Market-based educational reform is an utter failure, and yet we still can’t shake the nasty remnants of its bad policy influence. These reforms have been championed by Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, the documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” Rahm Emanuel, the Gates Foundation, and high profile loudmouths like Michelle Rhee and her Students First organization. Their methods, testing students, firing teachers, opening charter schools, online education, and closing “failing” schools have had no positive impact on student outcomes whatsoever. As a matter of fact, in the wake of Rhee’s highly publicized takeover of the Washington D.C. School District, and the continued “reform” implementation by her protégé, Kaya Henderson, schools in D.C. are in worse shape than ever. Test scores actually declined in D.C. in 10 of the 18 schools reorganized by Rhee and Henderson between 2008 and 2010. Two of the other schools closed. In one of the six schools that were actually more successful, the principal didn’t focus on test scores or firing teachers. Instead, he hired mental health workers and social workers, and invested in connecting teachers with parents.
Recently, Anthony Cody wrote an essay entitled, “Poverty is What is Crippling U.S. Public Education, Not Bad Teachers” wherein he pinpointed precisely what teachers across the country have known for over a generation, the lore created by Stanford economist Eric Hanushek that only good teachers overcome socioeconomic disadvantages faced by students is complete crap. Hanushek has been preaching that investing greater funding into public schools and reducing class sizes won’t make a difference, just firing the worst 10% of teachers. (Presumably this would be a moving target, because there would always be another 10% of teachers who then fell to the bottom). Cody further summarizes the results of research (.pdf) published by the Economic Policy Institute on the impact of Hanushek-based reforms in three urban school districts. Some of the key findings in the EPI report: 1) Test scores actually decreased in the urban school districts that implemented market-based reforms, especially when compared to similar cities who did not try such reforms; 2) Test-based accountability led to a reduction in experienced teachers, but not necessarily bad teachers; 3) School closures did not end up sending students to better schools (including the much-touted charter schools); and 4) The reforms neglected a huge factor in achievement gaps—poverty. This matters in particular because the rich-poor achievement gap has grown to be twice as large as the black-white achievement gap. Regarding Michelle Rhee’s flagship D.C. schools, EPI reports,
“Between 2005 and 2011, in large urban districts, Hispanic eighth graders gained an average six points in reading (from 243 to 249), black eighth graders gained five points (from 240 to 245), and white eighth graders gained three points (from 270 to 273). In District of Columbia Public Schools, however, Hispanic eighth graders’ scores fell 15 points (from 247 to 232), black eighth graders’ scores fell two points (from 233 to 231), and white eighth graders’ scores fell 13 points (from 303 to 290).”
With all that we have come to know about the failures of market-based educational reform, why is it still prevailing? First, there are powerful organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) pushing legislation across the 50 states aimed at implementing even more privatization of schools, more charter-school based education, more testing, and an endless supply of teacher-bashing. In 2013 alone, ALEC was behind 139 bills in 43 states to promote private, for-profit educational models. In a report entitled, “ALEC vs. the Kids,” the history of ALEC’s influence on “educational reform is provided (.pdf). Between 1993 and 2008, ALEC has published, “Report Cards on American Education,” which repeatedly argue that there is no link between investments in education and student outcomes. Then, beginning in 2008, these “reports” began arguing that educational privatization was key to the reform of our educational system. States now received higher grades the more they funneled money into charter schools and voucher programs, despite the fact that these policies had no link to actual student performance. For example, Vermont has among the best performing schools in the country, yet received a “D” grade on their ALEC report card. Recently, school “grading systems” were also manipulated in Indiana to try and hide the poor performance of charter schools.
Then, there is the lobbying of organizations, some of them members of ALEC, which seek to continue pushing market-based education reform. For example, the Foundation for Educational Excellence (FEE) is associated with former Governor Jeb Bush. The non-profit, In the Public Interest, released thousands of emails showing that Bush and FEE have been working behind the scenes to get state officials to write laws that are favorably to their corporate funders such as getting states to require charter schools, online education, privatization, and other corporate-friendly policies. Jeb Bush’s connections to corporate educational interests were responsible for the influx of market-based educational reforms in Florida during his tenure as governor. Now, just last month, Stanford University researchers released a report finding that students in traditional public schools are outperforming students in charter schools in Florida.
Real educational reformers like Diane Ravitch lament the spread of privatization across the United States. Recently, she wrote about one of the latest victims, North Carolina, which has been overtaken by corporate education reformers. Right wing Governor Pat McCrory has brought on board Eric Guckian to serve as top advisor on educational reform. Guckian joined the Governor’s task force on education, which literally has no teachers on it. Guckian favors “aggressive educational reform” to open charter schools across the state and replace traditional public schools. Although it was eventually nixed, Guckian even tried to get the famously unhinged, far-right North Carolina legislature to take charter school oversight away from the State Board of Education. In other states, like Louisiana, market-based reform lovers such as Bobby Jindal have already given us expansion of school vouchers that led to such laughable educational fiascos as the private school curricula that teaches dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans. Conservatives have been relentless in their attempts to push public money into private schools through vouchers, despite the fact that voters have seen through and rejected the “school choice” wordplay.
There are protestors working against market-based educational “reform” across the country. Groups like the Journey for Justice Movement, Action United, Progress Florida, or the Chicago Teacher’s Union have tried to exert pressure on local authorities to stop school closures, end privatization, and focus on how poverty is affecting the educational system. To date, they have been treated like a nuisance rather than concerned and affected citizens. There is also an “An Education Declaration to Rebuild America,” offered by the Educational Opportunity Network that has drawn signatories as prominent as Robert Reich and Diane Ravitch.
Hanushek got what he wanted. What we spend per pupil on education has fallen for the first time in 40 years. Students are attending schools where art and music education have been eliminated. ALEC’s influence on educational “reform” has only grown over time. The for-profit educational corporations it represents are raking in profits even as the achievement gap between rich and poor widens. The research that shows poverty affects the brains of children more than being born with crack cocaine in their systems, and in a manner similar to a stroke go unnoticed by policy-makers. The time to overhaul market-based educational “reforms” has long passed, but we have yet to see when they will finally die.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.