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The Pathologies of Education Reform, or Throwing Caution To The Winds

Friday, March 04, 2011
I've been vacillating on whether or not to write this post for years now, for reasons that aren't very difficult to guess. But whether I am becoming more rash in old age, or simply disgusted with the trajectory of public debate on this issue, I am going to set aside my caution and engage the topic directly. It may not matter either way, given the likely small number of readers of this blog. But whatever the consequences, I can't in good conscience remain silent.

For the last decade or more we have been undergoing a powerful wave of education reform, one that has enjoyed massive (and bipartisan) support among policymakers, thinktanks, foundations, and the press. It is characterized by high-stakes testing, accountability, and various forms of school choice. I've taken to calling this movement neo-liberal education, because it is a part of the broader move towards market-based reforms in the public sector and the deregulation of the market in the private sector.

Although I strongly agree that the educational sector needs reform, and that there are some elements of the proposed changes that are worthwhile, as a whole I think that neoliberal reform in education, as with like-minded reforms, is at best (to steal the expression of a friend of mine) a GWOT - a Giant Waste Of Time. Whether it is merit pay for teachers, the weakening of collective bargaining in the name of administrator flexibility, charter schools, "turn-around" school reform, or high-stakes testing, I think that as they are being implemented these reforms will NOT achieve their stated objectives. They will not close achievement gaps. They will not make the U.S. an international leader in math and science. They will not improve the overall quality of education for American children. The best case scenario is that in ten years we will realize that neoliberal reform was just another fad that failed to live up to its overzealous champions' ambitions, and we will move on to some other set of reforms.

That's the best case scenario. What about the worst?

Although neoliberal education reform will fail to achieve its overt goals, I think there is a good chance that it will accomplish the implicit goal of many of its principal proponents, which is to undermine the system of public education. Yes, we might still have something called a "public school system," but like so many other public services that have been contracted out, education will effectively be controlled by the private sector, for the benefit of administrators and shareholders, and to the advantage of our country's most privileged citizens.

In the coming weeks, I am going to lay out why I am taking such a strong stance on these issues. I will (as time permits) examine each of the components of neoliberal education reform and explain why I it is I think they are going to fail. Unlike so many pundits, I will try not rely on sloppy logic, gross generalizations, and misleading anecdotes. Instead, I will rely on the evidence, on the research in the field, which provides precious little support for the idea that neoliberal education reforms will accomplish anything that we might wish.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:17 PM
  • I'm really looking forward to this series of posts. Pretty much everyone in my family is or was a public school teacher and/or administrator, and for many years I thought that would be my path as well. (And who am I kidding? I'm still in public education, and many of my first- and second-year university students need serious remediation before they're ready for college. Accordingly, a good deal of the time, I'm a high-school English teacher as much as I'm a history professor.)

    As we're about to send my son to kindergarten, I'm paying more attention to the local situation, and I'm seeing a real failure of the local elementary schools. We literally won a lottery that will get our son into a charter school that uses old-school inquiry-based learning and promotes project-based, critical and creative thinking over testing. On the one hand, I feel I'm hurting the local public school by declining to enroll in it; on the other hand, this particular charter school follows the public school model with which I grew up, and which worked for me. It's an ethical dilemma, but I'm not going to toss my bright kid into a neighborhood school whose boys' reading proficiency plummets 50% between Kindergarten and 1st grade. Does that make me a bad progressive? Probably.

    By Blogger Leslie M-B, at 5:15 PM  
  • Okay, let me try to reply again - stupid blogger ate the last one.

    I don't think that there's any reason to think of yourself as a bad progressive. First off, there's an important distinction between our convictions about systems and and how we operate within them. There's no ethical requirement to be a martyr. If you still support policies and candidates that are beneficial to public schools, then you are still a public school supporter. And remember, charter schools are still public! But if it really bothers you, I'd suggest volunteering at the school that your son isn't going to. They need good people more than they need another student.

    As for my view of charters, I was thinking about writing on that subject next. To risk stealing my own thunder, I don't have any philosophical objection to charter schools, I just think they've been oversold and been used in unconstructive ways. There are plenty of good charters out there, so if your son got in to one, by all means send him there!

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 9:31 AM  
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