And so, the last century of reform in America has been the story of these three political and social movements beginning with excited policy talk, then moving to downsized policy actions, and finally erratic implementation spilling over public schools. Beyond these reformers achieving a few of their intended goals in each era, what often goes unnoticed are some of the unintended—even perverse– effects of hyperbolic reform talk, narrowed adoption of policies, and uneven execution.
Perverse outcomes of school reforms
Consider the massive effort by civil rights reformers to desegregate schools between the 1960s and 1980s following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown decision (1954).
Activists used both direct action such as boycotts and marches and indirect action such as legal strategies to get urban districts to desegregate through busing, making larger city/county districts that straddled attendance boundaries, and taking school boards to federal court for maintaining segregated schools—strategies that civil rights reformers believed would bring minority and white children together to learn. Many of these efforts succeeded, particularly in the South in the 1970s and 1980s (see here and here).
The fact of the matter is that then residential segregation determined school segregation then and now. Where students went to school in cities and suburbs depended upon where families lived. In a largely working class Latino area, for example, the neighborhood school would be heavily Latino. Ditto for low-income Blacks and upper-income suburban whites. Thus, white, Black, and Latino families moving in and out of urban residential areas (where practices such as racial covenants embedded in deeds banning sales to minority families and banks that didn’t give mortgages to neighborhoods outlined in red on a city map kept the races apart) led to re-segregated schools where mostly black and brown children enrolled—often coming from families in poverty. Suburban schools often became white enclaves (see here).
The unintended effect of direct actions and court-driven efforts to hasten desegregation, then, was to speed up re-segregation of poor and minority students by residential location and covert bank practices. Few policymakers after the Brown decision (1954) anticipated the return of racial and ethnic separation of whites from African American and Latino school children.
Or consider that one of the intended effects in the 1980s and 1990s of raising state high school graduation requirements, strengthening curriculum standards, using tests to determine how well students achieved those standards, and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts responsible for student academic outcomes was t produce graduates able and willing to enter the workplace and secure employment. The expectation was that tying schools closer to the nation’s economy would benefit youth, the workplace and the country.
So when the federal No Child Left Behind Act (2002-2015) containing many of these features became the law of the land reformers believed that these policies would forge tighter links between schools and the economy.
The documented record, however, is mixed as to whether those reforms, including NCLB, aimed at producing skilled graduates who could enter an information-driven workplace achieved the intended goals (see here and here).
Yes, high school graduation rates have risen. And, yes, percentage of high school graduates attending college has increased. But test score gains sufficient to close the achievement gap between minorities and whites had not occurred. Nor could I find evidence that graduates were better prepared to enter the workplace than an earlier generation. Furthermore, the promise that higher standards and accountability would alter historic inequalities between minorities and whites remained unfulfilled since the 1980s when these standards, tests, and accountability reforms emerged. Unemployment and wages for African Americans compared to whites remained largely unequal and stagnant during economic growth and recessions.
Documenting the intended effects of school reforms is tough enough. But when researchers investigated the unintended or unexpected results of school reform, unusual outcomes became apparent.
Few reformers, for example, thought that NCLB with its mandated state tests and its required reporting of Adequate Yearly Progress in test scores would push state and local policymakers to manipulate student results or press teachers to narrow their classroom lessons. State officials fiddled with numbers setting the threshold for a passing score on its tests to avoid many schools being cited as “failing.” And some districts had principals and teachers actually change student results to show improvements. Additionally, many districts across the nation tapered their curricula to fit what was on these state tests and set aside school time to prepare students for end-of-year exams. These unintended outcomes became obvious within a few years of NCLB’s passage.
Even worse in the wake of NCLB, many urban and suburban districts found that their schools had failed to meet the law’s criteria for improvement. States published districts’ test scores and districts announced school-by-school scores identifying those schools that were in danger of closing if results didn’t improve. Each year, shame and blame exponentially spread across the U.S. as states, districts and schools flunked NCLB requirements.
Local and state officials complained annually about the unfairness of such measures applied without acknowledging demographic differences in districts and schools. They lobbied their legislators to alter the federal law. The deluge of complaints and meager student outcomes led the U.S. Congress to dump NCLB and pass the Every Student Succeeds Act delegating the power to determine school success and failure to each state. President Barak Obama signed ESSA into law in 2015. In effect, the 2002 reform was re-formed in 2015.
None of this, of course, is new. Policy researchers and historians are well aware of how hard it is to determine unvarnished success of reform-driven policies over time in districts and schools. They are equally aware of how commonly unexpected outcomes accompany these very same policies. Nor is it new that these unanticipated outcomes seldom shook the widespread embrace of reform-driven policies, then and now, uplifting those Americans who historically have done poorly in public schools—immigrants, rural migrants, and low-income children of color.
Rock-hard faith in the curative powers of schooling
Reformers in each generation believed in their hearts that they could solve thorny social, political, and economic problems. They knew what had to be done and had the answers. Public schools, they held, were the chief, if not the sole, determiner of individual and national success. Schooling was the great equalizer shaping the life journey that individual children and youth traveled. Mirroring the deeply embedded and traditional belief that American institutions can, indeed make people better, the school, like the church and family, was an instrument for not only reforming individuals and institutions but also curing societal ills such as illiteracy, poverty, and economic errors.
Recall that industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie endowed the Foundation for the Improvement of Teaching in 1905 and funded the construction and maintenance of nearly 1700 free libraries across the country between 1883-1929.
Also President Lyndon Johnson had as the centerpiece of his “War on Poverty,” the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) that provided billions of dollars to poor and minority children then called “disadvantaged.”
And it is precisely on this point of faith about the curative powers of schooling that one pillar of that belief has wobbled and remains contested in 2021. For many decades there has been an enduring struggle among educators, parents, policymakers, and public officials over how much students’ backgrounds shape school effects.
For true believers, schooling raises everyone regardless of family circumstances. Yet, (and this is a very big “yet”) much evidence has piled up over the past century that social class matters on who sails through age-graded schools and who stumbles along the way. Consider, for example, that the majority of urban districts in the U.S. now house mostly minority and poor children. More than half of African American children and six out of ten Hispanic children and youth attended schools in 2017 that were at least 75 percent minority. Most of these schools are located in urban districts and historically segregated Southern rural districts. Note further than in 2013, researchers found that over half of U.S students are poor.
Moreover, the research literature on children’s academic performance has shown time and again that anywhere from over half to two-thirds of minority and white students’ test scores—lower, middle, and upper class–can be attributed to family’s socioeconomic background.
The final part of the Introduction to “Confessions of a School Reformer” follows in a subsequent post.