Phony School Reform Wilts, A New Education Story Takes Root

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For years, our public schools have been burdened by a “reform” narrative that education is “failing,” and that only a regime of standardized testing and charter schools will make administrators and teachers more “accountable.” Politicians and pundits across the political spectrum have adopted this doctrine and now easily slip into the rhetoric that supports it without hesitation.

But recently, the pillars of the “reform” agenda have begun to crumble. The whole notion of a top-down mandate for reform coming from state capitals and Washington, D.C. is being regarded with a new degree of skepticism.

A new narrative is emerging and it’s coming from the ground up—from schools and communities where teachers, parents, and students are remaking the education policy landscape.

Over the next several weeks, the Progressive Education Fellows will be exploring this exciting movement for change in a series of posts at The Progressive and on our social media channels on Facebook and Twitter.

A big part of the progressive vision for education is taking shape in community schools—locally led schools that are taking progressive approaches to education, including restorative justice, culturally responsive teaching, locally based accountability, and social, emotional, and health services that address the whole child.

This way of teaching is a radical departure from doctrinaire, corporate reform. It is anchored in the American belief that every child has the innate ability to learn, that access to education opportunity is an inalienable right, and that it is incumbent on government to provide education opportunities as a common good, free and accessible to all.

What Happened To ‘Reform’?

The break-up of the reform façade started with the movement to boycott standardized testing. A mostly parent-led effort using Facebook pages and neighborhood meetings grew into a firestorm of resistance.

As the Associated Press reported in 2015, “This ‘opt-out’ movement remains scattered but is growing fast.” The article pointed to New York—where over 200,000 students sat out the standardized tests—and also mentions strong opt-out movements in New Jersey, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon and Pennsylvania.

In 2015, more than 620,000 public school students around the U.S. refused to take standardized exams. Also, numerous states ended high school graduation tests, and dozens of universities and colleges reduced or eliminated test requirements for their admissions process.

The opening turned into gaping hole late in 2015 when the Obama administration made a “policy reversal,” PBS reported, and recommended capping testing at 2 percent of class time.

As award-winning former school principal Carol Burris writes in the Washington Post, “The testing ‘opt out’ movement is gaining momentum, even as efforts to derail it ramp up.” She cites examples from Delaware, Florida, Ohio, and elsewhere of new legislation to turn back the flood of standardized testing that has plagued schools.

Another pillar of phony education reform, evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores, is now mostly in ruins.

As reports continue to call the practice into question, there are more examples of the work that went into these programs being gradually undone. In New York, “it is highly likely that teacher evaluations won’t be linked to student test results…for the next two to three years,” according to a state-based reporter.

As a recent blog post from a reform fan laments, test-based teacher evaluations in numerous states at the forefront of these policies—Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee—seem to be headed toward ending this practice.

Another wrecking ball leveled against the “accountability” movement was delivered when the gold standard of education accountability—the National Assessment of Education Progress, also known as “the nation’s report card”—showed a slide in national student performance.

As Emma Brown reported for the Washington Post, “Fourth-graders and eighth-graders across the United States lost ground on national mathematics tests … Reading performance also was sobering: Eighth-grade scores dropped … while fourth-grade performance was stagnant compared with 2013, the last time students took the test. And the tests again show large achievement gaps between the nation’s white and minority students as well as between poor and affluent children.”

Charter schools, another buttress of the reform movement, took a huge hit as news stories exploded about scandals and malfeasance in 2015.

Finally, No Child Left Behind, the federal law that’s been driving education policy since 2001, was replaced with a new law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that reverses many of the edicts of NCLB or leaves them up in the air for states and districts to decide.

With responsibilities for policy direction shifting more to the states and districts, a pivot to a more-promising alternative fostering community schools could not come at a better time.

A Bad Report Card

The shifting landscape of education policy starts with an understanding of how far we’ve gone off track.

A new report card provides that analysis. Coming from the parent and educator led Network for Public Education, the report card examines how well the 50 states and the District of Columbia support public schools.

In its analysis, NPE awarded the nation as a whole a grade of D. Thirty-seven states, in addition to the District of Columbia, scored an overall grade of D or F, and thirteen received a C. No state got an A or B.

In NPE’s view, states have become too reliant on ineffective measures—such as high-stakes standardized testing and privatization from charter schools and vouchers—and too neglectful of school funding, support for the teaching profession, and investment in proven programs.

“Our hope is that this report card will steer us away from policies that undermine our public schools and toward policies that will make our public schools better for all children,” NPE states.

But which policies make public schools better?

While the NPE report card begged that question, an answer appeared at about the same time in a statement from the Schott Foundation for Public Education.

Schott calls for “surrounding our public schools with the supports capable of addressing a host of interconnected issues” both inside and outside of schools, including poverty, racial and economic inequity, punitive student discipline, and disengaged communities.

Schott’s idea is to promote a community school model of public education and points to successful models of this approach in locally-led efforts from towns and cities across the United States including Oakland, Cincinnati, and Hartford.

 What Are Community Schools?

To fill in the details of the community schools model, the Center for Popular Democracy has issued a new report “Community Schools: Transforming Struggling Schools into Thriving Schools.”

In the community schools model, the high-stakes testing, “no excuse” philosophy of the get-tough reformers is replaced with research-based strategies that have shown measurable success, particularly with chronically struggling students.

In its report, CPD states, “These schools, at their core, are about investing in children, through quality teaching, challenging and engaging curricula, wrap around supports, positive school climate, strong ties to family and community, and a clear focus on results.”

CPD contends there are more than 90 communities across the country with significant community efforts underway, and its report profiles examples in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Austin, Orlando, Cincinnati, Kentucky, and Portland, Oregon.

Another prominent voice supporting community schools comes from the recent re-launch of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, another progressive education policy organization advocating an alternative to faltering reform efforts.

When BBA initially launched in 2008, “we knew poverty was the major root cause of disparities in education,” BBA executive director Elaine Weiss explains in an email, “and we proposed advanced strategies, such as early childhood education and health care and nutrition support, to mitigate its impacts.”

At a time when education policy was being guided by the assumption that low standards and weak accountability were the main obstacles to improved schools, Weiss explains, “what we proposed was considered radical.”

Now that perception has shifted, Weiss believes, and the shift has prompted BBA to “re-launch … with new signatories and co-chairs and an expanded mission statement that reflects this new reality.”

In a blog post for the Campaign for America’s Future, Weiss details BBA’s approach to community schools: “alleviating out-of-school barriers to success, closing in-school opportunity gaps, and strengthening communities’ capacities to improve school and student outcomes.”

Now, BBA is issuing the first installments of a year-long series of case studies from communities across the country “whose education policies are grounded in whole-child perspectives and poverty-mitigation strategies.”

What’s Ahead

These powerful new proposals coming from community schools proponents are just beginning to enter policy conversations, and too many public school activists remain unaware or unconvinced there are promising alternatives to the test-and-punish regime.

With this new series from the Progressive Education Fellows we aim to help change that. Our posts will spotlight individual features of the community school model—such as wrap around services, restorative justice practices, whole child approaches to curriculum and instruction, and community based accountability—with news and commentary from the unique perspectives of each of our Fellows. We hope you will want to read and share these.