The Fatal Flaw Of Education Reform

In the most simplistic portrayal of the education policy landscape, one of the “sides” is a group of people who are referred to as “reformers.” Though far from monolithic, these people tend to advocate for test-based accountability, charters/choice, overhauling teacher personnel rules, and other related policies, with a particular focus on high expectations, competition and measurement. They also frequently see themselves as in opposition to teachers’ unions.

Most of the “reformers” I have met and spoken with are not quite so easy to categorize. They are also thoughtful and open to dialogue, even when we disagree. And, at least in my experience, there is far more common ground than one might expect.

Nevertheless, I believe that this “movement” (to whatever degree you can characterize it in those terms) may be doomed to stall out in the long run, not because their ideas are all bad, and certainly not because they lack the political skills and resources to get their policies enacted. Rather, they risk failure for a simple reason: They too often make promises that they cannot keep.

I acknowledge that I am generalizing here, as there are countless exceptions, but one needn’t look very far to notice a tendency in “reformer” circles to sell their policy prescriptions by promising the kind of short- and medium-term results that most education policies, no matter how well-designed and implemented, simply cannot deliver. School quality is important, it can be improved, and even small improvements can make a big difference. But it is critical to maintain a level head regarding the magnitude and speed of impacts. We as a nation must be prepared for the long haul, and there is a thin line between ambitious goals and unrealistic promises.

Sometimes, the inflated expectations are stated explicitly. For example, in 2010, then-Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Michelle Rhee predicted that her district would be the highest performing in the nation within five years. Several years ago, the U.S. Education Department (USED) announced a plan to “turn around” 1,000 schools every year for five consecutive years, thus giving rise to entities such as the Achievement School District in Tennessee, which promises to “move the bottom 5% of schools to the top 25% within five years.” USED is now reaping what it has sown.

Alas, these are not isolated incidents. The public is peppered with unrealistic promises or plans to “close the achievement gap” within ridiculously short periods of time, slogans such as “college for all,” and talking points, such as the ubiquitous “fire the bottom teachers” illustration, that imply the potential for huge short-term improvements.

And, of course, there was the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which included a provision by which the vast majority of students were required/expected to score above proficiency cutoffs in math and reading within just over a decade, barely enough time for a cohort of students to cycle through the K-12 system. Although this goal is now generally viewed as having been a fantasy, there are still several states banking on near-universal proficiency, and any state that attempts to be more grounded in setting new benchmarks risks criticism.

(Making things worse, the manner in which performance and improvement are measured is usually inappropriate.)

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