Wednesday, April 28, 2010

School Reform We Can’t Believe In

School Reform We Can’t Believe In

by Stan Karp

While running for president, Barack Obama called No Child Left Behind
“one of the emptiest slogans in the history of American politics.” By
the time he gets a new version of the law through Congress, his own
campaign theme—“change you can believe in”—may be a contender for the
same title.

In fact, if the healthcare debate is any guide and the reform ideas
being floated by the current administration are ultimately adopted,
the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education
Act, still commonly known as NCLB, could make a bad law worse.

The administration hopes to move a reauthorization bill this year, but
Congressional divisions and election year politics make that doubtful.
The current law will remain in effect until it’s replaced. It will
also continue to trap growing numbers of schools in its test and
punish dragnet as the 2014 deadline nears for its unreachable goal of
100 percent pass rates on state tests. Over 30,000 schools, nearly a
third of all public schools, are already on the “needs improvement”
list. Unless the law is changed, most of the rest will follow.

Even if reauthorization is delayed, the effort to remake federal
education policy is well underway. But instead of a dramatic break
with the test, punish, and privatize policies of the Bush era, there’s
been so much continuity under Obama that historian Diane Ravitch calls
it “Bush’s third term in education.” Bush brought in Houston
Superintendent Rod Paige as secretary of education to implement the
“Texas miracle” on a national scale. Obama selected Chicago schools
CEO Arne Duncan, with his overhyped résumé of turnarounds and charter
schools, to do the same (for more on Duncan’s record in Chicago, see
Rethinking Schools Vol. 23 #3.)

The Obama/Duncan federal education policy began to take shape with the
“assurances” tied to last year’s stimulus package, which included $100
billion for education. It was further spelled out in guidelines for
Title I School Improvement Grants issued last August, and again in the
$4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTTT) plans last fall. Sidepockets of
$650 million in “innovation funds” for partnerships with favored
nonprofits and another $350 million for new tests are also part of the

Together, these initiatives amount to another wrong turn for federal
education policy, fueled by unprecedented if temporary streams of
federal money. So far, many of these initiatives have been defined by
federal regulation and U.S. Department of Education guidelines that,
unlike ESEA, do not require Congressional approval. In a twist on the
Bush-era use of “block grants” to dilute programs for targeted
purposes, Obama and Duncan have seized on “competitive grants” as a
way to drive top-down reform priorities and pressure states to get
with their program.

The new federal funds are tied to four broad “assurances”:

*Improve teacher quality and distribution
*Strengthen standards and assessments
*Improve data collection
*Turn around low-performing schools

Within these innocuous-sounding categories are landmines that have
become defining features of the administration’s reform plans: linking
test scores to teacher evaluation and compensation; rapid expansion of
charter schools; development of data systems that facilitate remote
control of schools and classrooms; and aggressive intervention for
schools with low test scores, including closures, firing of staff, and
various forms of state and private takeovers.

Early rounds of stimulus spending were only loosely driven by these
assurances. Initially, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds
allowed states to save temporarily the jobs of hundreds of thousands
of teachers. Billions were also allocated for early childhood programs
like Head Start, college support programs like Pell Grants, and
special education funding through the Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act (IDEA) without major changes to the design of those
programs, in which funds flow to states through formulas based on
numbers of eligible students. As some later complained, there were “no
grant competitions, no long, complicated applications, no review teams
with complex scoring rubrics.”

But the Obama/Duncan version of reform steadily took more prescriptive
shape. Eliminating barriers to using test scores for teacher
evaluation and expanding charter schools were made conditions for
getting RTTT funds. New guidelines for Title I School Improvement
Grants gave schools in the latter stages of NCLB sanctions four
choices, all of which required staff firings, closure, or takeover by
an external agency. Duncan began talking about closing thousands of
schools—“the bottom 1 percent of the nation’s portfolio”—like the CEO
of a runaway multinational corporation.

The administration appears determined to preserve many of NCLB’s basic
elements, including its reliance on test-driven sanctions, while
adding some of the worst features of its Race to the Top plans.

The original version of NCLB consolidated decades of efforts to move
decision-making over education policy, including curriculum and
assessment, away from schools and local districts to distant state and
federal bureaucracies. Standards and tests were the primary tools and
NCLB mandated massive increases in both. The disaggregated test data
highlighted real and persistent gaps in educational performance. But
the sanctions imposed had no record of success as school improvement
strategies, and no hope of closing the gulfs in achievement and
opportunity that the law’s “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) charts

However, the drumbeat of failure did have political uses. As former
Bush Undersecretary of Education Susan Neuman told Time magazine in
2008, many in that administration “saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the
choice agenda—a way to expose the failure of public education and
‘blow it up a bit,’ she says. ‘There were a number of people pushing
hard for market forces and privatization.’ ”

These aims were reflected in the sanctions NCLB imposed on schools
that missed their test targets. Schools “in need of improvement” were
required to pay for privatized supplemental tutoring or support
student transfers to other schools. But while some profiteers turned
these sanctions into lucrative contracts, there were so many problems
that these options got little traction with parents or students. Less
than 1 percent of those eligible found transfers and fewer than 15
percent found supplemental tutors.

The original law did have a “school improvement fund,” but neither
Bush nor Congress ever put any money in it. (Over its first six years,
funding levels for NCLB were $71 billion less than promised.) It was
increasingly obvious that NCLB was a test, punish, and privatize
system, not a school improvement measure.

By the time Bush left office, NCLB was almost as unpopular as he was.
The closer you were to a school or a classroom, the more you cared
about public education, the more likely you were to hate NCLB.

The new administration arrived with overwhelming support from
educators and their unions and a popular mandate for undoing Bush’s
agenda at home and abroad. But Obama’s rapid transition from populist
antiwar candidate to corporate commander-in-chief was soon reflected
in the selection of Wall Street-friendly managers Timothy Geithner and
Lawrence Summers as his top economic advisors, Bush holdover Robert
Gates as secretary of defense, and recycled Clinton-era figures
everywhere. Similarly, the Department of Education was heavily staffed
by corporate and foundation-friendly “reformers” from the neoliberal
and conservative wings of the Democratic Party. Duncan was selected
over progressive educator Linda Darling-Hammond. The mantra of the
“four assurances” came to define the new administration’s school
reform policies, and education joined healthcare, economic policy,
foreign policy, and climate change as issues where campaign promises
of “change” and “hope” morphed into Washington business as usual—or

“Let’s Build Up the System We’ve Got”
Some of the policy parallels have been striking. For example, several
times candidate Obama said if he were starting “from scratch” he would
favor “single-payer” healthcare with government regulating a nonprofit
system to provide access to healthcare for all. But Obama said he
wouldn’t press for single-payer because it would be too “disruptive”
to the healthcare system already in place. “Let’s build up the system
we’ve got,” he argued.

Yet such a single-payer system is pretty much what public education
is. The government is responsible for providing public access to a
nonprofit system of schools for all children, with state and local
agencies providing the bulk of funding and oversight, and the federal
government historically responsible for issues of equity and access.
But instead of sustaining this hard-won public system and fixing its
flaws, Obama and Duncan are proposing policies that would dramatically
“disrupt” the “system we got” and introduce some of the same
profiteering and inequalities of the current healthcare system into

The administration’s promotion of charters and school takeovers by
education management organizations echoes its endorsement of “co-ops”
managed by for-profit insurance companies as a way to provide
healthcare. Mandating school closings and staff firings, and imposing
deregulated systems of charters and private management on public
school districts will erode the civic common ground and local
political structures (e.g., school districts, locally elected schools
boards, collective bargaining) that U.S. public education has been
built on.

Similarly with what’s often loosely called “merit pay.” Obama came
into office well positioned to work collaboratively with the two large
teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National
Education Association, to promote needed reforms on teacher tenure,
compensation, licensing, and seniority. But while dutifully “bringing
everyone to the table,” Duncan has used federal dollars to grease the
skids for pay-for-test-score schemes that have huge implications for
eroding union power and scapegoating teachers.

No matter how these policies are nuanced in Duncan’s media soundbites,
they play out in the real world with blunt impact. “We’re asking
Congress for more money to develop compensation programs ‘with’
you—and ‘for’ you—not ‘to’ you,” Duncan told the NEA. But in state
legislatures across the country, this has become a license for
heavy-handed efforts like those in Tennessee, Illinois, and Louisiana
to make test scores count for 50 percent of teacher evaluation

The avowedly pro-labor administration has been unable to pass the
Employee Free Choice Act, designed to level the playing field for
union organizing, or take any significant steps to address the gross
imbalance favoring capital over labor that has contributed to the
country’s economic and social decline. But tying teacher pay to test
scores and handing management a hammer to pound one of the last
bastions of labor’s strength? No problem.

Credit Default Swaps of the Ed World
Standardized multiple-choice tests have become the “credit default
swaps” of the education world. Few understand how either really works,
but both encourage a focus on illusory short-term gains over more
lasting long-term goals and drive bad behavior on the part of those in
charge. The blame-the-teacher potential in pay-for-test-score schemes
is hard to overstate. In Michigan last December the Detroit News
reported “impassioned parents demanded jail time for educators and
district officials following the release of test scores that showed
4th and 8th graders had the worst math scores in the nation.”

Obama claims his reforms are “a classic example . . . of
evidence-based policymaking,” but the administration has
systematically ignored the record on some of its key initiatives. From
the outset, it equated charters with innovation, far beyond any levels
justified by their actual impact. The most credible national study of
charter school performance showed that, even on test-score terms, only
17 percent of charters outperformed comparable public schools, while
37 percent scored worse. Charters drain resources, staff, and energy
for innovation away from other district schools, often while creaming
better prepared students and more committed parents. They function
more like deregulated “enterprise zones” than models of reform,
providing subsidized spaces for a few at the expense of the many.
Little attention and few resources have been invested in translating
the elusive successes of charters into systemwide improvement. Nowhere
have charters produced a template for effective districtwide reform or

Yet, thanks to RTTT, states have rushed to increase the number of
charters, enable performance pay, and promise to adopt unproven
turnaround plans. Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats
for Education Reform, a pro-market reform group financed by hedge-fund
millionaires, told Education Week that “the extent to which the Race
to the Top competition seems to be prompting state leaders to pursue
concrete policy changes was ‘breathtaking.’” Rep. John Kline, the
ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, put it another
way: “In many ways it’s a Republican agenda.”

Now the administration wants to integrate RTTT’s competitive grant
approach into a revised ESEA, including the $14 billion Title I
program for high-poverty schools. All the new education funds in
Obama’s FY11 budget would be allocated this way, including a $1
billion package conditioned on passing a new ESEA with RTTT-like

“Race to the Top taught us that competition and incentives drive
reform,” Duncan told reporters. “So even as we continue funding
important formula programs like Title I and IDEA, we are adding money
to competitive programs that are changing the landscape of our
education system.” If the administration succeeds, over 30 percent of
federal education funds will be distributed to “winners” at the
expense of “losers” without reference to equity-based formulas.

No Stimulus for Equity
The change will hurt poor schools. As Anne Bryant, the executive
director of the National School Boards Association, stated:

The focus on competitive grants and the decision to provide no
increase to Title I means rural districts and children in the poorest
parts of the country will be left behind. Those districts do not have
the capacity to compete for grants—unless you want to shift money from
teachers to grant writers.

Gabriel Arana of the American Prospect put it even more directly:

Underperforming schools will arguably be in the worst position to
compete for federal aid; it makes as much sense as asking the
unemployed to duke it out over benefits.

The emphasis on competitive grants over equity concerns has already
undermined the impact of the administration’s sizable increases in
federal education spending. Deepening state and local budget crises
have heightened the importance of federal education spending, yet the
administration is not using its increased leverage to promote funding
equity by requiring states to improve their notoriously inadequate and
unequal funding systems as a condition of federal aid. A 2010 study by
New Jersey’s Education Law Center showed that in most states the
distribution of stimulus funds “did not improve the fairness of the
school funding formula.” The administration has put more effort into
tying individual teacher compensation to test scores than encouraging
states and districts to distribute more fairly the $500 billion they
spend annually on K-12 education. This means as stimulus funds expire
and districts fall off the “funding cliff,” state formulas will
exacerbate inequality.

Both Obama and Duncan regularly frame their education reforms as “the
civil rights issue for the 21st century.” Yet it’s stunning that the
first African American president has increased federal education
spending by over $100 billion dollars without directing a dime to
promote integrated public education. At a conference last May, a
teacher asked Duncan what he would do to address the rampant
segregation that marks public education more than 50 years after the
Brown decision. Duncan struggled to say a few words about magnet
schools before cutting his remarks short to return to the White House
for a photo op with his latest school reform cohorts, Al Sharpton and
Newt Gingrich, who were about to hit the road to stump with Duncan for

Potential Risks and Benefits
The push for national standards is another part of the
administration’s reform blueprint. For Duncan, the basic problem in
NCLB is not the misuse and overuse of standardized testing; it’s that
the individual state tests don’t provide a common measure, and instead
encourage states to game the system by juggling proficiency levels.
Longstanding opposition to national standards and tests forced NCLB to
rely on separate state tests that allow such maneuvering.

The latest business and foundation-friendly solution is the “common
core” standards initiative. Sponsored by the National Governors
Association and funded by the Gates Foundation, 48 states (excluding
Texas and Alaska) have agreed to adopt consultant-written standards in
multiple subject areas. States that participate will get points on
their RTTT applications (applications that Gates hired consultants to
help 25 states write). Once the standards are written, Duncan will use
$350 million to finance multistate consortia to develop new
high-stakes assessments based on the standards.

This will mean still more tests. And more jargon to justify them. RTTT
applications are loaded with plans for “benchmark” testing in the name
of “formative assessment.” Some “growth models” will require multiple
tests throughout the year tied to accountability schemes. Other
supporters of common standards want to add tests in subjects besides
reading and math to offset the narrowing of curriculum spawned by
NCLB. Teachers and students, already sinking in a swamp of data-driven
drivel, may drown. Test publishers and data systems companies will get

A lot will depend on how the widely hated AYP system of test score
traps and sanctions is revised. Duncan has floated a still vague
“college and career ready” standard that could be equally problematic.
The “college and career ready” rubric is drawn from foundation-driven
national standards efforts like Achieve, Inc.’s American Diploma
Project that have attempted to turn “college for all” rhetoric into
high-stakes exit testing and new form s of tracking in high schools
across the country. As FairTest’s Monty Neill has pointed out: “It
could signal support for intensifying the worst components of
NCLB—apply high-stakes testing to teachers even beyond what ‘Race to
the Trough’ has done; require harder-to-pass tests and perhaps even
more testing; mandate still onerous if somewhat different
'accountability' expectations.”

One real danger would be ratcheting up high school exit testing in the
name of buzzwords like “21st century skills” and “global
competitiveness.” A recent report from the Advancement Project noted
that, since the passage of NCLB in 2002, 73 of the largest 100
districts in the United States “have seen their graduation rates
decline—often precipitously. Of those 100 districts, which serve 40
percent of all students of color in the United States, 67 districts
failed to graduate two-thirds of their students. In other words, since
the boom in high-stakes testing, many of the students most at risk of
not graduating have been pushed out of school.”

Duncan’s “college and career ready” standard could double down on
these policies.

On the other hand, abandoning the AYP system could open up
possibilities for relaxing the mandate to test every student every
year in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and for supporting
development of better assessments. Rolling back federal testing
mandates and ending the direct link between test scores and punitive
sanctions would be two of the most significant improvements to look
for in a revised law.

There will likely be proposals for “growth models” and “multiple
measures” that distinguish between schools where a majority of
students are struggling and those where low scores are confined to one
or two subgroups. Such changes are especially important to suburban
and wealthier schools with limited populations of special education
and ELL students, whose low subgroup tests scores have exposed schools
and districts to sanctions.

The Push for Turnarounds
Revisions that ease pressure on some schools may be paired with
increased pressure on others, especially given Duncan’s turnaround
plans. His education department wants future rounds of RTTT to include
grants that bypass states and go directly to “reform-minded” districts
willing to aggressively shut down struggling schools and turn them
over to charter operators and educational entrepreneurs. In Chicago,
New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, arbitrary decisions to close
schools, some made by dictatorial chancellors backed by mayoral
control laws, have disrupted and provoked communities without
providing credible options for students. These shutdowns have drawn
increasingly angry responses and are likely to grow in proportion to
the push for turnaround efforts.

Turnarounds are also a potential growth industry for the charter
franchisers, educational management companies, and foundation-funded
nonprofits that are now both instruments and influential partners of
the administration’s plans. Obama is proposing to invest another $1
billion in school turnaround grants as part of a renewed ESEA, on top
of several billion in stimulus funds targeted for these purposes.
Already, in anticipation of receiving federal funds, turnaround
“specialists” and consortia are taking shape—like the six-state, $75
million agreement launched in February by the School Turnaround Group
at the Mass Insight Education and Research Institute.

The federal government has no track record and little capacity to
support its turnaround plans. These efforts could accelerate the
fragmentation of urban school districts into unequal tiers of schools
serving decidedly different populations. The most comprehensive report
on school restructuring under NCLB, by the Center on Education Policy,
found that 5,000 schools were forced to choose from five options that
“did not offer much help to schools that were trying to improve.”
Duncan’s combination of more aggressive sanctions, closings, and
external takeovers could wreak further havoc in areas with high
concentrations of poverty, high-need student populations, and clusters
of struggling schools.

Swimming Against the Current
A number of progressive groups are trying to stay ahead of the
reauthorization curve and work with Congressional staff on changes
that would ease the testing plague, replace punitive sanctions with
more constructive supports, and address some of the broader social and
economic deficits that translate into test score gaps. The Forum on
Educational Accountability (, the
Forum for Education and Democracy (, and
the Broader Bolder Approach to Education project
( have all made useful proposals. A
Rethink Learning Now campaign ( is
attempting to bring “powerful learning” and “fairness” stories from
teachers and students to bear on the federal policymaking process.
Progressive proposals include: roll back the mandate for annual
testing, insert opportunity-to-learn standards, allow more varied
classroom and teacher-made assessments, and develop more supportive
processes for assessing and building the capacity of schools to

However, these efforts are up against not only the test and punish
status quo, still heartily endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce and the
Business Roundtable, but also the newly empowered “market reformers,”
bankrolled to the sky with federal and foundation dollars. If the
healthcare struggle is any guide, progressives could again face
choices between an unsustainable status quo and a package of bad
reforms with inadequate funding.

The administration’s distorted reform priorities surface in bizarre
ways. For example, Louisiana ranks near the bottom in funding for
public schools and almost 20 percent of the school-age population
attends highly segregated private schools. Yet the state is regularly
praised by Duncan because it has eliminated caps on charter schools
and uses test scores to evaluate both teachers and the certification
programs from which they graduated. It’s considered a leading example
of the kind of reform RTTT seeks to promote. In New Orleans, Duncan’s
former Chicago boss Paul Valles has presided over the reconstitution
of the city’s devastated school system as a grossly unequal network of
semi-privatized charters with selective admissions and less privileged
Recovery District Schools with class sizes twice as large. Students
are no longer guaranteed placement in any school. Yet, in a January
interview, Duncan declared, “Let me be really honest. I think the best
thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was
Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took
Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘We have to do

There’s a lot about the path from NCLB to RTTT that echoes Naomi
Klein’s “shock doctrine” theory about how ruling elites use crises for
power grabs and paradigm shifts that would be otherwise hard to
impose. Disasters, both natural and manufactured, become opportunities
to remake economic and political arrangements and reinforce prevailing
systems of power. Or, as Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen said, “The whole
Race to the Top just provided a focal point for a whole range of
things that might have been difficult to do in other times.”

In the heady days surrounding Obama’s inauguration, many political
observers predicted a new era of reform and social progress akin to
the presidencies of FDR in the ’30s and LBJ in the ’60s. Instead, what
we’ve seen so far recalls the corporate neoliberalism of Bill Clinton
and the conservative “populism” of Ronald Reagan.

But the problem isn’t just the narrow political vision and corporate
allegiances of Obama, Duncan, and company. It’s the fading of the
popular mobilization that at times gave Obama’s campaign the feel of a
social movement. What pushed FDR to the New Deal were the powerful
labor and left-wing movements of the ’30s. In the ’60s, it was civil
rights and antiwar struggle that fueled LBJ’s expanded social agenda.
That’s the kind of energy democratic school reform—and the

The early lesson of the Race to the Top seems to be: Until pressure
from below forces a change in direction, the folks at the top will
keep leading us over a cliff.

Stan Karp ( is a Rethinking Schools editor.

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