John Thompson, historian and teacher, explains why corporate reformers are in a bad mood. Nothing seems to be working out as planned. The word is getting out that Néw Orleans was not a miracle. Worse, black communities are angry at the white elites who took control of their schools.
“It has been quite a year for school reform anniversaries. This is the fifth year of the $500 million Tennessee Race to the Top, the prime funder of the $44 million Memphis Achievement School District, and the $200 million One Newark; the tenth anniversary of Katrina and the mass charterization of New Orleans; and the 15-year anniversary of the man-made Katrina launched by the Gates Foundation.
“The corporate reformers’ top-dollar public relations gurus must have anticipated a series of lavish celebrations of their market-driven reforms. But, reality intruded. It’s a safe bet there will not be ten-year and 15-year victory laps for those prohibitively expensive urban experiments that produced underwhelming results. If the Gates Foundation stays its course, even its education division may not be around for a 20-year birthday party.
“The reason why this was supposed to be the great reform victory lap of 2015 was that the incoming Duncan administration, heavily staffed by former Gates officials, rammed through the entire corporate reform agenda all at once. In 2009 and 2010, the contemporary school reform movement became the dog that caught the bus it was chasing. The wish list of market-driven reformers, test-driven reformers, and even the most ideological anti-union, teacher-bashers, became the law (in part or in totality) in more than 3/4ths of the states. Due to the Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and other innovations, competition-driven reformers were given the gifts and contracts that they claimed would reverse the educational effects of poverty.
“So, how did they do?
“The year that was supposed to be triumph at the top became the year of reckoning for accountability-driven reformers. Or should I say it became the year of the Billionaires Boys Club’s non-reckoning and avoidance of accountability?
“The anniversaries began with excuses over the disappointing outcomes in Memphis, as well as the Tennessee Race to the Top. True believer Chris Barbic worked himself into a heart attack and resigned as superintendent of the ASD. The money was spent, and instead of a series of victorious public relations events, reformers found themselves explaining away the outcomes. In the wake of falling test scores, the previous spring, Barbic told Chalkbeat TN’s Daarel Burnette, “I think that the depth of the generational poverty and what our kids bring into school every day makes it even harder than we initially expected. … We underestimated that.”
“The refusal to listen to people who understand extreme poverty is almost certainly one reason why Memphis is now first in the nation in young persons out of school and without a job.
“Barbic’s parting excuse was:
“Let’s just be real: achieving results in neighborhood schools is harder than in a choice environment. I have seen this firsthand at YES Prep and now as the superintendent of the ASD. As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results. I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.
“Then came Dale Russakoff’s The Prize. It would have been more difficult for Newark to have proclaimed victory after the decline of Governor Chris Christies’s political fortunes, the election of Ras Baraka as mayor on an anti-One Newark platform, and the removal of Cami Anderson as the state-appointed superintendent. But, Russakoff’s best-selling account of the battle over “Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?” made it impossible to spin the corporate reform experiment as anything but an embarrassment. Russakoff revealed, “For four years, the reformers never really tried to have a conversation with the people of Newark. Their target audience was always somewhere else.” Elite reformers were seeking “a national proof point” which would demonstrate how they could provide incentives and disincentives to solve society’s problems.
“Partially because of their refusal to tolerate dissent and to learn from the people who best knew Newark schools, One Newark actually drove down student performance in its high-challenge Renew schools. And tellingly, Russakoff cites the creator of the growth model that was inappropriately imposed on teacher evaluations. He said that simply focusing on teachers and growth is “pretty obviously myopic” and “a lot of high-stakes accountability has become self-defeating.” But, reformers ignored such advice, so “nonetheless, test-based teacher accountability for student performance remained a primary goal of the reform movement.”
“Third, whether it was a tribute to the sincerity or the hubris of New Orleans reformers, they broke tradition and invited scholars and educators representing multiple perspectives to their ten-year celebration. In contrast to the opaqueness of the financial statements typically issued by charter school chains, NOLA reformers acknowledged that during the early years of their experiment an additional $8000 per student was invested, and a decade later it still receives an extra thousand dollars per student. The most prominent result of all that spending is that it turned much or most of the New Orleans African-American community against the do-gooders who came down to save them.
“True believers in mass charterization proclaimed large gains in test scores. But the conference featured panels of scholars who were very articulate in questioning whether those metrics reflect actual learning. Moreover, experts noted that the gains must be seen in terms of NOLA’s shamefully low pre-Katrina starting point; post-Katrina demographic shifts; curriculum narrowing, a focus on test prep and remediation that doesn’t prepare kids for college or life; and the nation’s 3rd highest rate of young people out of school without a job.
“Finally, the Gates Foundation ordinarily seems to be allergic to learning from others, but it certainly conducted its 15-year anniversary in a way that was cognizant of the New Orleans conference experience. The clear lesson was that scholars and educators with differing views should not be invited. As the Hechinger Report’s Meredith Kolodner reported, the event was presented to “a hand-picked audience.” Moreover, as Alexander Russo notes, the interview with the USDOE’s Ted Mitchell was closed to the press (due to a request by the USDOE), and the second day’s presentations were not live-streamed. If they were anything like the first day sessions, I doubt there would have been much of an audience anyway. The events I watched were merely infomercials.
“The Gates Foundation has spent about $4 billion on K-12 education since 1999 with nearly a billion of it going to its teacher effectiveness campaign. It still lacks a plausible scenario where its support of high stakes testing and charters will not damage the poorest children of color as in Memphis, Newark, and New Orleans.
“One would think that they would ask the same question as those who pushed the Memphis ASD, the federal RttT, and the Newark and NOLA experiments should ask. Why would the supposed beneficiaries of their largess be so livid, demanding that corporate reformers go home? If billions of dollars of test, sort, reward, and punish regimes were actually doing more good than harm, why would there be such a rejection of their programs?
“Even Bill Gates acknowledges, “Test scores in this country are not going up,” while taking solace in what he has been told are a few bright spots. He admits that a decade from now his teacher evaluation system may still be unwelcome by teachers. I doubt we will have to wait anywhere near that long before it is rejected. As Larry Cuban predicts, Gates’s value-added evaluations and other reformers’ panaceas will be “like tissue-paper reforms of the past … that have been crumpled up and tossed away.”
“Melinda and Bill Gates both seem perplexed as to why educators and patrons reject their gifts. Melinda remarked about how difficult it can be to persuade parents to accept their innovations. Bill said, “Nobody votes to un-invent our malaria vaccine.”
“Of course, Gates was criticizing the opponents of corporate reforms, not the reforms themselves. It’s a shame that he doesn’t seem to get an opportunity to be asked the seemingly obvious question. How is the malaria vaccine different than his education policies? The malaria vaccine works. Why not consider the possibility that educators and patrons oppose his education schemes because they don’t work?”