This is the second part of John Thompson’s review of Andrea Gabor’s book, After the Education Wars. 

Gabor analyzes why “Reform” failed and where we go from here.

John Thompson writes:

A first review of Andrea Gabor’s excellent After the Education Wars concentrated on the progressive reforms that should have informed the improvement of New York City schools. Billionaires like Bill Gates and Mike Bloomberg essentially imposed a set of policies that virtually guaranteed “Taylorism,” and turned so many schools into sped-up 21st century versions of Henry Ford’s assembly lines. Gabor then draws on that history to offer advice on how educators can “recover the road not taken.”

Each of Gabor’s chapters teaches invaluable lessons, but I learned the most from her account of New York City’s lost opportunities. I still would like to learn more about Eric Nadelstern’s efforts to work within the reformers’ system. It’s often speculated that some billionaires now sense that their experiments failed and they now place their faith in “personalized,” online instruction. But they still seem to misunderstand Nadelstern’s experiences and ignore his warning, “‘Virtual communities don’t raise children, people do.’”

Although the nuances of education reform in Massachusetts are often lost on true believers in high stakes testing, Gabor shows how the policies that actually worked in Boston and Brockton were actually much closer to New York’s progressive reforms than the test and punish mentality which challenges them. First, Massachusetts improved its schools through a well-funded, well-planned, openly deliberated, and patient process. Its accountability test, the MCAS, was transparent and iterative. Its graduation targets were only set at a sophomore level, and schools were allowed time for preparation. Individual teachers weren’t held accountable for test results and charters were not used to scale up a battle between traditional public schools and choice schools, with test scores as the ammunition.

In both Brockton High School and the very different schools in Leander, Tx, critical thinking and literacy were stressed. Both progressive approaches to school improvement were consistent with Edwards Deming’s continuous improvement.

They both believed in group efforts to improve school, and embraced vigorous debate over policy. It wasn’t much of a shock to read about Massachusetts’ efforts to build intrinsic, as opposed to extrinsic, motivation, but it was an especially nice surprise for this Oklahoman to learn about similar efforts in Texas. In my state, we heard plenty about the supposed “Texas Miracle,” where test and punish drove the creation of bogus test score gains. It was a joy, however, to read about Leander’s campaign based on “driving out fear” in order to protect teachers’ autonomy and empower collaborative school improvement.

It was doubly fun to read about a Texas administration which used an I Love Lucy video during its “Culture Day.” Gabor provides this summary of the assembly line where Lucy and her friend Ethel need to pick chocolates, wrap and send them down to the packing room:

A stern supervisor hovers over them. “If one piece of candy gets past you … you’re                                                 fired.

… the assembly line gradually speeds up and the two friends start shoving chocolates they can’t wrap fast enough into their mouths, down the front of their uniforms, and under their caps.

The Lucy and Ethel video clip … has become a Leander metaphor for fear and the systemic havoc it unleashes.

Although the chapters on Massachusetts and Leander mostly stress the ways that the progressive school improvement path was taken, both end on cautionary notes. Massachusetts recently defeated Question 2, but corporate reformers who funded the lifting of the charter school cap still threaten the state’s gains, and the new Texas teacher evaluation law could be a mortal threat to collaboration and trust in Texas.

Then Gabor turned to the alleged New Orleans (NOLA) mass charterization success. NOLA has often been proclaimed as the rare victory which is proof that the concept of accountability-driven, competition-driven reform can improve the education outcomes of poor children of color. Gabor shows, however, the New Orleans’ portfolio model provides another example of how reform has most hurt the poorest children of color. Yes, studies by the Education Research Alliance documented impressive gains for a brief time. But, she notes that it didn’t study high school results or control for no-excuses schools’ pedagogies. The gains occurred when NOLA funding was at its peak, and its Darwinian tactic of counseling out traumatized and disabled children inflated test scores. Moreover, by 2012, New Orleans had between 12,195 to 15,781 disconnected youth, who were out of school and not in a job.

It is now clear that NOLA is another example of reformers’ “self-congratulatory” public relations spin, and another illustration of, “Noisy transformations [that] are often more mirage than miracle.” As in other schools where venture philanthropists claimed transformative gains, its charter schools competed “by skimming off the most engaged parents, [which] it turns nearby public schools into dumping grounds for the most troubled kids.” Once again, reformers produced gains for some by “essentially writing off the bottom 20 to 30 percent of poor children.”

We in Oklahoma City witnessed the same dynamics that Gabor documented. As Gates and other edu-philanthropists were deciding that they needed to “teacher proof” the classroom, a bipartisan Oklahoma City coalition led a collaborative, openly-debated effort to build trusting relationships, and our district began to improve. Then came No Child Left Behind, and as in the systems described by Gabor, our humane, holistic efforts were eventually abandoned. After a superintendent from the Broad Academy doubled down on micromanaging a sped-up assembly line, my once-improving school dropped to the lowest-performing mid-high on Oklahoma. I studied the paper records of my high school students and discovered the reality reformers ignored, but that should inform the next era of school improvement.

Almost without exception, my struggling students had been doing well in school until tragedies hit their families. Cancer and heart disease dwarfed all other causes of failures, and many teachers saw what was happening. When family illnesses caused kids to fall off the instruction assembly line, school didn’t have the resources to help them get on track. Rather than tackle those problems in a collaborative manner, doomed market-driven solutions were forced on us, increasing segregation.

As school choices proliferated, the students who survived multiple traumas (ACEs) were left behind in schools serving neighborhoods with extreme concentrations of generational poverty. Those schools suffered the most from high stakes testing conducted in an aligned and paced, worksheet-driven curriculum. My students were acutely aware that powerful adults had fought an intense battle over their schools, and that they were lab rats in an experiment that turned them into drill-and-kill factories.

So, what should guide the next reform era? First, we can build on points where most people agree, such as the hard-won conclusion that “standardized tests have no place in kindergarten.” And we may be getting to the point where nearly all sides agree that schools need better funding.

Gabor ends with praise of David Kirp and the early education reforms, and the team effort to improve New Jersey’s Union City. Rather than seek better, quantitative clubs and socio-engineer the building of “a better teacher,” we should return to the promising path of peer review teacher evaluations. And as Gabor repeatedly explains, the next era’s school should be founded on trusting, collaborative, and respectful relationships.