Education Opportunity Network

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Education ‘Reformers’ Have Lost Their PR War, So Now What?

Americans have become accustomed to seeing the figureheads of big-money interests distort reality to suit their needs and get a lot of well-meaning folks to agree with them in turn.

Recall, if you will, as Jonathan Chait recently did in New York magazine, how Wall Street-backed elites “fomented panic” about the national debt and influenced policy leaders to promulgate devastating austerity measures. Now we know their forecasts of imminent financial disaster were wrong and their judgment was in error. Yet their well-honed PR machine continues to buoy their influence forward despite the evidence.

But every once in a while, there are exceptions to the supremacy of wealth-driven messaging, and you see foundational, progressive beliefs that remain resilient among Americans despite what they have been told again and again by the spokespeople of the 1 percent.

For instance, for some thirty years, influential power-brokers and political leaders have tried to convince Americans that their system of public education is broken to the extent it poses a “risk” to the nation’s prosperity – indeed, even a threat to national security.

Despite nearly a generation of browbeating and finger wagging, the efforts of the “education reform” campaign have completely and utterly failed.

Popular opinion appears to be more behind public schools than ever. Few of the measures that have been mandated by self-anointed “reformers” appear to be widely held in favor. And those reform measures that still have some support are not generally well understood by most people and therefore remain shaky.

Even those who have been pressing the case to remake public education into a program dictated by powerful interests are now realizing their campaign needs to be completely retooled. They increasingly realize their calls for an “accountability” agenda based on unfounded measures of “success” are not only counter to what most Americans believe, they aren’t producing anything that even resembles success.

For instance, a recent review by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) of SAT test results – an exam many believe to be a measure of college readiness – found that after years of these “reform” efforts, SAT scores have dropped and gaps in scores among racial groups have widened significantly. So much for “success.”

Fortunately, there are new and better directions being proposed by those who support public education and classroom teachers. And the best way forward for policy leaders and advocates is to push these new ideas into the forefront of public attention.

Support For Public Schools Remains Resilient

Last week, the daily news brief from Politico pointed us to new survey findings that voters “strongly back” increased funding for public schools and express “strong support and admiration for public school teachers.”

The survey, from Democrats for Public Education, “found that 79 percent of Democrats, 57 percent of independents and 45 percent of Republicans support increasing funding for public schools. By contrast, voters express serious doubts about reforms such as online learning, private-school vouchers, parent trigger laws, and handoffs that let private companies take over management of public schools.”

Delving deeper into the results, one finds that “the survey validates that those who castigate public schools and teachers are simply out-of-step and out-of-touch with the American people, parents and voters,” according to the report summary.

“Solid majorities back more funding for public schools and teacher pay, and overwhelming majorities rate local public schools and their teachers highly.” Plus, Americans aren’t at all happy about reform mandates that put “too much emphasis on testing,” threaten teacher “due process”, and push a rigid form of “accountability” that is “solely fixated on tests.”

Although privately operated charter schools – another favored policy point of the reform crowd – remain nominally popular, “there is confusion about them and a mixed verdict on the performance of for-profit charters.” Specifically, there is no common ground on the status – public or private – of charter schools or their academic track record.

The pollsters concluded that education policy ideas “aligned with Democratic or progressive principles” – such as smaller class sizes and increased funding – “test higher than positions normally aligned with reform, including using student scores on standardized tests to evaluate teachers, vouchers, and running schools “like a business.”

Reformers Now Hedge On ‘Reform’

The message that reform fads are fading is not lost on those who’ve claimed the label of reform and have been pushing these measures for years.

Most of the reform fads were originally framed as ways to ensure public schools and classroom teachers were made “more accountable.” As these accountability efforts – including more emphasis on standardized testing and harsher evaluations of teachers –increasingly fare negatively in opinion surveys (the poll conducted by Democrats for Public Education is not an outlier), even reform fans are now coming to the realization they need to rethink their agenda and call for a “new approach” to accountability.

One of the most prominent of those voices, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn, recently observed, “when it comes to statewide standardized testing of the sort that’s become universal in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era, a great many parents – and a huge fraction of teachers – appear to have had enough.”

Unfortunately, the “reboot” Finn prefers seems very similar to the current version: more “choice,” vouchers in the form of “attaching money to the child,” and substituting technology for high-quality teachers. Other aspects Finn outlines for Accountability 2.0 seem more like vague talking points – “transparency-oriented testing based on rigorous standards for the curricular core” (like Common Core?) and “customizing kids’ instructional experience” (without adding more costs for school staff and “customized” instructional materials, of course!) – rather than real accountability measures.

Reform champion Center for Reinventing Public Education admitted, “We are still struggling to get accountability right.” Their proposal, “New Start on Accountability,” stays true to their fervor to press the need for a “system of accountability” – something not generally in dispute – but their new recipe for accountability seems mostly to add more ingredients to the dish – more “indicators” of “progress,” more “options” (without any more money, of course), and more harsh evaluations of “schools, not just individual teachers.”

In reviewing CRPE’s list of “new start” principles, classroom teacher and popular blogger Peter Greene stated, “There is nothing remotely new about the list of Things To Do – it’s the same old, same old reformster stuff we’ve heard before.”

The only plus Greene could give to the reform movement’s “reboot” of accountability was to note that at least they included a “list of problem areas.” Greene added that there are “‘problems’ in the sense that gravity is a problem for people who want to jump naked off high buildings, flap their arms, and not get hurt. … But the recognition of obstacles shows some grasp of reality, and that’s always a nice sign.”

Fresh Ideas Please

While reform fans continue to reboot, renew, restart, etc., the real fresh thinking about education accountability is emerging from other sources.

For some time, Julian Vasquez Heilig has posed a plan for Community-Based Accountability that “would allow for a district to drive a locally based approach that focuses on the process of education for its one-year, five-year, and ten-year goals.” As an example, he offered San Antonio’s Café College resource centers that were developed when the city made higher education enrollment and graduation, rather than high-stakes testing outcomes, a priority.

Heilig returned to that idea more recently in a discussion posted on Education Week in which he said, “A bottom-up approach would enable local communities to focus on a set of multiple measures in addition to, or instead of, standardized high-stakes testing. … The role of the state and federal government would be to calculate baselines, growth, and yearly ratings for a set of goals that communities selected in a democratic process.”

Other examples of community-based accountability he brought up included a High Performance Coalition (HPC) of 20 districts in Texas a plan in 2012 and the recent move by the California Legislature to pass a locally based accountability approach for school finance.

Also in the interest of advancing a more authentic form of education accountability, the National Education Policy Center in Boulder, CO recently announced the Schools of Opportunity project to “recognize public schools for what they do to give all students the chance to succeed, rather than turning to test scores to determine school quality.”

The project, currently being piloted in Colorado and New York but eventually expanding nationwide, will recognize schools that “use research-based practices to close the opportunity gaps that result in unequal opportunities to learn, in school and beyond school.”

In reporting the announcement, Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post wrote, “The people behind the Schools of Opportunity project are Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District in New York, and Kevin Welner, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education who specializes in educational policy and law.”

Struass republished on her site a post written by Burris and Welner stating, “As schools chase [test] scores, it is easy for us all to lose sight of the factors that truly matter in providing all students with a high-quality education.”

In contrast to that status quo, they expect their project will “recognize public high schools … for creating inputs that help close opportunity gaps and report improved outcomes.” The inputs include eleven practices – such as health and psychological services, fair discipline policies, and high-quality teacher induction and mentoring – that are identified and set forth on a Schools of Opportunity website.

Burris and Welner encouraged schools to apply for the recognition and concluded, “These are the stories we need to tell. These are the practices that should be emulated.”

Where We’re At

Self-proclaimed reformers have realized they may be losing the PR strategy for their campaign to accomplish, well, who knows what.

Unfortunately, that realization has not been accompanied by any fresh thinking on their part about what would be a better way forward. Fortunately, alternative options with real positive potential are emerging if political leaders are ready to take the initiative to advance them.

It’s clear that big money folks have not gotten their way on the nation’s public education agenda. This is both a testament to the strength of the progressive spirit in the country and to the vision that our founders had for a system of schooling that would lift the populace up to a well-informed citizenry capable of supporting a viable democracy.

Anyone who believes in a brighter future for the nation should celebrate this.

  • Nora Carr says:

    Perhaps the ongoing PR struggle is why a “non-profit communication organization” called Education Post made up of former Duncan staffers, primarily communication professionals and ex-journalists, is now issuing a “study” that is pro-choice (charter). Group purports to seek better education by having better, unbiased conversations. An executive with the Walton Foundation is listed as a financial advisor; would be interesting to see their funders, who are not listed on the site. See

    October 10, 2014 at 4:35 pm
  • Dr. Dave F. Brown says:

    Thank you for recognizing that the “reformers” (not an educational research term, but instead, a phrase borrowed by those outside of education who want to disrupt schooling for all and the public schools that have succeeded on so many fronts) have provided nothing new to the educational world. In fact, much of what occurs in many charter schools is a return to past educational practices of the 1940s and 50s rather than practices and strategies that educational research support. The primary message that is essential to comprehending what parents want from public schools is–a chance for their children and grandchildren to grow–not excel, not exceed, not beat others in the process; but merely a chance for our children and grandchildren to be treated as the individuals they are, and to take them on a daily journey of simple overall growth–growth socially, emotionally, in their identity development, and in their cognitive growth. Parents want a balance, and the public schools have provided this for decades–and well! Public schools are not “America’s public schools” but instead “my local public schools.” Any policy or law that takes the decision making away from the local community about their schools is too removed from the community to fit their specific needs. Read, Why America’s Public Schools Are the Best Place for Kids: Reality vs. Negative Perceptions (Brown, 2012).

    October 10, 2014 at 5:37 pm
  • Bret Hooper says:

    I have put Dr. Brown’s book on my wish list at Amazon because I don’t have the money to buy it right now, but I hope to order it next month. I have read a few pages on Amazon and am quite favorably impressed.
    I insisted on sending our three sons to public schools for a reason Dr. Brown doesn’t mention in his comment above: I wanted them to meet and become acquainted with children of all races, religions, etc., because they will have to meet and interact with a wide variety of people during their lifetimes, and I wanted them to learn first-hand, as I did, that the overwhelming majority of any ethnicity or any religion turn out to be good people once you get to know them. Had they grown up surrounded only by ‘their own kind’ they could have acquired prejudice against ‘them.’

    I do have one small bone to pick with Dr. Brown. He writes “Any policy or law that takes the decision making away from the local community about their schools is too removed from the community to fit their specific needs.” Certainly much of the decision-making should be local, but local teachers, principals, and school boards are not all immune from making bad decisions. I went thru public schools in New York State, and I benefited greatly from a state law that any student who passed the state regents exam passed the course. Without that law I would never have passed eighth grade English, because the seventh and eighth grade English teacher, who disliked me intensely, would have held me back, but she couldn’t overrule a 93 on the regents exam.

    I am not arguing for top-down state or federal control; I agree completely that that would be a disaster, but the state and federal governments do have a legitimate place in preventing local schools from egregious wrongdoing. Surely, for example, no local teacher, principal, or school board should be allowed to advocate killing those of the ‘wrong’ religion or ethnicity. (I certainly hope that particular misdeed never occurs, but if it did, the state or federal government would clearly be justified in stepping in.)

    Of course, if you cherry-pick the worst dozen or two dozen public schools in United States, then cite them as typical, you can present a pretty convincing argument that the public schools are failing, and that is undoubtedly how those who want to sabotage public schools operate. The truth is that most of our public schools are doing a good job, and most of the personnel of the schools that are below average want to do better, and would welcome help to improve. John Stanford proved that in Seattle. Read his book, Victory in our Schools and Robert P. Moses’ book Radical Equations as well as Dr. Brown’s book, and get them into the hands of school boards, and you will see our public schools get even better!

    One final word: while it is perfectly true that you won’t get good schools by “throwing money at them” neither will you get good schools by depriving them of the money they need to achieve excellence, or by demonizing teachers, cutting their salaries, increasing class sizes, cutting support staff, or letting school buildings and equipment deteriorate.

    October 11, 2014 at 7:22 am
  • Julie says:

    When I read and ponder the public-education-doesn’t-improve-by “throwing money at them” I always add a caveat: targeted, wisely spent money CAN and DOES help improve the educations for children living in poverty, English language learners, and children of color. When we address basic needs like food, clothing, sleep, and shelter from violence and chaos (and boy! do those things cost money!), we see outcomes improve for those student populations. I’m convinced this is where real money coupled with public/private partnerships can result in sound public education for all.

    October 13, 2014 at 2:55 pm
  • Bret Hooper says:

    Julie is absolutely right, of course. I suspect the loaded phrase “throwing money at them” was coined by someone who really wanted to dry up all funding for public schools. High quality education does not come cheap, but in the long run the cost of providing it is much cheaper than the cost of not providing it.
    The federal government should provide most of the funding for public schools. Why? Because students who go thru the public schools often leave the community where they received their schooling, and many even leave the state, but very few emigrate from the United States, so the United States nearly always receives the benefit of their education, but the local community often does not. Zol (see below) is an example: from kindergarten thru B.S. in math he went to public schools in Tennessee, and now lives and works in New York.
    Public/private partnerships, as Julie mentioned, can be very beneficial, provided that the private partner does not become the tail that wags the dog, for profit or for control.
    One quality of excellence too often missing in public schools (and private schools too) is the opportunity for students (especially minority students) to advance beyond their grade level in the subject(s) they excel in. An example of such excellence occurred in 1998-2003 in Rutherford County schools here in Tennessee. In 1998, an Afro-American sixth-grader who was recognized by his math teacher to be utterly bored with sixth-grade math was, at her recommendation moved to a seventh-grade math class. Late in the spring, seventh-grade math students at Central Middle School were given a test, and those with the top scores were put in a ninth-grade math class while in eighth grade. Zol took the test along with his math class, which resulted in him being in the ninth-grade math class while he was in seventh grade. He thought he should be similarly advanced in science, and persuaded his science teacher to administer a seventh-grade final exam, which he passed, and he was put in an eigth-grade science class. He received grades of A in both eighth-grade science and ninth-grade math. They were going to bus him to a high school for math and science, but because of a scheduling problem, the principal gave him an ‘administrative promotion’ to ninth grade. Three years later, about to become a high-school senior, he applied for early admission to Middle Tennessee State University, and registered for Organic Chemistry, a ‘weeding-out’ course for prospective pre-meds and chemistry majors. He did so well that his teacher recommended him for a teaching assistantship in chemistry. He may have been the only high-school student in America with such a part-time job. In the summer of 2003 he told me that he intended to graduate from MTSU summa cum laude, and in 2007 he did so. (This is also my favorite true story about the “inferiority” of Afro-Americans.)

    October 26, 2014 at 8:36 am

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