In case you hadn’t noticed, corporate reform has failed. It is dying. Only money keeps it going. Its true believers know it is dead but they are paid handsomely to pretend there is still a pulse. If they flat out admitted that test-and-punish reform had failed, that privatization was a flop, the money train would go away.

John Thompson, teacher and historian in Oklahoma, reviews what reformers say to keep their spirits alive and their coffers overflowing.

“It has been fun reading reformers’ post-mortems on corporate school reform, as well as watching some of them twisting themselves into pretzels in order to deny that test-driven, choice-driven reform has failed. To take just one example, the pro-reform Fordham Institute has published analyses such as “Reformer, Heal Theyself. You’ve Ruined High School,” “Three Mistakes that Undermine Education Reform,” and “NAEP 2017: America’s ‘Lost Decade’ of Educational Progress.”

“When No Child Left Behind largely failed to raise student performance, reformers often responded with the intellectually dishonest claim that the NAEP increases that preceded NCLB should be attributed to the accountability regime that was subsequently imposed. But it’s become more common for reformers, such as those at Fordham who have documented the disappointing outcomes of the Bush-Obama era, to admit:

“Most of the gains occurred in the 1990s and early 2000s, and researchers have concluded that few are attributable to the federal No Child Left Behind legislation that ushered in the current era of high-stakes testing. Math scores did rise significantly between 1998 and 2009 but have been largely flat ever since- and reading scores have been stagnant since 1998.

“I have a long history of being too optimistic, grasping at straws in the hope that the Billionaires Boys Club will face the facts – which have been obvious for years – that document the failure of accountability-driven, charter-driven mandates. Even so, I must ask whether edu-philanthropists will finally listen to the conclusion of co-editors of Failure Up Close: What Happens, Why It Happens, and What We Can Learn from It, co-edited by Jay Greene and Michael McShane.

“Greene and McShane introduce Failure Up Close with the admonition:

”American education is littered with failed reforms. Across the country, we see charter schools that have been shuttered, federal funding streams that have run dry, philanthropic initiatives that never panned out, and brand-new teacher evaluation systems that have already been marked for the junkyard.”

”Greene and McShane allude to what I would call the hubris of reformers who were in too much of a hurry to properly study the complexities of school improvement. And they note the pattern where these rushed policies are imposed because “somebody — e.g., a state official, the federal government, the head of a large philanthropic organization — has put their thumb on the scale, using their influence to favor one approach at the expense of another.”

Greene and McShane articulate three lessons of Failure Up Close:

Lesson #1: Be humble
Lesson #2: You can’t make an end run around democracy
Lesson #3: You can’t hide behind technocracy

“I’ve also tried to explain to micromanaging true believers that teaching is a political process; success comes from trusting, loving relationships. So I’m happy to read Greene’s and McShane’s conclusion,

“After years of treating school reform as a competition among theoretical perspectives and technical strategies, the time has come for all of us to recognize that education is an inherently political enterprise.”

They add:

”The world of education reform needs to get more comfortable with complexity. More often than not, contextual factors affect the implementation of policies and even the definition of success and failure. This is not a bad thing. We live in a big, diverse, pluralistic nation that draws tremendous strength from the wide spectrum of ideas and opinions that our citizens possess.

“But, I wonder how many reformers will abandon their simplistic worldview. At this point in the discussion, it looks like the Billionaires Boys Club will stick with the spin personified by the Education Post’s Peter Cunningham. He blames the decline in NAEP gains on a lack of courage, “whining” by conservatives, and the “hysterical” responses of teachers and unions to bubble-in accountability.

“The best way to guess what reformers are really thinking is to pay more attention to their private discussions, as opposed to public spin. I communicate with a lot of reformers and I’ve seen a way where they inadvertently echo one aspect of the reform era. Over the years, I listened to thousands of teachers and students, but I can’t recall a single one who thought the test-driven, choice-driven mandates were a good idea. Now, the reformers who I know seem united in at least admitting quietly that they are disappointed in the results they’ve produced. A few, led by Rick Hess, are reviewing the earlier warning signs of their socio-engineering failures.

“Another candid discussion of reformers’ tactics can be found in the recently leaked memo, funded by the Walton Foundation, explaining their defeat in the Massachusetts campaign to lift the cap on charter schools. Even though charter supporters outspent their opponents by $10,000,000, they lost because, “Personal conversations with friends, family, and neighbors who were teachers ultimately convinced many voters to oppose Question 2 because it would harm traditional public schools and leave students behind.”

”The memo didn’t embrace a transparent approach to politics. It recommended relationship-building with legislative leaders, (without suggesting conversations with practitioners opposed to them.) It advised, “Advocates should test owning the progressive mantle on education reform and charters: this is about social justice, civil rights, and giving kids a chance.” (emphasis added) The implication is that the progressive spin is reserved for liberal states.

”Neither did it hide its contempt for teachers unions. It recommended a “full assessment of the opposition,” in a way that implies that the goal would be to do opposition research in order to rebrand opponents like union president, Barbara Madeloni, as “Occupy Wall Street.” It seems to recommend that she should be characterized as “a rabble rousing, outsider, activist, leftist … a very ideological and uncompromising person.”
The memo recommended, “Seek out opportunities to appease opponents.” In contrast to the reward and punish corporate reform agenda of the last generation, “a win-win situation” should be created by, “Giving unions and traditional public schools additional funding—either legislatively or as part of a ballot initiative.”

Click to access WaltonQuestion2Full.pdf

“As Jeff Bryant explains, too many Democrats have “spent most of their political capital on pressing an agenda of ‘school reform’ and ‘choice’ rather than pressing for increased funding and support that schools and teachers need.” So, if they would support more money for the classroom, in return for labeling education supporters as aggressors that must be appeased, would that be a step forward?

“Seriously, I don’t know which is more fun – reading conservative reformers’ cases against high-stakes testing or the counter-arguments that testing must remain an essential element of some brand new form of accountability that is yet to be discovered. I doubt this sort of debate can help improve schools, but I bet it could coin a wittier, insulting label for the teachers that they will next pretend to love and admire.

”I enjoy the way that some reformers grasp at straws in order to explain how charter openings have dropped by 2/3rds, but that they could reverse the trend by opening charters in affluent communities – as they search for new ways to present themselves as civil rights crusaders. And if the Walton memo is correct in implying that edu-philanthropists don’t know their ways around state legislatures, I bet someone can coach them on making their money talk …”