John Thompson is a historian and a retired teacher in Oklahoma. He has written on this blog frequently.

He writes:

The Perfect Storm of Education Reform: High Stakes Testing and Teacher Evaluation, by Sheryl Croft, M. Roberts, and Vera Stenhouse provided an essential service to public education by explaining that the corporate school reform disaster wasn’t due to its “discrete singular efforts.”  Instead, it was “a confluence of systematic and orchestrated education reform efforts that are akin to storm fronts.” Just as important, Croft, Roberts, and Stenhouse provide insights into why post-Covid schools are likely to face comparable challenges.

As their metaphor explains, rain and wind don’t necessarily wreak havoc, and no single policy mandate, no matter how ill-conceived, was to blame for the corporate reforms’ “colossal failure;” the catastrophe was caused by the combination of an unprecedented amount of high-stakes standardized testing, data-driven teacher evaluations, and attempts to hold individual students and teachers accountable for Common Core test results; the “testing industrial complex (TIC),” where consultants promoted test-driven policies and teaching methods; charter schools and a culture of competition driven by test scores; the “false narratives” about public education, especially  incessant attacks on failing teachers; similar mandates for teacher preparation policies; and the replacing of recess and play with nonstop test prep which often drove the joy of learning out of school. Moreover, reformers didn’t understand what should have been obvious – that these mandates would most damage the educations of poor children of color, who were most likely to receive the biggest deluge of “drill and kill” test prep.

As Croft, Roberts, and Stenhouse explained, the perfect storm of corporate school reform “arrived in full in 2015.” In doing so, they preview the dilemmas which many post-Covid schools will likely continue to face. Corporate reform was “a perfect storm” that eroded “the bedrock of public education in the United States.” It was like “a mesoscale storm [which] is comprised of individual storms that combine to form a larger persistent/perfect storm.” Even as educators need to stop and think anew about post-Covid schooling, the components of these edu-political storm fronts continue to move across the landscape.

No Child Left Behind was like a high-pressure “warm front (precipitation and fog) followed by a cold front (narrow) bands of thunderstorms and severe weather.” It propelled the testing industrial complex to produce “a warm front” which “rained down neoliberal education polices under the guise of improving education while obscuring the free-market ideology of corporatization.” Despite its failure, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan doubled down on both the false accountability-driven narratives, and the testing industrial complex. The TIC front also forced local school systems to “lay off teachers, close neighborhood schools, eliminate art and music programs, and dedicate more and more revenue to supporting standardized testing.”

I saw the same dynamic in Oklahoma City which Croft, Roberts, and Stenhouse analyzed in Georgia. Duncan briefly visited our KIPP Charter School and made the obviously false statement that it became an “A” school by “raising expectations” while teaching the “same students, in the same building,” Of course the low-income, high-attrition KIPP had nothing in common with schools like my mid-high serving everyone in a segregated neighborhood with an extreme concentration of generational poverty, a lack of social capital, and enormous numbers of children who survived multiple traumas. That Big Lie was a major reason why disadvantaged black, brown, and poor people were “most grievously injured” by corporate reform.

By now, it should be clear that complex, interrelated social, economic, and educational problems need complicated interconnected solutions – not wave after wave of interconnected assaults on public schools and “disruptive innovation.” But, there is no sign that market-driven reformers have abandoned their faith in “transformative” change. So, educators still have reason to fear another TIC storm front.

I’m especially concerned about last part of the confluence of corporate reforms described by Croft, Roberts, and Stenhouse that turned my troubled school into the state’s lowest-performing mid-high school. The final storm front dumped millions of dollars of Stimulus and School Improvement Grant money, funding policies that made our school much, much worse, replacing classroom instruction with nonstop remediation. We can’t ignore the lessons of the failed post-Great Recession investments without inviting another TIC-funding storm.

My experience of 2009 was like that of the educators who Croft, Roberts, and Stenhouse listened to. Our top administrators understood why NCLB had failed, and why it made no sense to double down on test and punish. Even though they could only say so in private, the top OKCPS administrators knew the social science which explained why better instruction, driven by better professional development and curriculum, could not improve outcomes in most of our district’s schools until a socio-emotional foundation was laid. That would require a team effort, drawing on community partners, and patience. But, they were intimidated by state legislative leadership and federal guidelines into a rushed instruction-driven, curriculum-driven gamble.

Today’s education leaders shouldn’t allow themselves to be intimidated by demands that standardized testing must continue, and prioritizing the “remediation” of last year’s learning loss, using the “best practices” sold by the TIC’s consultants, so that neighborhood schools don’t lose in the competition with charters. The Oklahoman reports that the OKCPS (for instance) will receive $255.4 million in stimulus money (more than three times the federal assistance it received after the Great Recession), but there has been no public discussion about spending priorities. Instead, it reported that many Oklahoma districts hope that the 2021-22 school year “will closely resemble pre-pandemic life.” 

Chris Brewster, the superintendent of the charter system which has creamed off the most students from the Oklahoma City School System, exemplifies the hope that “growing teachers, training teachers and equipping teachers” is the best way to spend the new money.  If Brewster really believes that, then he clearly doesn’t understand how his charters operate in a completely different world from the OKCPS schools serving entire neighborhoods with extreme concentrations of generational poverty, with so many students who have survived multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

Urban district leaders can choose to listen to community partners and State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, and prioritize the student supports which could provide the foundation for holistic teaching and learning. Or they could be intimidated by the Republican leadership which changed the excellent state funding formula in order to punish urban schools, who invested $10 million of federal Covid relief money in private schools, and increased spending for charters, as they cut corporate taxes and implicitly banned discussions on Critical Race Theory.   If that happens, they – like compliant educators in 2009 – could feel obligated to focus on the learning deficits produced by last year’s crisis, and squander opportunities to bring together waves of constructive student-centered policies.

Educators should shake off their fears and start with the wisdom of Teresa Thayer Synder about the need to “Resist the pressure from whatever ‘powers that be’ who are in a hurry to “fix” kids and make up for the “lost” time.”  She stresses the humanity of students:

In our determination to “catch them up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. … We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone!

She then tackles the reality that should be our priority:

When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. …

I sincerely plead with my colleagues, to surrender the artificial constructs that measure achievement and greet the children where they are, not where we think they “should be.” Greet them with art supplies and writing materials, and music and dance and so many other avenues to help them express what has happened to them in their lives during this horrific year. Greet them with stories and books that will help them make sense of an upside-down world. They missed you. They did not miss the test prep. They did not miss the worksheets. … They missed you.

If that sounds too touchy-feely for under-the-gun educators, they should draw upon the recent New York Times’ reporting by Eduardo Porter on the West Virginia initiative which “mushroomed into a partnership branded Reconnecting McDowell, encompassing over 100 organizations and offering assistance like social and health services for families and apartments for teachers and other professionals.” The program grew out of a conversation between American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, and Gayle Manchin, the State Board of Education vice president (and the wife of Sen. Joe Manchin.)Since Oklahoma and West Virginia are basically tied with the highest percentage of young people who have survived multiple ACES, our education leaders should listen to Porter who writes:

Reconnecting McDowell has done well by many students and their families. It sent health clinics, mental health clinics and even dentists into the schools. It runs a mobile farmers’ market out of a truck, offering produce to poor families that can be many miles from the nearest supermarket. It championed a juvenile drug court to offer intensive drug treatment programs that help nonviolent young offenders return quickly to school, rather than go to jail. The program helps with college tuition and funds a mentoring program that takes groups of high school seniors to Charleston, the state capital, and Washington.

I understand the fears of education administrators who worry that building such a mesoscale solution is too daunting of a challenge. If we can’t subdue our fears, however, who knows how many waves of mesoscale storm-like corporate reforms will rob our kids – especially those who have suffered the most – of what it takes to really offer our students the learning required in these calamitous times?