Teacher and historian John Thompson writes here about the reflection that seems to be occurring among “reformers” as they realize that their test-and-punish reforms produce limited gains and limited outcomes. He wonders how different our federal and state policies would be had reformers strived to implement research-based reforms instead of ideas that had intuitive appeal.

He writes:

Something important is stirring in terms of education research. We’ve always gone through cycles, mostly notably in the aftermath of the Coleman Report, during debates over the so-called “culture of poverty,” and during the contemporary data-driven, market reform era, where scholars have had to think twice when analyzing where the evidence leads. This last month, however, a variety of social scientists have candidly expressed the facts that corporate reformers deride as an “excuse.”

Heather Hill’s review of the Coleman Report recalls the seminal study’s finding, “One implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context.” Hill reviews the subsequent analyses of Coleman, and the findings of Tony Bryk and Stephen Raudenbush, who “show that differences among schools accounted for about one-fifth of the variability in student outcomes.” The bottom line, she reports is that “schools still pack a weaker punch than many imagine.”

Neither did the Chalkbeat editors pull any punches. Its subtitles clearly convey the message that has been condemned as heresy over the last two decades:

Meanwhile, evidence mounted for one central conclusion: schools matter – but not as much as people might think; and

The logical conclusion: You can’t fix schools without trying to fix broader social inequality, too.

Similarly, Stephen Dubner’s begins his recent Freakonomics Radio program with the words, “in our collective zeal to reform schools and close the achievement gap, we may have lost sight of where most learning really happens — at home.” Dubner concludes, “Most of us probably think too much about cognitive skills and not enough about non-cognitive. Most of us probably put way too much faith in the formal education system, when, in fact, the path to learning begins way before then, at home.” In between, we hear from economist John List, “Schools only have kids for a handful of hours per day, but who, really, will mold kids through their lives are the parents.” Also, early education expert Dana Suskind concludes, that we need preventive, not remediative programs. “About the only way” that we can “move the needle,” she says, is through science-based programs which begin the learning process at birth or before.

Even the most steadfast true believers in accountability-driven, competition-driven reform seem to finally be facing reality. The first words of a NBER paper by John List, Roland Fryer and Stephen Levitt are President Barack Obama’s 2009 statement that, “There is no program or policy that can substitute for a mother or father who will attend those parent-teacher conferences … Responsibility for our children’s education must begin at home.”

And, even the TNTP seems to be questioning its blind faith that the answers for poverty can be found inside the four walls of the classroom. Its modest pilot project taught Ariela Rozman, Timothy Daly and David Keeling that, “We have a new appreciation for the annual catastrophe that is summer learning loss—and what a headache summer is for the families we work with in general. The out-of-school opportunity gap has received increased attention in recent years … because it is becoming clearer that it is a substantial driver of long term inequality.” After a year of working with real-life families in actual schools the TNTP acknowledges:

Some people argue the post-Katrina choice-based system has led to large, sustained improvements in performance and should become a model for the rest of the country. Others say it’s still largely a low performing system and the process of creating it profoundly disrupted its workforce and community.

That brings us to the research of Douglas Harris, the Tulane University Education Research Alliance, and their recent conference on early education in New Orleans. Harris has documented major post-Katrina gains in New Orleans test scores, while acknowledging that “critics are concerned that schools under reforms are too focused on test scores.” Moreover, he notes that “disadvantaged groups always see a smaller effect than the advantaged groups early in the reforms.” Especially before 2012 or so, there were “real horror stories about how special education students and others were suspended and expelled at high rates,” and “it remains unclear whether the problems are solved.” Harris sees “signs that high school dropouts are being under-reported,” and he says that NOLA’s decentralization can “negatively impact vulnerable groups.”

I sometimes question Harris’s confidence that oversight and accountability can mitigate such problems, but I trust his judgment in regard to the initial beliefs of NOLA reformers, “The original idea was that charters would create some degree of choice and competition, allow some schools more autonomy, facilitate innovation and diversify options. “Replacing” traditional public schools was almost never part of the conversation.” On the other hand, he doesn’t deny the current threat to traditional public schools, “Yet, this is exactly what is happening in New Orleans, Detroit, and some other cities (albeit to very different effect).”

I also sense that the participants in the ERA conference saw the multiple, often contradictory, outcomes of the radical NOLA reform, and that they are mostly preoccupied with addressing its remaining weaknesses. While they may or may not be fully aware of the national campaigns to impose their charter-driven system on cities across the nation, conference attendees mostly see the NOLA model as a “done deal” in their city. They are more concerned about the need to organize, fund, and implement early education programs than in other districts’ need to beat back corporate reforms.

I can appreciate those feelings, but I may have been alone in seeing one graphic as telling the most important story about New Orleans preschool, at least in terms of the lessons it holds for the rest of the country. Pre-kindergarten is only one part of the early education system that we need, but it is illustrative of the “opportunity costs” of the contemporary school reform movement. The percentage of NOLA’s students who attended pre-k dropped from 60% in 2007 to 40% in 2011. That’s a 33% drop at a time when the city’s schools were being funded at a level beyond the imaginations of most educators. Yes, the percentage of students who attend pre-k has increased since then, but in NOLA and across the U.S., we are now facing budget crises.

It’s bad enough that reformers let pre-school slide but, worse, the money for the gold-plated corporate reforms is gone. I doubt that anyone would claim that these reforms were cost effective, and now we have to tackle the complex early education challenge at a time when all of the participating education and social service providers face enormous budgetary constraints.

And that brings us back to the question of what would have happened if we had followed a science-based path to school improvement, as opposed to the test, sort, reward, and punish experiment, known as corporate reform. Granted, Katrina took New Orleans by surprise. It’s not like the city had the time and the inclination to study education research, debate policy options, and plan and implement the best possible reform policies. Not surprisingly, when offered a test-driven, competition-driven model, as well as enormous amounts of funding, they rushed the Billionaires Boys Club’s preferred approach into place.

On the other hand, if Katrina hadn’t hit during the accountability-driven, choice-driven craze, if edu-philanthropists had been assisting a science-based campaign to provide high-quality early education and to align and coordinate socioemotional supports, think of the great good that could have come from the rebuilding of New Orleans education and social service systems. In such a case, NOLA could have turned to state of the art, evidence-based solutions, not the endless edu-politics of destruction.

Yeah, in addition to the down sides of NOLA reforms, bubble-in scores are up. Those metrics probably reflect some meaningful learning, as well are the learning of the destructive habits that are nurtured by retrograde, teach-to-the-test instruction. Is there any doubt that students and families would have chosen humane, high-quality, aligned and coordinated early education programs over the competitive culture of today’s NOLA? And, had such a nurturing, science-based system been built in New Orleans, wouldn’t educators across the nation be welcoming – not shunning – help in replicating it?