What was school reform like before Covid-19 ( BC)?
Since the mid-1980s, U.S. public schools had been enthralled with and institutionalized a series of reforms that are now called the “standards, testing, and accountability movement.” It is nearly three decades long.
Recall that the Progressive movement began in the 1890s and, depending upon the historian one reads, lasted until the 1920s or through World War II. The other reform movement that flowed across the schools had a shorter life-span. The civil rights movement spilling over public schools is usually dated by the 1954 Brown decision and peters out by the mid-1970s. Soon to be overtaken by the “standards, testing, and accountability” reforms that readers know so well.
Civic and corporate leaders allied with enthusiastic donors turned public schools in the 1980s to building human capital essential to fostering economic growth and stronger competition for global markets. Their overall strategy was (and still is) to apply a business model of competitiveness, innovation, and efficiency to public schools that fixed attention on the bottom line of test scores and return-on-investment in high school graduates entering and completing college.[i]
These leaders and foundation officials over the past three decades have created beefy portfolios of reform ventures including changes in funding and structural innovations such as vouchers, charter schools, common curriculum standards, testing and accountability including using student scores to determine district and school “success” and “failure.”
No Child Left Behind (2001-2015) collected converted state initiatives into federal policy under Republican President George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama. This cobbled together strategy emerged from ideas tossed up by business and civic leaders and entrepreneurial policymakers who cherry-picked anecdotal and statistical evidence from here and there to convince Americans that the result would be strong schools, strong students, and a strong economy.
A jerry-built reform strategy of ventures flung together helter-skelter add up to a movement to improve public schools through expanded parental choice of public schools and instilling market competition into a quasi-monopolistic institution. For-profit companies taking over low-performing public schools (e.g. K-12 Inc., Edison Inc–now defunct), non-profit charter schools (e.g., KIPP, Aspire, Summit Schools, Green Dot), and, under NCLB, requiring districts to meet their Adequate Yearly Progress targets or be closed. NCLB had a legislative do-over in 2016 and is now called Every Student Succeeds Act.
This standards, testing, and accountability regime existed Before Covid-19 hit. With the closing of schools in March 2020 and the stunning shift to remote instruction and uncertainty when most U.S. students will return to face-to-face instruction, these reforms in curriculum standards, annual tests, and accountability mechanisms to insure responsibility for student outcomes are frozen in place. Even state tests for the upcoming school year, if U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has her way.
Alfie Kohn believes that the pandemic is a pivot point for school districts to pull back from standardized tests, how colleges admit students, and reassess grades that teachers are required to give. Part of me wants to join Kohn in his belief that the pandemic can trigger deep and important changes.Part of me, the part that has studied school reform, however, says that it is possible but improbable that such changes will occur.
Another major reform strategy existed before Covid-19 struck. Giving all teachers and students access to instructional technology (e.g., laptops, tablets, etc.) and expecting their use in daily lessons, technology-driven reformers saw these devices and an array of software as ways of improving both teaching and student learning.
Technology reforms Before Covid-19
Since the early 1980s with the appearance of desktop computers in schools, questions about their presence in classrooms have been debated. Access to, use of, and results from new technologies have been central issues for a motley coalition of high-tech vendors, technophile educators, and policymakers eager to satisfy parents and voters who want schools to be technologically up-to-date with other institutions. And this coalition has surely been successful in increasing teacher and student access to desktop computers, then laptops, and now tablets and smartphones.
First, a quick run through the initial goals and current ones in putting new technologies into the hands of teachers and students. Then a brief look at access, use, and results of the cornucopia of devices in schools.
By the mid-1980s, there were clear goals and a strong rationale for investing in buying loads of hardware and software and wiring buildings . Those goals were straightforward in both ads and explicit promises vendors and entrepreneurs made to school boards and administrators.
*students would learn more, faster, and better;
*classroom teaching would be more student-friendly and individualized;
*graduates would be prepared to enter the high-tech workplace.
By the early 2000s, evidence that any of these goals were achieved was either scant or missing. It became increasingly clear that promised software in math and English (to meet NCLB requirements) fell far short of raising students’ test scores or lifting academic achievement. The promise of algorithms and program playlists tailored to each student’s academic profile (often called “personalization”) had faltered then and even now remains a work in progress (see here, here, and here).
As for the goal that learning to use hardware and software applications would lead to jobs in technology became another casualty of over-promising with few returns to high school graduates. That jobs were hardly automatic for those students who knew spreadsheets and BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) in the 1980s and 1990s became obvious to students with diplomas in hand. By the 2010s, teaching coding to children and getting the subject of computer science into the high school curriculum spread across U.S. schools.
Those initial goals and rationale for flooding schools with new devices, lacking substantial evidence to support them, have now shifted to another set of reasons for computers in schools:
*Devices are essential since all standardized tests and other student assessments will be on computers.
*Learning to use machines and applications in schools–including coding–will give a leg-up for graduates to get entry-level jobs in most businesses and industries.
*The dream of “personalizing” instruction–in-person teaching and software tailored to individual differences in each and every child–can now become a reality with every student having a device at school and at home.
The constant chasing of a technological solution to a teaching and learning problem captures the BC experience of school reform.
And it is here that BC technology reforms slide over to DC–During Covid Reforms. I take up the nation’s school districts embracing remote instruction as a temporary replacement for in-person schooling in Part 3.