Peter Greene writes here about Michael Petrilli’s reflections on the evolution of the “reform” movement. Now that the “reform” movement has merged with Christian nationalists, book banners, Proud Boys, neo-fascists, and other vicious haters of democracy, public schools, and academic freedom, there is much to reflect on. Unfortunately, that’s not the reflection we learn about here. Let me add that when I was a board member a dozen years ago at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, I formed a friendship with Mike Petrilli. I always hoped he would flip and join the public school side (his own kids are in fine public schools in Maryland). But a guy’s gotta make a living and the reformer world pays well. I’ve never given up hope for Mike.

Greene begins:

Mike Petrilli at the reformster-minded Thomas Fordham Institute has been taking a look at the current state of ed reform (apparently many of us are in that mood right now?) and it’s worth taking a look at what the guy in every education reporter’s rolodex thinks the state of ed reform is right now. And I promise what I think is an interesting observation at the end.

In “The Evolving Education Reform Agenda,” Petrilli starts with his previous argument that while the “Washington Consensus” is dead, ed reform itself is not. This hints at one of the challenges of the ed reform brand these days, which is that nobody really knows what the term actually means any more. He tries to address that in this piece.

Petrilli argues that the agenda has shifted (a more positive phrase than “we keep moving the goal posts”) from a focus on data and getting students to score proficient on state tests (circa NCLB) and then moved to trying to hold individual teachers responsible, a movement that Petrilli assess pretty frankly:


By the early 2010s, much of the conversation was about holding individual teachers accountable via test-informed teacher evaluations. Ham-handed implementation and poisonous politics led us to leave that misguided reform behind.

If only they had taken the policy with it, but its hammy hands are still felt by many teachers in many states. But one of ed reforms annoying features is that it never picks up after itself; it never puts as much energy into undoing its mistakes as it does into making them in the first place. Just imagine a world in which these thinky tank guys picked up the phone to call their contacts and say, “Look, that thing we convinced you to try? You’ve got to make people stop doing that.” Imagine if Bill Gates put the same kind of money into cleaning up his policy messes as he puts into pushing them.

Sigh. Anyway, Petrilli lists some other new-ish policy foci, like high quality instructional materials. He aptly notes that a new support for better school funding coincides with A) recognition by reformsters that funding does improve student outcomes and B) a desire to get charter and voucher schools more money (the old “choice gets it done more cheaply” talk is toast).

Parental choice? There’s still debate about using tax dollars to fund private and religious schools, particularly those that discriminate, says Petrilli, though I’ve missed the folks in the reformster camp arguing the anti-discrimination side. Unbundling is still a thing.

Testing and transparency? Reformsters still believe in the value of the Big Standardized Test, a point on which they remain resolutely and absolutely wrong, though they are now, he says, also interested in alternative assessments–but that’s still hung up on the obsession with test scores. Writes Petrilli, “How would assessments be different? If schools do well on “alternative measures” but not on test-score growth, then what? Should we ever consider such schools “good”?” I can help, Mike–the answer is “Yes.”

Greene goes on to explain that Petrilli thinks the new focus of reform must be to shift from policy to practice. This is an implicit admission that policy interventions have failed. Neither charters nor vouchers nor evaluation of teachers has been a successful. So now it’s time for reformers to change how teachers teach. But how can they do that when so few reformers have ever been teachers?

This is further complicated by the fact that the individual-to-individual practice end of the scale only happens if the individual has some credibility, and reformsters have always been hampered by their amateur status in education practice (I can think of exactly one who can legitimately claim classroom experience–and no, Temp For America doesn’t count), and that has been further hampered by their insistence that their amateur status actually made them wiser than the teachers who has actually spent their professional career in the classroom.

Greene thinks that reformers should listen to teachers, hire some.

But that won’t get to the root of the reformers’s dilemma. They are now in bed with rightwing fanatics who fought masks and vaccines, people who are racist and homophobic, people who ban books.

Their brand is spoiled.

The good news in this article is that the “Washington consensus” is dead. Democrats—with a few notable exceptions like Cory Booker and Michael Bennett of Colorado—do not support the attacks on public schools and teachers, no longer support charter schools, and adamantly oppose vouchers.