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).”