Soooooo…it appears “The education reform movement as we have known it is over.” This from none other than “education reformer” extraordinaire, Van Schoales, writing in the May 6, 2019 Education Week: Education Reform as We Know It Is Over. What Have We Learned? Along his way to becoming the president of Colorado’s own reform-oriented “oversight” committee, A+ Colorado , Van has worked at Denver’s Piton Foundation and Education Reform Now (ERN), the advocacy arm of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). He has also been integrally involved with starting and supporting local charter schools and drafting statewide education reform-oriented legislation. When Denver media has needed a quote to support “education reform” outcomes, whom have they called? Not Ghost Busters! No, their go-to guy has been Van Schoales. So his partial about face in his recent post in Education Week is quite surprising. In his words:
“There are three primary reasons that education reforms failed to live up to our expectations: too few teacher-led reforms, a lack of real community support from those most impacted, and a lack of focus on policy change for public schools across the board, not just the lowest of low-performing schools.”
Gee. Who knew?
If I weren’t so darn mad, I’d be shedding tears of laughter. If we hadn’t fought and fought and fought against “education reform” for the last 15 years, foretelling the recent conclusions of ed reformers,” the whole education reform movement could be viewed as a bad joke. If we the taxpayers hadn’t spent hundreds of millions of dollars and if we the people hadn’t lost at least a generation of students and teachers to the chaos and churn and complete lack of common sense of “education reform,” we could all be lifting a glass of whatever to toasting “we told you so.” If only the past 15 years could have been a bad dream, and we could all be like Dorothy and wake up in our safe places, wiping out the nightmare. But alas, that is not the case. And even with these mea culpas coming from unexpected places, most reformers are still unwilling to fully accept the disasters they have wrought upon community after community, most of which just happen to be populated primarily by people of color.
If I hear how much academic progress Denver has made one more time, especially when no corroborating data is provided, I may just scream. Van repeats this myth (“This is the fundamental paradox we are left with at the end of this ed. reform era: How do we reconcile tangible progress with the massive systemic gaps that remain?”) and cites Denver along with Washington, D.C. and New Orleans as examples of progress. Now, if you have followed education reform at all over these past 15 years, there is one thing you can be assured of. You don’t want to be in a “public” school in New Orleans, the first all charter school district in the nation, and you only want to be in a very select few public schools in D.C. As for Denver, what data could he possibly be seeing that the rest of us are not privy to? Proficiencies of 32% in math, 42% in English Language Arts, achievement/opportunity gaps between white students and students of color registering at the highest level nationally. Seriously, the only way anything positive can be honestly taken from these data points is if you are comparing DPS with the state. Yes, that gap has closed significantly but only because the state has fallen so significantly since the implementation of CMAS. State proficiencies are 34% in math and 44.5% in ELA. But even this statistic says more about the state dropping than DPS improving.
This post is not intended to be an attack on Van Schoales personally, but it is meant to call attention once again to the false picture of success “reformers” like him have repeatedly painted for public consumption for the past 15 years:
- “reform” has been successful;
- “reformers” know what’s best for other people’s children, even though they themselves have come from a very different educational system and for the most part have demanded a very different educational system for their own children;
- those who dare question the “reform” agenda want to return to the status quo (whatever that may be after “reform” has dominated the education scene for the immediate past).
Even though we have always hoped for a truthful assessment of the “education reform” experiment, the importance of this partial admission should not be overlooked or underestimated.
Several other “education reform” oriented events have been taking place that give sway to the scenario “education reform” is in retreat and weakening its hold on public education. The first is a national report on the effectiveness of Common Core State Standards followed by the Houston Independent School District severing its ties with alternative teacher licensing Teach for America followed by several national studies illustrating the false promises of choice and charters regarding equity and educational outcomes.
Nearly a decade later, did the Common Core work? New research offers clues analyzes the first national study evaluating the educational outcomes of implementing Common Core State Standards CCSS). CCSS you will recall has driven much of the data driven reform agenda: high stakes testing, teacher evaluations based on test scores, school closures based on test scores, school rankings based on testing. While studying Common Core at a national level has proven to be difficult, the study suggests “that even in the best case scenario, the academic shifts led only to modest gains for students, falling short of the far-reaching ambitions of Common Core advocates.”
In April 2015 I wrote about Teach for America in Denver, concluding that TFA had little effect on learning in DPS but did contribute to the deprofessionalization of the teaching profession. TFA also cost the District a lot of money in finder’s fees. Now, just this week the Houston Independent School District, citing similar reasons, especially the high costs of the program, severed its ties with TFA, demonstrating another withdrawal from “education reforms.”
Finally, two of the main tenets of the “reform” movement, charter schools and school choice, are seeing some of the air coming out of their balloons as they have come under more and more scrutiny and criticism. Long time educator Peter Greene exposes several of the most recent challenges facing these policies, some of which are due to their close connection to trump/devos education policies, others of which are due the lackluster educational outcomes from charter schools. And in Asleep at the Wheel The Network for Public Education documents fraud, waste, and lack of oversight and accountability within the federal charter school grants totaling nearly one billion dollars and counting.
Coloradoans in particular have been affected by one more reform related event. Former Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet’s announced his candidacy for the president of the United States. Michael Bennet left a complex mark on Denver Schools. Now he’s running for President explores some of the controversial legacy left by the former superintendent as he pursues the highest office in the land as yet another “education president.” “I think we need an education president,” he told the Des Moines Register. “There’s no public good that’s more important than education.” But as superintendent Bennet orchestrated the beginnings of “education reform” in Denver, including school closures and teacher pay for performance, two highly controversial tenets of reform. And let us not forget the risky and costly pension swap deal he and his successor Tom Boasberg crafted. On April 24, 2008 DPS borrowed $750 million in taxable pension certificates of participation which have ballooned to over $1.5 billion today.
We who have been watching failure after failure unfold in public education are a bit miffed when Van asks “what’s next, how do we more forward?” Communities have been clear in what they want: Honesty in the assessment of where we are and how we got there. Collaborative decision making where decisions are made with and not to communities. No more divisive, punitive and authoritarian decisions and decision making. Replication of what works for most kids: small classes, enriching curriculum, resources, safe learning environment. It’s what all parents want for their kids. Let us return to making every neighborhood school a great option, because in spite of what “reformers” want you to believe, most parents want to be able to choose to walk their kids to their neighborhood school. Finally, let us return to educating because we all know that testing is not educating. BTW this does NOT mean no assessments.
For the last 15 years “education reformers” have pushed and pushed and pushed their vision and version of public education on unwitting subjects. It is difficult not to be angry and suspicious of the recent admissions of failure when much of what education reform has wrought is actually still in place and will take years to undo. But if we can believe Van’s realization of what went wrong, there is hope to make the civil rights issue of our time work for all. We do need to look forward and try to work together to make public education the equalizer it MUST be.
*(Oh My God, In Case You Missed It, Shaking My Damn Head)