The End of Education Reform

by Robert Pondiscio
September 21st, 2009

A remarkable speech by Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute is all the more remarkable for the lack of chatter it has generated in the edusphere.  Titled “Is It Time to Throw in the Towel on Education Reform?” the September 9 speech at Rice University notes a broad consensus on education reform that has existed for better than two decades is coming apart at the seams.  “The overriding goal of that consensus was to boost America’s academic achievement at the K-12 level,” Finn notes, and it gave rise to “a tsunami of standards-based reform.”

He cites several major developments contributing to the fraying of that consensus.  Among them: unhappiness with NCLB and a palpable backlash against testing that “goes to the heart of standards-based reform.”  On school choice, he points out, far too many charters and schools of choice have been “disappointingly mediocre.”  Then there are the results of the reform era:

Despite all the reforming, U.S. scores have remained essentially flat, graduation rates have remained essentially flat, and our international rankings have remained essentially flat. You can find some upward blips but you can also find downward blips. Big picture, over 25 years, is flat, flat, flat. In other words, all the reforming has yielded little or nothing by way of stronger outcomes.

Finn also cites “principled critiques by serious people” as another crack in the ed reform wall:

E.D. Hirsch’s new book may be its most cogent example, at least until Diane Ravitch’s next book emerges—of both standards-based reform and school choice on grounds that these structural changes neglect crucial issues of content and pedagogy—neglect what actually goes on in classrooms between teacher and learner—while narrowing the curriculum and weakening the common culture. 

 Has the reform consensus “outlived its usefulness?”  Finn compares American education to the situation the nation found itself in when the Articles of Confederation proved insufficient to the needs of the new nation.  “We may be at a similar stage with regard to our public-education system,” he notes. “Further tugging and kicking at it from the banks of the Potomac is not going to modernize it.”

I’m suggesting to you that American education today resembles America itself in 1785. The old arrangement isn’t working well enough and probably cannot be made to. A new constitution is needed. It’s in that sense that we should throw in the towel on education reform and think instead about reinvention.

 Checker briefly lists his ideas for “essential ingredients” of this new constitution including national standards and measures; portable statewide “weighted-student” financing; and the replacement of traditional school districts “with an array of virtual systems and regional or national operators (some of them technology-based).”


  1. and the replacement of traditional school districts “with an array of virtual systems and regional or national operators (some of them technology-based).

    Caveat: I’m a local school board member, and most likely somewhat biased on this issue. That said, it seems to me that one of the most consistent features of effective schools is strong community engagement. Sometimes it’s just the immediate parent community, but in many not-too-huge districts, it’s the entire community.

    It appears hard to reproduce this level of engagement in large urban areas — but it seems misguided to throw out a system of governance that works effectively in many areas, and replace it with something untested, just because it doesn’t work everywhere.

    As long as public money is spent on education, voters are going to want accountability. Semi-privatization, with accountability maintained only at the state level, seems to me to be a recipe for bureaucracy and public disengagement.

    Comment by Rachel — September 21, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

  2. Interesting. Thanks for posting the link. It would be a lot more convincing if the items he suggests should part of the new system (in his final paragraph) didn’t sound awfully similar to all the usual pieces of the reform agenda–standards, choice, different approach to staffing, etc. Aren’t those the things that didn’t work?

    Comment by Jack — September 21, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

  3. Robert,

    I read it and found, as with many things he writes, that Finn’s sppech was thoughtful and provocative.

    I assume the reason the TV show bookers did not immediately call me to ask if I could appear to discuss it was that the President had sucked all the air out of the room with his Pentathalon (six if you include Letterman, I guess)

    Or maybe Finn’s hit the nail on the head when he said “People are sick of the topic, weary of promises, tired of plans and schemes and initiatives.” So weary in fact that they did not even respond to his speech?

    Here in Gotham the Mayor seems (in part by his recent poaching of Chris Serf from Tweed) to think that ed reform is a plank that will serve him well in his bid for a third term. But maybe NYC is the exception that proves the rule that Americans are generally weary of Ed reform?

    Comment by Matthew — September 21, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

  4. From Rachel…
    As long as public money is spent on education, voters are going to want accountability.

    Comment by Eric Kalenze — September 21, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

  5. From Rachel…
    “As long as public money is spent on education, voters are going to want accountability.”

    Accountability is one thing. Calling and demanding actions that compromise the institutional missions of schools, however, are another–and this is the type of ‘accountability’ most voters demand of their communities’ schools. In my time as a teacher, such ‘accountability’ measures, if they made it to the school board, forced abolishment of grade penalties for excessive truancies, cleansed Language Arts curriculums of ‘offensive’ texts, removed all teeth from a zero-tolerance weapons policy, etc., etc., etc.

    Schools, of course, should not be left off the hook. Their continued inability to put necessary sticks in the sand is the main reason they have lost all sense of center, guided instead by the their constituencies’ many grinding axes.

    Comment by Eric Kalenze — September 21, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

  6. I’d like to see all traditional district schools abolished and replaced with charter schools open to any student regardless of where he/she lives. Why should only the kids from wealthy families have the opportunity to go to a good school?

    It’s ridiculous that of the 16 elementary schools in my district, the only decent one is in the neighborhood where homes go for well over $1.5 million. I guarantee that if they turned that school into a charter and held an entrance exam, my child would score better than 95+% of the kids who are currently enrolled. Admission to good schools should be based on merit NOT the finances of the child’s parents…

    Comment by Crimson Wife — September 21, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

  7. Charter schools with entrance exams are great for kids who do well on entrance exams. But do we really want to move to a world where schools are segregated by test scores?

    Comment by Rachel — September 22, 2009 @ 2:54 am

  8. Rachel asks whether we really want schools segregated by test scores. I suppose a good deal depends on the quality of the tests. But generally overlooked is the fact that our schools are currently segregated by age. The significant downsides to age segregation are generally not recognized because they are assumed to be normal. I became part of the homeschooling community before I could see these effects. One serious effect is the risk that young teenagers seeking to establish an independent identity from their parents will have only others as immature as themselves to draw upon. Testing and grouping by knowledge already gained could have benefits for both teachers and students. But I guess charter schools aren’t doing that either.

    Comment by Homeschooling Granny — September 22, 2009 @ 7:24 am

  9. We already have segregated schools. But instead of segregating by merit, they’re segregated by parental income. Test scores may not be perfect measures of merit but they’re a heck of a lot fairer way to allot school spaces than the current system. If I’m a poor but bright kid, I’ve got a realistic chance at getting selected by an exam school but no shot at a school where attendance is restricted to residents of a wealthy neighborhood.

    One third of the students at Boston Latin and Lowell in S.F. and more than one quarter of the students at Stuyvesant in NYC are from low-income families. These kids are getting a way better education at their exam schools than they would if forced to attend their neighborhood schools. How many more poor but bright kids are having their potentials wasted by the scarcity of exam schools in the U.S.?

    Comment by Crimson Wife — September 22, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

  10. Here’s my watchdog that doen’t bark question. Ten years ago, administrators were administrators. Presumably administrators were qualified for that task. Now they are supposed to lead Whole School Reform. Why would we think that they are qualified for that? In their spare time, administrators picked up a whole new set of skills?

    What we need are central offices, and presumably state offices and school leaders who can be consumers of school reform evidence. We are a long way from that. But at least that goal would be doable.

    Of course, the same applies to teachers. Ten years ago we were supposed to be teachers. Now we’re supposed to guarantee the success of all of our students? What has happened in the past decade that would allow good teachers – who didn’t save every kid in the past – to do that now?

    Comment by john thompson — September 22, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

  11. Well, I don’t have a crystal ball. Nor do I have extensive knowledge of educational history, or of history in general. However when Finn says “I’m suggesting to you that American education today resembles America itself in 1785.” I have this gut level urge to not take his suggestion. Maybe American education is not in a situation analogous to American governance in 1785.

    It is constantly claimed from many quarters that America’s schools aren’t good enough, aren’t as good as they should be. I don’t know. There’s always room for improvement in anything we do. But I not sure we should expect much improvement by flailing about blindly. Sure, we have international comparisons that show we’re not on top. Sure, we’d like to be on top. Sure, we have things to learn from other educational systems in other countries. But I don’t think there is any obvious plan. Adopting practices from foreign school systems that do well has the problem that what works well in one culture may not work well in another culture.

    Maybe, as Finn says, American education is like American governance in 1785, but maybe American education is like democracy, inefficient, messy, slow, contentious, cumbersome, and frustrating, but better than any alternative for our culture.

    Comment by Brian Rude — September 22, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

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