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Education Reform as We Know It Is Over. What Have We Learned?

As first appeared in Education Week as Education Reform as We Know It Is Over. What Have We Learned? on 4/25/2019. Reprinted with permission from the author.

The education reform movement as we have known it is over. Top-down federal and state reforms along with big-city reforms have stalled. The political winds for education change have shifted dramatically. Something has ended, and we must learn the lessons of what the movement got right—and wrong.

The era of inspiration, edicts, and coercion from Washington to improve our public schools is in the past. The Every Student Succeeds Act is a paper tiger with no new funds or accountability for results. The U.S. Department of Education under Betsy DeVos has dismantled efforts to push states to improve school systems while tainting all education reform with a far-right agenda for vouchers as it defunds public education. Yet, a growing number of high school graduates are not prepared to work or to continue their education.

The era of the nontraditional “no excuses” urban superintendents is finished. Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and Tom Boasberg have all moved on. There are few comparable replacements. The vision of a radically transformed public education system with virtual schools, new charter models, and online personalization has crashed on the shores of reality. Certainly, there are examples where district leaders and school boards are trying new practices and pushing for improvement—whether in Indianapolis, where innovation schools continue to be seen as important and effective, or San Antonio, where the district is partnering with charter school management organizations to create new schools—but the national wave has crested.

We have a set of proof points of what is possible with a few improved school districts and hundreds of schools that effectively educate the most disadvantaged children. Denver, New Orleans, and the District of Columbia all saw improvements in standardized test scores over the past decade, for instance. However, education improvement remains unavailable for many communities that require it the most. 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?

We had more changes in federal and state education policy designed to improve achievement since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 than since the civil rights era. We had a broad bipartisan political coalition with Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush. Barack Obama and Arne Duncan poured unprecedented billions into pushing the system. We focused on 21st-century outcomes, not fuzzy 20th-century inputs. We thought we could change it. We were right, and we were wrong.

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.

Too many reform efforts were undertaken on behalf of communities, rather than led by communities.

Reformers (myself included) led an unneeded assault on the existing educator force, with ham-handed teacher evaluations and a focus on getting rid of poor performing teachers. In an attempt to modernize the profession, we ended up losing the hearts and minds of a generation of educators. It is hard to not notice the wave of teacher strikes aimed exclusively on securing more resources for existing systems.

Lastly, while the rhetoric was appropriately focused on education being the “civil rights issue of our time,” many of the reforms at the state level applied to indiscriminately all schools—regardless of whether these new accountability systems, tests, charters, or teacher evaluation systems made sense for all schools. Efforts to bring urban reforms to whole states without asking whether suburban or rural area schools even needed them backfired dramatically. Reformers often took a holier than thou approach in challenging all schools to change, which only alienated those that saw little need for change in their schools.

Too many of the reforms were focused on scaling success too early rather than doubling down on quality and understanding what was working and why. Building effective, quality programs or schools was not considered sexy. Instead, it was all about scale, measured not in the dozens but the millions. Even if it did lead to the development of many new schools that have worked for many students, it was all too much, too fast.

So what’s next, how do we move forward? First, champions of education reform have to honestly assess why particular efforts failed to live up to our expectations before we move on to the next shiny education improvement initiative. We need to do this before we spend tens of millions on more scaling of existing reforms. We need to focus now on listening.

Where did we make progress, where did the needle get stuck? Why have some states or cities failed to live up to the grand expectations? And why did achievement on standardized tests improve in Denver, New Orleans, and the District of Columbia in the past decade? We need to be able to answer these questions, and we need to be able to do that before we embark on the next chapter.

But whatever we do, we need to work directly with those closest to the problems—teachers, principals, students, families, and community leaders—to build a movement that is focused on preparing most or all of our students for the world that they live in, that promotes lasting change. It will not be simple and will take a commitment of many years and require leadership in the communities most affected. Let’s get to work.