The reform movement is already failing

In my nearly four decades as a historian of education, I have analyzed the rise and fall of reform movements. Typically, reforms begin with loud declarations that our education system is in crisis. Throughout the twentieth century, we had a crisis almost every decade. After persuading the public that we are in crisis, the reformers bring forth their favored proposals for radical change. The radical changes are implemented in a few sites, and the results are impressive. As their reforms become widespread, they usually collapse and fail. In time, those who have made a career of educating children are left with the task of cleaning up the mess left by the last bunch of reformers.

We are in the midst of the latest wave of reforms, and Steven Brill has positioned himself as the voice of the new reformers. These reforms are not just flawed, but actually dangerous to the future of American education. They would, if implemented, lead to the privatization of a large number of public schools and to the de-professionalization of education.

As Brill’s book shows, the current group of reformers consists of an odd combination of Wall Street financiers, conservative Republican governors, major foundations, and the Obama administration. The reformers believe that the way to “fix” our schools is to fire more teachers, based on the test scores of their students; to open more privately-managed charter schools; to reduce the qualifications for becoming a teacher; and to remove job protections for senior teachers.

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Relying on Magic: The Foundations of Would-be Education Reformers

With high unction, priests of educational reform often proclaim their notions are grounded on a strong scientific base. Embarrassingly, the President and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, have made similar assertions of scientific footings, notwithstanding the failure to actually support those claims.

Science, of course, has certain advantages, in that its proofs are subject to verification, are based on careful observations, must generally be replicable, and must follow commonly accepted designs and rules of evidence. But science has the pesky drawback of not necessarily confirming the answers we want to hear. There are all those awkward things to explain like reformer Joel Klein claiming success as an “established fact” while Arne Duncan says 83 percent of the schools are failing.

Magic, however, has been discovered to be a far more flexible and useful tool for supporting policy reforms. Contrary scientific findings can be brushed away with the same untroubled ease as an end-of-worlder explaining why the apocalypse didn’t happen last week.

As magical notions gain political traction, a supporting “science” is retro-invented. Contemporary retro-science includes reports that provide squishy, oblique and leading evidence on how untrained teachers will do as well or better than trained ones, class sizes can be increased without harm to children, and test-based accountability will save all despite the last twenty years of less-than-stellar success. Magicism is most easily recognized by its strong declaratory incantations, frequently delivered by people with limited or no experience in the field. Being short on science, it relies on the brandishing of symbols, rituals, and rites.

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Teaching isn't as simple as it appears

Ever since Gov. John Kasich barely beat the red light in last November's election, his school-reform bus has been careening at breakneck speed, rolling over all in its path. But no one is in sight to flag him for reckless driving.

He and other public-education "reformers" are transferring millions of tax dollars from public schools to less scrutinized charters and private schools. They are dissing classroom teachers by taking away both their dignity and their voices at the bargaining table, while watering down teacher-license requirements and dancing to the tune of the highly paid elites from tax-exempt foundations.

If the governor and our lawmakers can escape their fact-free zones and policy gurus, they might visit public schools - to listen, watch and learn what it really takes to teach children.

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