Thinking about “Corporate Reform”–Part 2

Positive Outcomes from Three Decades of Economic-driven School Reforms

  1. Hastened shift from defining school effectiveness as the level of resources that go into schooling children and youth to an exclusive concentration on outcomes.

Since the late-19th century, policymakers judged the quality of schools and their effectiveness by how much money was spent per-student, the credentials teachers possessed, the worth of buildings, and instructional resources given to teachers and students—what economists called “inputs.”

The use of student test scores to assess school effectiveness and student learning began in the mid-1960s when the U.S. Congress mandated that scores from standardized tests be used to evaluate the success of Title I programs targeting low-income schools in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. By the end of the 1970s, urban school reformers had begun to compare and contrast those high-scoring urban elementary schools enrolling largely poor and minority children with schools in neighborhoods with similar enrollments that were low-performers. Ronald Edmonds and others noted the factors that were associated with high performing schools and throughout the 1980s, Effective Schools programs spread slowly across urban districts.

With the publication of Nation at Risk in 1983 and frequent media attention to where U.S. students ranked on international tests, active reform coalitions lobbied federal, state, and local officials to overhaul and restructure failing U.S. schools. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, initiated programs throughout the 1990s that used test scores and other outcome measures such as drop-out rates, percentages of students graduating high school, and numbers of graduates attending college to determine program effectiveness. Many states required tests and public reporting of student outcomes in attendance, dropouts, and high school graduates. With the passage of No Child Left Behind (2002), the federal government mandated states to use test scores and other outcomes to determine whether schools were succeeding or failing. Those that were failing had to be improved or closed.

By 2010, the entire vocabulary of effective schooling had shifted nearly 180 degrees from “inputs” to “outputs.” If an “input” like per-pupil expenditure is used, more often than not, it highlights discrepancies between high-expenditure districts with mostly low-income students doing less well in test scores than similar districts spending fewer dollars but harvesting higher test scores. How much money is spent on schools—the criterion of effective schools used for nearly a century—has been replaced by ranking schools on the basis of test scores.

I do consider the three-decade focus on student outcomes as an overall plus since it directed public attention to those in-school factors that can be solidly linked to changes in student performance, albeit on the constricted measure of test scores. How schools are governed and organized, what knowledge and skills students are expected to learn, whether teachers work alone or collaborate, how teachers teach and students learn—all become factors that can be (and should be) connected to student outcomes.

So the past three decades have hastened movement toward a focus on student outcomes that had been underway since the late-1960s and now has coalesced into an unvarnished—and here is my criticism—exclusive concentration on test scores supplemented occasionally by other student outcomes.

2.  Accelerated tapping of non-traditional pools for new teachers and administrators.

With the growth of teacher education in colleges and universities throughout the 20th century, a single path to becoming a teacher certified to teach elementary and secondary school and credentialed as an administrator emerged. Becoming a teacher required a bachelor’s degree with a major in a subject area that included state-required courses and a minimum amount of time in schools working as an apprentice teacher. Similar state requirements for principals and superintendents led to university certification for administrators.

With the surge of school reform in the 1960s, teacher education institutions came under attack for monopolizing the market. Entrepreneurial educators seeking ways of improving urban schools and backed by federal and philanthropic funding looked to returning Peace Corps Volunteers, mid-career military, and women whose children are no longer in school as sources of new teachers. Most already had bachelors’ degrees so alternative paths to attaining certification grew  throughout the 1970s.

With reform-driven coalitions in the 1980s and 1990s seeking to overhaul U.S. schools, teacher education programs came under increasing attack. More alternative paths to becoming a teacher, building on earlier programs, emerged such as Teach for America, The New Teacher project, and similar ventures elsewhere including ones for principals and superintendents. These alternative paths for recruiting, training, and placing novices in hard-to-fill posts in urban schools have significantly challenged conventional university-based teacher education programs and how new teachers (and administrators) enter schools.

3. Increased parental choice of public schools.

Charters, magnets, and portfolios of options in urban public schools have  provided different visions of how schools can be in offering poor and minority parents choices for their children.

There were, of course, alternatives that offered different visions of schooling in the 1960s. In Arlington (VA) where I served as superintendent in the 1970s and early 1980s, parents could chose from progressive to traditional elementary and secondary schools, ones that still exist today. Ditto for many other districts. What the current expansion of parental choice has done is accelerate and extend choice into areas hitherto unexplored.

For example, whatever one thinks of KIPP schools, there is little doubt that such schools have provided both a vision and proof that minority and poor children can succeed—much as an earlier generation of “effective schools” did in the 1980s and 1990s. The same can be said of charters such as Aspire, Green Dot, Leadership Public Schools, and “blended learning” schools where mixes of online and regular classroom teaching appeal to parents.

While that expanded parental choice has yet to satisfy pent-up demands for more high-achieving schools in many cities and while the aim of creating competitive pressure on urban districts to copy such models has yet to lead to altered teaching practices or widespread duplication of such schools within districts, it is clear in 2012 that new structures of  choice have, indeed, opened up options for low-income parents that simply had not existed earlier.

There have been costs, however. The idea of public charters and alternatives broadening the supply of schools to meet increasing demands from parents and the notion of customizing schools to appeal to parents, schools have been marketed in ways similar to other commodities that can be purchased, used, and dumped. Branding schools as consumer products mock the very point of having public schools to improve society and the individual.

In light of the costs involved for these positive outcomes, I would still judge their worth an overall plus. An “overall plus” acknowledges that   exclusive focus on test scores has gone too far and too fast. Negatives appear in using student test scores to determine individual teacher effectiveness even when validity and reliability of such value-added measures are suspect. Negatives appear in the constant rhetoric of business and civic leaders eager to produce better graduates for the changing U.S. labor market  turning teaching, learning, and schools into virtual commodities.

A better balance between inputs, processes, and outcomes has yet to be struck than now exists.


Filed under school reform policies

10 responses to “Thinking about “Corporate Reform”–Part 2

  1. Pingback: Thinking about “Corporate Reform”–Part 2 By @LarryCuban « juandon. Innovación y conocimiento

  2. The utilitarian argument you focus on in your penultimate paragraph is the one I have most problems with. When I entered the profession it just never occurred to me, or any of the excellent teachers I was lucky enough to work with in my first years as a teacher, that education was a crude equation with jobs. The idea would have bemused the teachers who were, in effect, my mentors. For them education was a far more idealistic enterprise, involving things like the transmission of ethical and cultural values, civility and even civilisation.

    Even in my latter years as a teacher, the English colleagues I worked with would have laughed at the suggestion that they were responsible in any way for their pupils’ examination results. It was simply a given that they taught as well as they could and that it was the pupils’ responsibility and choice, to gain the grades they sought or not. At a distance of some years and with a far wider ranging experience of schools and schooling under my belt now, I would go even further and assert that the reality was the children they taught were privileged to have them as their teachers.

    If anyone believes their job as a teacher is merely to deliver a child into the job market…I, for one, would prefer they chose another career.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Joe,
      Over the years, I have made a distinction–comes from Gary Fenstermacher and Virginia Richardson–between “good” teaching and “successful” teaching. I have found that useful in my thinking about what happens in classrooms and how teachers practice their craft to reach the ends they desire. Perhaps, we part ways here, but given the above distinctions and the necessary things that have to be in place for “successful” learning to occur, I still feel that teachers have to be more concerned about what they do daily that is associated with student outcomes. Of course, you know that I do not refer to test scores.

  3. Thanks Larry. That’s a clever and valuable distinction I can make good use of, especially in one of my current projects with the thinktank, ResPublica, which is about teaching “excellence.” I’ve read all the research I could find on “excellence” in subject specialist teaching (not much to read!) and so the distinction between activity that helps determine pupil learning outcomes, as opposed to activity that might influence them ethically, morally or culturally, is a genuinely useful one.

    I do agree completely, that for very many teachers, there could be a much more conscious, short term goal-setting effort, to connect their planning and immediate classroom choices, with what their pupils achieve.

  4. Iaviator

    Part 2 left me thinking of “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” I haven’t hung out with too many “policy elites” and agree that there is not a grand conspiracy involved in corporate ed reform, but the net effect from a public policy standpoint has been a disaster for the teaching profession as well as the poor needy students reform is supposed to save.

    1. Focus on outputs. Biggest increases in test scores came after the 60’s and early 70’s partially as a result of massive inputs in education but also in the pockets of American workers. Current focus on outputs is largely distorted in needy districts with obsession on test scores. Affluent districts are largely unaffected and continue to maintain status and priviledge.

    2. Non-traditional pools of teachers and administrators. I’m not seeing too many affluent schools hiring candidates with TFA-like prep and tales from TFA graduates are not impressive. Michelle Rhee? Arne Duncan? I don’t have a problem with alternative routes to teaching or leadership, but there has to be a Bozo the Clown detector in the process somewhere!

    How many affluent districts are tapping candidates who go through a six week crash course on teaching? How many affluent districts are looking for administrators with no experience or preparation in education?

    3. Parental choice. I have mixed feelings here in that if a parent signs on for Kipp Academy and likes the drill, I guess they should have the option but evidence does not support that choice in itself benefits the public interest if charters are cherry-picking the talent or looting the public treasury.

    So I say, a pox on corporate reform– even though it will cost me any support from Bill and Melinda…

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the thoughtful and passionate response to my Part 2 on “corporate reformers.” Like yourself, I have doubted conspiracy notions but recognize that the consequences of these convergent interests can be and have been harmful to teachers, public schools, and the practice of democracy. And, like yourself, I have had mixed feelings about each of the “positives” that I identified. I agree with the exceptions you point out to the “positives.”

  5. Iaviator

    I appreciate your attempt to find something good amid the wreckage as well as possible areas of common understanding. As long as the public accepts the fiction that fixing education is necessary for our economic well-being, I don’t anticipate change. As long as money drives the politics, that fiction and others will be maintained by the political rhetoric of both parties.

    • larrycuban

      I do anticipate political changes–yes, I confess that I am a cautious optimist and admit to being a tempered idealist. Public acceptance of the “fiction that fixing education is necessary for our economic well-being” was itself a political outcome of different group interests converging in linking the economy to education. That had happened before between the 1890s-1920s with the establishment of vocational education and schools preparing students for jobs. But that public acceptance of a “fiction” changed in the late-1950s through the 1970s when schools became engines of social change–another “fiction.” Those who challenge these popular beliefs and many do so now are the vanguard of another shift in political beliefs about the role and function of schools in a democratic society.

  6. Sandy

    Do Our Public Schools Threaten National Security?
    June 7, 2012 Diane Ravitch
    Beginning in 1983 in the report “A Nation at Risk” the reform movements in public education have attached public education as the harbinger of doom for our nation unless the reform de jour is adopted. Here Ravitch reviews a newly released report the proclaims the end is near, “US Education Reform and National Security” written by Joel Klein, former NYC schools chancellor, and Condoleezza Rice. These notables led a taskforce that drew the conclusion that public schools pose a risk to national security.

    “What marks this report as different from its predecessors, however, is its profound indifference to the role of public education in a democratic society, and its certainty that private organizations will succeed where the public schools have failed. Previous hand-wringing reports sought to improve public schooling; this one suggests that public schools themselves are the problem, and the sooner they are handed over to private operators, the sooner we will see widespread innovation and improved academic achievement. ”

    Yet, after “A Nation at Risk” our economy didn’t fail, some education reforms took hold overall, and graduation rates increased, as they continue to do so today. The rhetoric of reformers is so shrill that an individual can’t be heard over them saying, “you’ve lost your minds!”

    I’m voting for Diane Ravitch for president. I’ll just have to write her name in the blank.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for sending along the piece by Diane Ravitch in the NYRB. I had not seen it. I am sure she will appreciate your vote in November.

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