Jeff Bryant: The End of School ‘Reform’
Jeff Bryant is an independent journalist covering education in the U.S. In the recent all-education issue of The Progressive, he offered some observations about the end of school ‘reform’ as we’ve known it–and what might come next. He starts by noting several recent stories of the collapse of ‘reform’ initiatives.
These stories highlight the waning of three “school improvement” approaches: strict accountability with private management, mayoral control, and no-excuses charter schools. Each approach was among the pillars of “education reform” favored by previous presidential administrations and heartily endorsed by Washington, D.C., policy shops, such as the Center for American Progress.
Taken in unison, the three stories also contribute to the much larger narrative of how the once all-pervasive and generously funded policy movement known as education reform has ended—not with a bang, but a whimper.
Other policy directives of the reform movement that are also being relegated to the dustbin of history include state takeovers of low-performing schools, evaluating teachers based on student test scores, and flunking third-graders who score below a certain threshold on reading exams.
Architects and cheerleaders of the reform movement have noticed how their cause has transitioned into a sunset phase. Conor Williams, a fellow at the Century Foundation who has lifted up the outcomes of education reform in Washington, D.C., writes for The 74, a pro-reform media outlet, that “we’ve arrived at the end of an era in American public education,” calling the ideas propelled by policies like Race to the Top “pretty much toast.”
Writing in Education Week, Van Schoales, who as president of the nonprofit A+ Colorado was a prominent driver of reform in that state, declared the movement “over” and urged his reform-minded colleagues to “work directly with those closest to the problems” and “focus now on listening.”
Anyone taking to heart advice to listen to educators and advocates on the ground had better be ready to hear a cacophony.
However, in school board meetings and other public forums around the country, it’s been the voices of angry parents and political agitators, often financially backed by rightwing think tanks and advocacy groups, who are the ones being heard.
They have demanded that schools open for in-person learning during the pandemic, pushed to lift requirements that students wear masks and practice social distancing, and, most recently, denounced teachers for supposedly “indoctrinating” children in ideas such as critical race theory that, they argue, shame white people and create divisiveness in society.
Pitched battles over school curriculums and teaching practices—like the one being waged in Loudoun County, Virginia, where a recent school board meeting had to be shut down, a raucous audience member was arrested, and school board members now face a recall—have overtaken more sober and reasoned policy discussions about how to improve students’ academic outcomes and respond to their social-emotional needs.
These conflicts, as Adam Sanchez reports in this issue of The Progressive, have led to a raft of new bills—many now enshrined as state laws—aiming to force teachers to teach a “mythological version of U.S. history” that omits shameful facts about racism and other forms of discrimination.