I’ve been watching school reform efforts for several years now, and I’m depressed.

Most of the organizations that have formed to improve our public schools are populated by wonderful, well-meaning people, and most of the men and women who have chosen to teach in those schools are caring, dedicated professionals. So you’d think they would all be talking to each other and working together to identify and eliminate the barriers to better schools.

Instead, they seem to be at war with each other.

Now, I understand that focusing on common goals has been made more difficult by  the “take no prisoners” attitudes of ideologues like the departed-but-certainly-not-missed Tony Bennett, whose arrogance and autocratic tactics created a backlash of resentment among the teachers he regularly and unfairly bashed. (It shouldn’t surprise us when people who’ve been told they are overpaid and underperforming nitwits are unenthusiastic about collaborating with those who leveled the accusations.) But Bennett and his equally tone-deaf boss are gone, and the folks on the front lines–the teachers–need to help the real reformers understand what they need.

I haven’t been a high school teacher for nearly 50 years; neither do I have mastery of the reform literature. I’m just an interested observer who believes that public education is an immensely important public good, so you should take the following observations with the appropriate amount of salt.

Reformers are absolutely right to want teacher accountability. But teachers are absolutely right that high-stakes testing is not accountability.

Testing to figure out what kids know is a time-honored necessity; testing as a way to evaluate teacher performance is deeply problematic. For one thing, poor people move so frequently that turnover in many inner-city schools exceeds 100% during the school year, and the kids being tested at the end of the year aren’t the same kids who were tested at the beginning. Tests in such classrooms are meaningless.

Even in more stable environments, the current testing regime does significant damage–to students, who are being taught that there is always a “right” answer, and to teachers who are forced to focus their efforts on the subjects being tested and neglect other, equally important lessons. Furthermore, years of research demonstrate that more affluent kids test better for lots of reasons unrelated to the quality of classroom performance. If teachers are going to be evaluated and paid based upon test results, a lot of good teachers are going to leave the poorer schools that need them most and head for precincts where the students are better off and easier to teach.  (And yes, I know the theory is that we are testing for improvement, not absolute knowledge, but that theory is too often just that–theoretical.)

Here’s a heretical thought: before we engage in programs to assess accountability, let’s see if we can achieve agreement on what we mean by “education” and “quality instruction.” In other words, let’s be sure we know what instructors are supposed to be accountable for.

Too many of the self-styled “reformers” (not all, but too many) equate education with job training and quality instruction with (easy to test) rote learning.  For that matter, too many teachers agree with those definitions.

The people who genuinely want to improve public education–and there are a lot of them in both reform organizations and classrooms–  start by tackling the hard questions: what do kids really, really need to know in order to function in 21st Century America? What skills are essential? What are the barriers to imparting that information and those skills?  What additional resources do poorer kids need?  How much money does it take to provide a  good education, and how much does ignorance cost us?

Here’s how you can separate out the genuine education reformers from the ideologues and shills: real reformers understand the importance of public education’s civic mission. Because they understand the constitutive function of the public schools–because they understand that education is more than just another consumer good–they want to fix public education by working with teachers and parents and policymakers to make our public school systems work.

The genuine reformers aren’t the ones insisting that we  privatize or abandon those schools.


  1. The genuine reformers aren’t facing a level playing field either. The privatizers want to change control of the educational system to something outside of a framework that they cannot always command. It is not a battle for the children, it is a battle to control the children. Until the public sees it for what it is, the genuine reformers hardly have a chance.

  2. Like much of the “R” war on the people, this seems to be another example of trying to take public money and move it to private hands. Too bad. The kids deserve better.
    RE Testing
    Rather than an absolute test, why not two relative tests.
    What did they know in the fall?
    What do they know in the spring?
    SHOULD be more in the spring
    If not, ????

  3. A recent special on public schools in one Scandinavian country pointed out that the students in that country have a minimal amount of homework, attend school regularly, follow teachers’ instructions in and out of the classroom, and aren’t faced with those dreaded end-of-year testing programs. Their system seems not to be bogged down in bureaucracy. The students are learning and on a par (or above) with other European students.

    Sad to say, we are missing the entire point of education. The kids (and their parents) are in control, and boards of education are loaded with people who never spent even one hour as a classroom teacher. A lot of things need to happen and fast!

  4. Thanks for this very sensible analysis. Conservative and liberal researchers agree that 60% of a child’s achievement is controlled by factors OUTSIDE the classroom. To illustrate the point, if Carmel public school teachers were all moved to inner city classrooms, would the students’ lower test scores indicate that these teachers all suddenly became incompetent?

    The various education community organizations do agree on most of the same approaches, but ‘reforms’ have overlaid dramatic school funding reductions to 2008 levels. Highly effective teachers can expect a performance based raise of $250 a year for all their trouble and that comes at the expense of a colleague who’s working just as hard or harder with special ed. students whose scores will never be as high a those of the general ed. or gifted students. It’s so unfair and the ‘pot of gold’ at the end of all the hard work is insufficient to pay the increased
    health insurance premiums teachers are asked to pay thanks to school budget cuts. It’s not much of an incentive.

    These so-called reforms have more to do with funding than with education. With property tax caps, the state budget is now responsible for 100% of school funding increases, and public education’s instructional expenses now comprise half the state budget. When state budget-makers seek cuts, public school funding is the first place they look. Federal stimulus funds were supposed to supplement school funding but instead were used to partially replace some but not all the cuts.

    Cuts were not equally shared. There was no shortage of current and new charter schools to promote and fund, and lawmakers and the Governor thought up NEW projects to fund such as private school tuition while public schools were (and are) still reeling from cuts.

    Accountability seemed a one-way street til Tony Bennett lost. But those who truly want a broad-based public education where ALL children are welcome (and not cherry-picked according to test scores and wealth) now know that the Tony Bennett agenda of others is not destiny. Voting is.

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