A Progressive Response to “Ed. Reform’s Lost Decade”

Nick Covington
January 30, 2020
For those who believe the measure of a quality education can be distilled into an assessment score, the last 20 years of data must be intensely disappointing.

It’s fitting that the Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio begins his latest piece, Ed. reform’s lost decade: Twilight of the technocrats, with what could have been the epitaph of this generation of education reform, from Jonathan Alter in the 2010 film “Waiting For Superman”:

“Twenty-five years ago, there was no proof that something else worked. Well, now we know what works. We know that it’s just a lie that disadvantaged kids can’t learn. We know that if you apply the right accountability standards you can get fabulous results. So why would we do something else?”
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NAEP Reading Scores 1992–2019

So why would we do something else? For those who believe the measure of a quality education can be distilled into an assessment score, the last 20 years of data must be intensely disappointing. 2019 NAEP scores for both 4th and 8th graders were up marginally compared to 1992 while down marginally compared to 2017. According to recently released 2018 PISA results, while there have been some science gains in recent years, especially among students in the lowest scoring percentiles, 15 year-olds scoring below average in math and reading had even lower scores in 2018 than their counterparts in 2000 and 2003, respectively.

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PISA scores in reading, science, and math

Meanwhile — *gestures at everything* — we have the largest wealth gap since the Roaring 20s. Poor kids are more likely to remain poor. We are approaching a nearly $2T student loan debt bubble. We face a broken political system following a global trend of democratic backsliding into authoritarianism. A drug and mental health crisis combined with a broken healthcare system has seen US life expectancy decrease 3 years in a row. And in 2018 the US had 57 times as many school shootings as other major nations combined — among so many other poor outcomes unique to Americans — all while we sit on the precipice of a planetary environmental disaster. Whew.

Traditional, standardized education reform has done nothing to alleviate any of these systemic social, political, economic, or environmental ills nor has it created any kind of widespread positive social transformation, though it certainly has contributed to socioeconomic sorting and perpetuated the severe inequality we see today. Pondiscio, it seems, concedes this point: “One lesson of the past decade may be that if reducing poverty is your public policy goal, education might not be your primary strategy.”

So if the last 20 years of top-down school reform (NCLB, Race to the Top, Common Core) haven’t improved our overall social, political, and economic — let alone educational — health; however, they have cost trillions of dollars to implement over time.

Between 1997–2011, the Department of Education budget nearly doubled from $33.52B to $63B a year, reaching a high of $138B in 2009 (with funding from the Recovery Act), while Race to the Top disbursed money through a one-time $4.35 billion grant to states based on a complicated application formula, and though it may be impossible to nail down a total cost in the push for national standards the Common Core has had a price tag estimated as high as $80B.

Regarding the distribution of the benefits of Common Core spending, the authors of a paper published in the Educational Policy Analysis Archives concluded: “In essence, those who set directions for the Common Core and those who provided resources for its implementation have benefitted, even as potential benefits to schools, educators, and students are elusive, and the entire claim may ultimately be empty.” (emphasis mine)

They continue:

“For-profit grantees that provided Common Core tests, aligned curriculum, or other resources benefitted through increased sales and revenue. A survey of vendors of educational software and digital content indicated that their market grew by 57% between the 2010–11 and 2012- 13 school years due to the Common Core and related demands for new assessments (Cavanaugh, 2014b). This growth occurred even though it is not evident that such products improve teaching and learning or reduce achievement gaps.”

Even as, the authors conclude, “implementation…has driven attention to metrics and measurable growth at the expense of attention to non-tested content or students’ social, emotional, and civic development”.

But what explanation is there for knowing more today about “what works” than at the outset of reform while the benefits of “what works” have failed to materialize? Of course, Pondiscio blames “intransigent vested interests, including teachers unions, school boards, superintendents, and administrators” who “have no incentive to reform and reliably block it at every turn” and claims that “institutional racism, segregation, and the broad array of social ills that have diverted education reform’s attention from its core business of teaching and learning”.

Aside from the fundamental issues of the de facto segregation of schools, chronic underfunding, and the fact that states vary wildly in their spending on elementary and secondary education as a percentage of GDP, blaming teachers and their unions as “intransigent vested interests” misses the point that while those doing the very labor of teaching bore the consequences, the incentives of accountability-driven reform went to markets adjacent to schools. While the market grew for for-profit vendors, testing companies, and distributors, the period of 2009–2018 also saw public sector union membership decline by 3.5% and teacher pay fall 4.5%.

At the same time our national attention was shifted away from the social and emotional well-being of our students, teacher voice was being devalued and teaching was deprofessionalized for anything other than its relationship to the testing and standards machine. This essential shift in our attention and the work of teachers from cultivating “social, emotional, and civic development” to micromanaging “measurable growth” for students and “value-added performance” for teachers should be a metaphor for the reform movement broadly, as we stand now before a decade of flat test scores yet have acquired a profound mental health crisis in which suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth age 15–24.

Again, as Pondiscio reaffirms in his piece, “So much reform, so little to show for it.”

Nick Covington
Nick taught social studies for 10 years in Iowa and has worked as a labor organizer. He is currently the Creative Director at the Human Restoration Project.
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