to make sure that you can get a job with stable hours and decent benefits — or a punching bag for politicians who have failed to do their jobs in reducing racial and economic inequality.

Not bad.

Reformsters are going to argue (already doing it on the tweeter) that calling ed reform dead is silly because they are currently getting vouchers and school choice bills and gag laws passed left and right (well, definitely right, anyway), and Bacon doesn't answer that directly.

Here's the thing. Vouchers are not ed reform. School choice is not ed reform. And various versions of gag laws and reading suppression rules are definitely not about reform. These are not about reforming the US education system-- they're about dismantling it and replacing it a privatized market-based system.

There was a time when ed reformsters and privatizers were all sort of mixed together (and those of us advocating for public education were right in there mixing them). But privatizers were only interested in ed reform in so far as it helped them sell the idea that public schools were super-failing and needed to be replaced. But the alliance between privatizers and reformsters has slowly dissolved; voucher and choice advocates rarely try to make the case these days that they are going to improve the US economy or lift poor folks out of poverty, and they certainly don't talk about combatting racism now that the culture warriors like Rufo and DeAngelis have sold the idea that any discussion of racism is just one more sign that public schools have to be burned down. 

It is a legacy of the modern ed reform movement that Bacon talks about is the notion that "ed reform" and "anti-public education" are still considered synonyms by many. But actual modern ed reform--the idea that we can test and measure deliverables as a way to create more employable meat widgets and  fix economic and social problems-- is indeed losing steam.

The term "ed reform" is still useful to some, like an arsonist protesting that he's come to your home just to help remodel it. But as a description of the forces opposing public education, it's not accurate. 

Meanwhile, for Democratic politician or the remaining non-MAGA GOP folks who would like to promote some positive vision of public education, Bacon's short description is a fine place to start.

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