March 21, 2021

Gary Rubinstein: Education Reinventers

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Gary Rubinstein is a talented and dogged debunker of ed reform PR. In this piece, he takes us through some history of ed reform’s branding and rebranding before leading us to the latest “miracle school,” this one touted by the head of Teach for America. This school turns out to be one more not-so-much-a-miracle. Reposted with permission from his  from his regular blog blog.

For the past ten years public education has been under assault by the self-proclaimed education ‘reformers.’ Strong personalities like Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Michael Bloomberg, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Corey Booker, and others led the movement that gave us Race To The Top, Race To The Top waivers, and the Every Child Succeeds Act.

They got a chance to experiment with their ideas subjecting kids and neighborhoods around the country to school closures, charter schools, and state test madness. After a few years they declared that their experiments were working, they pointed to a few schools that seemingly proved that if you replace unionized teachers who are not scared of being fired with non-unionized teachers who are scared of being fired, you will close the achievement gap measured by standardized test scores. But the successes were mostly false — charter schools were shedding 75% of their students in order to get a so-called 100% college acceptance rate. Other schools were practicing abusive discipline practices that forced out many of the most difficult to teach students. There was even a fiasco called the Tennessee Achievement School District which promised to take over schools in the bottom 5% and move them to the top 25% within five years. Ten years later exactly none of the schools made it out of the bottom 10%.

Reformers needed to change their PR strategy. They replaced Michelle Rhee with television personality Campbell Brown. Then when that didn’t work, they decided that maybe the education reform movement doesn’t need to have a front person so they de-centralized. The word ‘reform’ when applied to education got a toxic connotation and some proud reformers denounced the name, most notably Rahm Emanuel in a speech in 2015.

So the ‘reformers’ became the ‘rebranders.’ Instead of overtly vilifying teachers and teachers’ unions, they started saying things like. We love ‘great’ teachers. Groups like Educators For Excellence popped up supposedly representing ‘great’ teachers who resent less great teachers. Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst basically folded and got taken over by something called 50CAN. Like shapeshifters in some kind of sci-fi movie, it was hard to keep track of who were the bad guys.

You don’t hear the word ‘reformer’ so much anymore. The new thing is a trio of similar ‘re’ words. There are now calls to ‘reimagine,’ ‘reinvent,’ or to ‘rethink’ education.

The first ‘rethinker’ was Laurene Powell-Jobs who, in 2017 bought air space on all four major networks simultaneously in 2017 to ‘rethink high school.’ One of the model schools was the school I had taught at in Houston. My revelation about how the principal artificially increased her test scores by creating a school within the school for her low performing students may or may not have contributed to the principal being fired a few months later.

Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was mainly a ‘rethinker.’ She went on a a ‘Rethink Schools’ tour where she ponders some questions that nobody had ever been shrewd enough to ask:

  • Why limit educators?
  • Why assign kids to schools based on their addresses?
  • Why group kids by age?
  • Why do schools close for the summer?
  • Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun?
  • Why force all students to learn at the same speed?
  • Why measure education by hours and days?
  • Why suggest a college degree is the only path to success?
  • Why believe learning stops at graduation?

To which the answers are: We don’t, because they are close to walk to, because 17 year olds can do harder work than kindergarteners, they don’t in some districts, because if you start school at the setting of the sun it will soon be bedtime for many students, we don’t, because fortnights and scores are archaic, we don’t, we don’t.

But you know that a new moniker only becomes official when Teach For America decides they need to jump on the bandwagon. In a recent piece by TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard entitled ‘The Case For Reinventing Education.’ In it we hear the typical reformer double talk:

We must look beyond a one-size-fits-all model and recognize all learners as individuals with incredible assets and talents to nurture. We can’t limit our focus to getting students “caught up”—they must be fired up. Our young people yearn for an education that’s relevant, personalized, and grounded in their skills, passions, and concerns. We can and should measure learning happening inside and outside the classroom—and we absolutely must know how students are doing so we can allocate resources where they’re needed most. We need to both understand the learning happening right now and develop new assessments that better measure where students are academically, socially, and emotionally.

In other words, we need more standardized testing.

And no reformer, er ‘reinventer’ piece would be complete without saying “Today, a young person’s ZIP code too often determines their educational and life opportunities,” followed by an example of a school, always a charter school, that is beating the odds.

In this Villanueva Beard piece, the model school is Steel City Academy in Indiana. She links to a Bellwether report about schools that are meeting the challenges of remote teaching and learning. So I dusted off my old ‘debunking’ glasses and within about five minutes I tracked down the data on the Indiana state website for this model charter school.

OK, “So what,” you say, “only 1.1% of their 10th graders passed the science test and 2.7% of their 10th graders passed the math test. What matters is ‘growth.” Well in that department they didn’t fare so well either:

Usually it’s a lot harder than this. They often pick a school that has artificially inflated test scores due to attrition. Keep in mind, this is the school Villanueva Beard chose to highlight. One of the lowest performing schools in test scores and growth in the state of Indiana.

Whether they are ‘rethinkers,’ ‘reinventers,’ or ‘reimaginers’, a reformer by any other name still doesn’t know anything about schools.

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