Tag Archives: reform policies

Democracies Need More Than One Kind of “Good” School

This post is a revised and updated version of one I wrote June 2, 2010

[A good education] “teaches you how to ask a question… it is knowing what you don’t know….”

“Ideally, one should know who Shakespeare was and why Shakespeare was important to us…. At the same time, one should know who Toni Morrison is and why her voice and take on America is important to us.”

“An educated high school grad must read, compute, persevere, organize, and problem-solve well enough not just to attend college, but to graduate from college.”

[A good education should instill] “a love of lifelong learning.”*

No surprise that views of what makes a good education differ. Such opinions about what makes an education “good” have differed for millennia among religious leaders, Greek philosophers, and those rebels in the 13 colonies who shaped a democratic experiment in America. Not now, however, in a democracy increasingly and wholly shaped by market capitalism.

In the past quarter-century, one narrow version of a “good” education has become groupthink  among policymakers, civic and business leaders, parents, and voters. That version says a “good” education is one where a school—note that schooling and education merge as expressed by the above  educators—meets state curriculum standards, has satisfactory test scores, and moves all students successfully into college.

Paradoxically, this constricted but familiar definition has occurred amid an explosion of options available to U.S. parents seeking “good” schools. In fact, differentiation among public schools now through magnets, charters, homeschooling, cyber-schools, and online learning have become available. But when one looks at the thousands of small high schools, charters, and magnets created in the past 15 years particularly in urban districts nearly all these diverse options concentrate on college preparation, meeting state standards, insuring that students pass required tests, and getting graduates into higher education. But many other schools depart from the dominant model; they work with a different definition of a “good” school that develops students’ cognitive, physical, artistic, and emotional talents. They see schools as incubators of democratic citizenship. They see children as whole beings, not just brains-on-sticks.

Why is it a constricted definition of “goodness” to send everyone to college?

First, everyone does not go to college (62 percent do). Second, the majority of high school graduates who enter college, don’t finish (56 percent do). Third, less than 30 percent of jobs require a higher education degree which helps to explain why so many degree-holding graduates are over-qualified and under-employed.

There are other reasons to go beyond group-think and see many kinds of “good” schools.

Historically, many versions of “good” schools have existed in the U.S. Among consolidated rural schools and even one-room schoolhouses, for example, some were (and are) outstanding examples of multi-age children and youth led by savvy, committed teachers and principals where students learned from one another, were fully engaged in the worlds of farming, village commerce, and their local communities.

Or consider those schools established to become miniature democracies such as John Dewey’s Lab School at the University of Chicago in the mid-1890s or the Sudbury Valley School in the late-1960s.

Or consider those schools dedicated to serve and improve their immigrant communities such as New York City principal Leonard Covello who ran Benjamin Franklin High School in the 1930s and 1940s.

Or take those small urban schools such as Boston’s Mission Hill School founded by Deborah Meier and a small group of teachers in 1997 or El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn, New York, founded in 1982, that focuses on youth and community development.

Both historically and currently, there have been diverse versions of “good” schools that educate children and youth toward different ends than the present orthodox view. I raise this issue again because unrelenting pressures from the business community, civic leaders, and state and federal policymakers on public schools to conform (through financial incentives mixed with strong penalties) to a one-size-fits-all “good” school has been on the reform agenda for past three decades. This group-think amplified frequently in the media with facts about life-time earnings of college graduates, reinforces the argument that public schools serve the economy. And that economy has to grow through skilled and knowledgeable graduates entering the labor market. This rigid mind-set excludes alternatives legions of college prep schools.

Such group-think among very smart people forget that democratic governments  for a nation of immigrants require many different types of “good” schools.When all students, including those who have no interest–much less desire–to sit in classrooms for four more years, prepare for college to better serve an economy and gain a higher rung on the ladder of financial success–diversity in “good” schools loses out. Schools are, and have been, vital institutions that sustain democratic ideas, thinking, and action. They need more than one version of a good school.


*Randal C. Archbold, “What Makes a Good Education?” New York Times, January 14, 2001, p.27




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Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders

Questioning Mainstream Wisdom about Schools and the Economy

The fairy tale about the Emperor with no clothes is (and has been) a metaphor for the damages incurred from groupthink. Fear of appearing silly or losing status among peers in raising questions when a consensus–the wisdom of the group–occurs daily in all organizations. When that consensus extends to the nation and involves ideas that have consequences for the entire citizenry, then yelling out that the Emperor is naked is everyone’s duty in a democracy.

For the past thirty years the groupthink idea of public schools solving a national economic crisis and rising inequalities  has been the idee fixe of civic, business, educational, and academic leaders. This “educationalizing” of an economic problem has steered school reform for three decades. Here is what President Barack Obama said in 2009:

The source of America’s prosperity has never been merely how ably we accumulate wealth, but how well we educate our people. This has never been more true than it is today. In a 21st-century world where jobs can be shipped wherever there’s an Internet connection, where a child born in Dallas is now competing with a child in New Delhi, where your best job qualification is not what you do, but what you know — education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it’s a prerequisite for success.

Not only President Obama, however. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W.Bush,  Bill Clinton, George W. Bush,  governors, state legislators, and business leaders have made similar statements. This idee fixe has led to new laws, new curriculum standards, and scads of new tests. The belief that the nation’s slipping economic competitiveness and increasing inequalities between the wealthy and everyone else is largely the result of future workers being educated poorly has been reduced to a bumper sticker slogan: Strong schools=strong economy.

From time to time, an occasional voice of reason challenges that groupthink. When it is an economist who does–since most economists have contributed to and embrace this mainstream wisdom–the nakedness of the emperor gets unusually displayed. Enter Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman.

In a recent op-ed piece, he summarizes the current “wisdom.”

We live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and too many American workers lack the skills to cope with that change. This “skills gap” is holding back growth, because businesses can’t find the workers they need. It also feeds inequality, as wages soar for workers with the right skills but stagnate or decline for the less educated. So what we need is more and better education.

My guess is that this sounds familiar…. It’s repeated so widely that many people probably assume it’s unquestionably true. But it isn’t.

….[T]here’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment. After all, if businesses were desperate for workers with certain skills, they would presumably be offering premium wages to attract such workers. So where are these fortunate professions? You can find some examples here and there. Interestingly, some of the biggest recent wage gains are for skilled manual labor — sewing machine operators, boilermakers — as some manufacturing production moves back to America. But the notion that highly skilled workers are generally in demand is just false.

Readers know, as does Krugman, the quality of schooling is important to each graduate’s well being, career advancement, and lifetime earnings. Public schooling, for all of its faults, still remains the best hope for the recent immigrant, the poor, and the middle class of this nation. To the degree that graduates find jobs that match their skills and motivation, they do contribute to the economy.

But other facts overwhelm what indirect contributions schools make to the economy. Schools do not generate manufacturing jobs; they do not make corporate decisions to install new technologies in factories that reduce numbers of workers; they do not decide to build plants in other countries; they do not downsize companies that send ex-employees into unemployment offices.

So saying that improving the quality of schooling will pump up a sagging economy and reduce inequalities, the prevailing wisdom of the moment, is misleading, even mischievous in redirecting attention away from corporate and governmental decisions that affect the economy directly. Again, Krugman:

Now, there’s a lot we could do to redress this inequality of power. We could levy higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and invest the proceeds in programs that help working families. We could raise the minimum wage and make it easier for workers to organize. It’s not hard to imagine a truly serious effort to make America less unequal.

But given the determination of one major party to move policy in exactly the opposite direction, advocating such an effort makes you sound partisan. Hence the desire to see the whole thing as an education problem instead. But we should recognize that popular evasion for what it is: a deeply unserious fantasy.

What we have had since the mid-1980s is a groupthink acceptance of “mainstream wisdom.” Much arm-waving and  bellicose words about transforming schools into leaner, smarter, and efficient organizations–as corporate firms have supposedly done. Once called “restructuring,” and the rage among educators and business leaders pressing for school change, that hot rhetoric has cooled considerably in the last decade.

Now we hear far more about reauthorizing No Child Left Behind and Common Core and, of course, standardized tests accompanying the new standards that determine whether a failing school needs to be “restructured” and whether teachers are effective.

Why? Because the current “wisdom” says that the nation’s economic crisis is an educational problem that must be solved.

What is far more important, however, is the groupthink idea that drives school reform. The assumption that improving public schools will revive a weak economy and ease inequalities remains largely unexamined and, is, ultimately flawed by illogic, facts, and data. Yet it continues to fuel one fad after another to improve schools.

How many shout-outs that the emperor is naked will it take before we dump the  assumption that public schools are bootcamps for the economy?


Filed under school reform policies

Here Comes The Classroom Observation and My Slim Chances of Being Rated a Top Teacher (Becca Leech)

Tennessee teacher Becca Leech has been, in her words,a special educator since 1991, with experience teaching infants to young adults in rural, suburban and urban communities, and in both private and non-profit school settings. I currently coordinate an alternative graduation program for students with mild disabilities who are most at-risk for dropping out of high school.

Her blog entry for September 27, 2014 shouts out the unfairness of using student test scores to evaluate a teacher’s performance for either being retained or receiving additional pay. Often called Value-Added Models, the inherent inequity in the scheme in Tennessee and across the nation, apart from all of its methodological problems (see here and here), came up in interviews I had with teachers in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. again and again last year.

This week, a fellow special educator will serve as my administrative observer for the classroom observation portion of my Teacher Effectiveness Measure. This represents a first in my career, so I should be rejoicing. After all, my previous observers have included former coaches and PE-teachers-turned-administrators, a former Science teacher, and a Dual Enrollment History teacher. These observers had no idea of the overall mission of my classroom or any understanding of the strategies and groupings I use to teach multiple subjects to groups of students with different abilities in the same room. I could tell that they simply rated me to produce a slightly-higher-than-average score that might not cause controversy. So I should be holding high hopes that, if I plan very hard and manifest all the teaching skill I have carefully honed over the years, an observer with experience in special education will grant me top scores.

Still, a reading of the Brookings Institute’s May 2014 report entitled “Evaluating Teachers with Classroom Observations – Lessons Learned in Four Districts” confirms my suspicions that, as a special education teacher who teaches the lowest achieving students in a nontraditional classroom, I have little chance of rating top scores no matter how I try. And I know that my observer will be under pressure to rate me within the same range as previous observations so that inter-rater reliability will be preserved.

I empathize with my students who, knowing that they have no chance of scoring proficient on state exams, simply bubble pretty patterns on their answer sheets during the test. So, I’m off to doodle a pretty little pre-conference record form and make sure I employ the strategy for saving face that I’ve learned from my students: I’ll ensure my mediocre score appears to be due to lack of effort rather than try my best only to expose my fragile ego to the judgement that my teaching is simply mediocre.










Whitehurst, G., Chingos, M., & Lindquist, K. (2014, May). Evaluating Teachers with Classroom Observations – Lessons Learned in Four Districts. Retrieved September 27, 2014, from http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2014/05/13 teacher evaluation/evaluating teachers with classroom observations.pdf

“We believe this represents a very serious problem for any teacher evaluation system that places a heavy emphasis on classroom observations, as nearly all current systems are forced to do because of the lack of measures of student learning in most grades and subjects. We should not tolerate a system that makes it hard to be rated as a top teacher unless you are assigned top students. “



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Some Donors Give Up Too Soon: Patience and School Reform

The path to successful school reform–moving from an adopted policy to classroom practice–is long, twisted, and filled with sinkholes. The journey requires thoughtful attention, persistence and, most of all, patience. Two instances of impatient, fickle, and inattentive donors is on full display in the two headlines below that you might have missed in the sea of media we swim in:

Broad Foundation Suspends $1 Million Prize for Urban School Districts

Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2015

City Students at Small Public High Schools Likely to Graduate, Study Says

New York Times, January 25, 2012


The Gates Foundation and small high schools.  Beginning in 2000, Bill and Melinda Gates spent nearly $2 billion to transform U.S. high schools. Many grants went to creating  a few thousand small high schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia to improve student academic achievement, rates of high school graduation, and college attendance.  In 2009, in his Annual Letter, Bill Gates said that “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.” No more money to spur small high schools; the Foundation turned to assessing teacher effectiveness. In less than a decade the deep-pocket Foundation walked away from what began as a promising initiative to turn around urban high schools.

Now here is the punch line. A number of studies since the Gates Foundation turned off the money faucet (see here, here, and here) have established that these small high schools have, indeed, improved student achievement, rates of high school graduation, and college attendance.

Patience, persistence, thoughtful attention and time are crucial ingredients for baking school reforms in the oven; pulling out the cake too soon, as happened in this instance, is a recipe for disappointing those who have worked hard, invested themselves into the effort, and were there for the long haul.

What the Foundation has done in the past few years, while continuing to invest in teacher effectiveness and other improvements, is to shift more of its funding to organizations advocating policies that advance its school reform agenda. Of course, adopting policies is a media-friendly way of giving the illusion that schools are, indeed, changing but ignores the baking time and careful attention it takes for an adopted policy to reshape what happens in first grade classrooms and Advanced Placement history courses.

$1 million Broad Prize for urban school districts.  After 13 years, Eli Broad said enough. According to the President of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Bruce Reed, “Eli has kept a close watch over the prize throughout its existence and over the past year he has become more concerned than ever about the slow pace of progress.” Reed went on to say that “we’ve seen some of that, but not enough and not fast enough.” The Broad Foundation, however, continues to offer $500,000 prize to charter schools.

In an interview for Forbes magazine, Broad said: “we don’t give money away. We invest it, and we expect a return. What do I mean by that? We want to see a return in the form of student achievement and the closure of income and ethnic gaps among students.”

Impatient donors are well within their rights to give up on solving educational problems. After all, it is their money and they can say “oops!” whenever they feel like it.

Under the law, donors have no accountability for mistakes. They are beyond the reach of being fired or voted out of office, so they have no responsibility to district leaders, individual principals, teachers, students and parents for hopes raised and dashed. If their grants fail to achieve desired objectives, philanthropists can shrug and walk away.[i]

For venture philanthropists and their supporters, this unaccountability provides valuable flexibility in taking actions for the public good and is in the best tradition of a democracy.[ii] As some have argued: “[S]uch virtual immunity represents foundations’ greatest strength: the freedom to take chances, to think big, to innovate, to be, in the words of the late Paul Ylvisaker of the Ford Foundation, ‘society’s passing gear.’”[iii]

Being society’s “passing gear” assumes that funders and their retinue of experts  identify educational problems correctly, sort out symptoms from fundamental causes, and adopt solutions that target those causes. Yet as one observer noted: “Just because you were great at making software or shorting stocks doesn’t mean that you will be good at … ensuring that kids can read by the third grade. If you’re worth billions, though, nobody may tell you that.”[iv]

And few do.


[i] Walking away from a grant—usually three years in length—was common among donors when early returns appeared unpromising. See Gary Lichtenstein report on what happened at Denver’s Manual High School in the early 2000s when the high school was reorganized to become three small schools. See Gary Lichtenstein, “What Went Wrong at Manual High: The Role of Intermediaries in the Quest for Smaller Schools, “ Education Week, May 16, 2006

[ii] Rob Reich, “What Are Foundations For?” Boston Review, March 1, 2013 at: http://www.bostonreview.net/forum/foundations-philanthropy-democracy Retrieved October 17, 2014.

[iii] Edward Skloot, “The Gated Community,” Alliance Magazine, September 2011 at: http://www.hudson.org/content/researchattachments/attachment/1197/alliance_magazine_edward_skloot.pdf Retrieved October 17, 2014.

[iv]David Callahan, “Be Afraid: The Five Scariest Trends in Philanthropy,” Inside Philanthropy, October 31, 2014 at: http://www.insidephilanthropy.com/home/2014/10/31/be-afraid-the-five-scariest-trends-in-philanthropy.html Retrieved December 2, 2014.





Filed under leadership, school reform policies

Updating Data-Driven Instruction and the Practice of Teaching

The following post appeared May 12, 2011. Since then it has been the most read post I have written–nearly 28,000 views. I am updating it with a few changes in language and additional studies and comments that were not in the original post.

I like numbers. Numbers are facts: blood pressure reading is 145/90. Numbers are objective, free of emotion. The bike odometer tells me that I traveled 17 miles. Objective and factual as numbers may be,  still we inject meaning into them. The blood pressure reading, for example, crosses the threshold of high blood pressure and needs attention.  And that 17-mile bike ride meant a  chocolate-dipped vanilla cone at a Dairy Queen.

Which brings me to a school reform effort centered on numbers. Much has already been written on the U.S. obsession with standardized test scores. Ditto for the recent passion for value-added measures.  I turn now to policymakers who gather, digest, and use a vast array of numbers to reshape teaching practices.

Yes, I am talking about data-driven instruction–a way of making teaching less subjective, more objective, less experience-based, more scientific. Ultimately, a reform that will make teaching systematic and effective. Standardized test scores, dropout figures, percentages of non-native speakers proficient in English–are collected, disaggregated by  ethnicity and school grade, and analyzed. Then with access to data warehouses, staff can obtain electronic packets of student test data that can be used for instructional decision-making to increase academic performance. Data-driven instruction, advocates say, is scientific and consistent with how successful businesses have used data for decades to increase their productivity.

An earlier incarnation appeared four decades ago.  Responding to criticism of failing U.S. schools, policymakers established “competency tests” that students had to pass to graduate high school. These tests measured what students learned from the curriculum. Policymakers believed that when results were fed back to principals and teachers, they would realign lessons. Hence, “measurement-driven” instruction.

Of course, teachers had always assessed learning informally before state- and district-designed tests. Teachers accumulated information (oops! data) from pop quizzes, class discussions, observing students in pairs and small groups, and individual conferences. Based on these data, teachers revised lessons. Teachers leaned heavily on their experience with students and the incremental learning they had accumulated from teaching 180 days, year after year.

Both subjective and objective, such micro- decisions were both practice- and data-driven. Teachers’ informal assessments of students gathered information directly and  would lead to altered lessons. Analysis of annual test results that showed patterns in student errors  helped teachers figure out better sequencing of content and different ways to teach particular topics.

In the 1990s and, especially after No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, the electronic gathering of data, disaggregating information by groups and individuals, and then applying lessons learned from analysis of tests and classroom practices became a top priority. Why? Because stigma and high-stakes consequences (e.g., state-inflicted penalties) occurred from public reporting of low test scores and inadequate school performance that could lead to a school’s closure, negative teacher evaluations, and students dropping out.

Now, principals and teachers are awash in data.


How do teachers use the massive data available to them on student performance? Researcher Viki Young studied four elementary school grade-level teams in how they used data to improve lessons. She found that supportive principals and superintendents and habits of collaboration increased use of data to alter lessons in two of the cases but not in the other two. She did not link the work of these grade-level teams to student achievement.  In another study of 36 instances of data use in two districts, Julie Marsh and her colleagues found 15 where teachers used annual tests, for example, in basic ways to target weaknesses in professional development or to schedule double periods of language arts for English language learners. Researchers pointed out how timeliness of data, its perceived worth by teachers, and district support limited or expanded the quality of analysis. These researchers admitted, however, that they could not connect student achievement to the 36 instances of basic to complex data-driven decisions  in these two districts.

Yet policymakers assume that micro- or macro-decisions driven by data will improve student achievement just like those productivity increases and profits major corporations accrue from using data to make decisions. Wait, it gets worse.

In 2009, the federal government published a report ( IES Expert Panel) that examined 490 studies where data was used by school staffs to make instructional decisions. Of these studies, the expert panel found 64 that used experimental or quasi-experimental designs and only six–yes, six–met the Institute of Education Sciences standard for making causal claims about data-driven decisions improving student achievement. When reviewing these six studies, however, the panel found “low evidence” (rather than “moderate” or “strong” evidence) to support data-driven instruction. In short, the assumption that data-driven instructional decisions improve student test scores is, well, still an assumption not a fact.

Numbers may be facts. Numbers may be objective. Numbers may smell scientific. But we give meaning to these numbers. Data-driven instruction may be a worthwhile reform but as an evidence-based educational practice linked to student achievement, rhetoric notwithstanding, it is not there yet.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Another Educated Guess about Philanthropy and School Reform

Every reform movement leaves a residue in public schools. Consider the “best” elementary school in any U.S. city during the 1890s before the Progressive education reforms cascaded over public schools in the early 20th century.*

The “best” elementary school (often called “grammar” school) of the 1890s, situated in a middle-class part of the city, had at least eight large classrooms–one for each grade–where teachers taught all the subjects to groups of 40-50 children sitting in rows of bolted down desks.








The teacher’s task was to cover the entire prescribed curriculum during the school year, have students recite–often standing up–portions of the textbook, and repeat what has been learned on periodic tests. At the end of the semester, teachers would decide which students would get promoted and which ones would be held back. In immigrant neighborhoods of the same city, elementary school buildings, curriculum and pedagogy were the same but what differed was that not all immigrant children  attended school and those that did often dropped out by the end of the third grade and worked in sweatshops, peddled newspapers, picked up off jobs on the street, or worked in industrial jobs that needed quick and small hands and feet.






















Much of that “best” 1890 elementary school changed with the slow penetration of progressive education reforms over the next forty years. The reform movement looked to the “whole child” beyond absorbing what the teacher said and what was contained within textbooks. The physical, social, psychological, emotional, and general well being of the student was at the heart of the progressive ideology of reform in these decades. By 1940, the “best” elementary school building now had more than a dozen classrooms, a lunchroom, auditorium, outside playground, suites of rooms for a visiting doctor to examine students and a separate room for an on-site nurse, a social worker, and, if space permitted, a psychologist who would administer individual intelligence tests. The curriculum still contained reading, math, and science and a new subject called “social studies,” but the content itself and new textbooks were geared to real-world examples rather than traditional content taught in the late-19th century.

Trinity Lutheran School 03-14-2010








In progressive classrooms, movable chairs and desks replaced the rows of bolted down ones. Kindergartens where five year olds would work and play in large airy, furnished rooms with a reading area, sand box, artist corner, and blocks became part of the age- graded school. While textbooks still reigned supreme in the upper grades, additional books and materials appeared in classrooms. Many elementary school teachers began dividing up their entire class–still in the 30+ student range–into reading groups where a teacher would assign tasks to the rest of the class while she–by now teachers were mostly single women–would work with handful of students on a reading or math lesson. Instead of straight recitation from the text, often in unison, the “best” teachers in this “best” elementary school would guide a whole-group discussion of a topic calling on individual students who raised their hands to respond to teacher questions but no longer had to stand and recite memorized passages.








Since the early 1950s, when progressive schools came under political attack and a new wave of reforms swept across U.S. schools, deposits of these earlier reforms remained in elementary schools even after  the word “progressive” became a naughty word in the lexicon of school reformers. An informed observer walking into a “best” elementary school in 2014 would see vestiges of a much earlier progressive movement to improve schools.

Now fast forward to the first decade of the 21st century after thirty years of market-driven and donor-supported school reform. Vestiges of these decades of reform, like earlier progressive reforms, I am guessing, will be quietly incorporated into public schooling. Charter schools will survive, standardized testing will persist but be scaled back, a downsized version of a national curriculum standards will be in evidence, routine use of technologies will show up in classrooms, reduced  accountability regulations will be around but penalties will be fewer. While a high regard for student outcomes will persist, other outcomes of learning in the arts, humanities, and emotional growth will emerge.

Other current reforms such as evaluating teachers on the basis of test scores, ending tenure and seniority, calling principals CEOs, and children learning to code will be like tissue-paper reforms of the past (e.g., zero-based budgeting, right- and left-brain teaching) that have been crumpled up and tossed away.

Also the idée fixe of schools concentrating on producing human capital first and civic engagement second or third will persist but lose its potency slowly as popular pushback against too much standardized testing and a national curriculum grow in momentum.

I have seen many waves of school reform in my adult life as a teacher, administrator, and researcher. As a researcher, I have studied both 19th and 20th century school reform movements. In each movement then, bits and pieces of prior school reforms stuck. For contemporary policymakers and philanthropists who have invested much time, energy, and monies into these market-driven reforms and are alive, say 20 years from now, I would guess, will not break out the champagne for these remnants.



*Lawrence Cremin, The Transformation of the School (New York: Vintage Press, 1961); David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot, Managers of Virtue (New York: Basic Books, 1982)); Someone Has To Fail (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform (New York Simon & Schuster, 2000).



Filed under Uncategorized

An Educated Guess about Donor-Driven School Reform

Unintended outcomes haunt reform movements. Every school reform I have researched from improving curriculum, changing instruction, and redesigning organizations has had unanticipated results. Recall how the No Child Left Behind law (2002) has narrowed curriculum, led to extensive test preparation, and tagging some high-achieving suburban schools and most urban ones as failures. President George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress didn’t expect those outcomes. Unexpected results,  I am guessing, will occur following the victories of venture philanthropists in the past two decades in establishing market-driven reforms in U.S. public schools.



Even the smartest policymakers and their close donor allies have discovered to their surprise and chagrin, unforeseen consequences. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Foundation, for example, inadvertently helped shrink public involvement in school decisions while furthering distrust of professionals’ judgment through support for mayoral control, state laws expanding charter schools, and parental trigger laws. Keep in mind that some unintended outcomes, depending on where one stands, are considered positive, others negative, and a few, perverse.[i]

My educated guess is that donors may see that the crisis rhetoric they have used in past decades, the extensive media exposure, and their reform agenda will have had perverse outcomes in ending up not in privatization of public schools–as critics of venture philanthropists allege–but actually preserving the status quo they fought against. Such an outcome would, I imagine, startle this generation of donors. Let me unpack this educated guess.

The notion of institutions adopting reforms in order to maintain stability—sometimes called “dynamic conservatism”—captures how U.S. public schools, especially in big cities have embraced new policies (e.g., charter schools, Common Core standards, new technologies) signaling stakeholders that schools are, indeed, changing. Yet those districts and schools have left untouched essential structures that make U.S. schools the way they are (and have been for over a century) such as residential segregation, school revenue derived from property assessment, age-graded schools, self-contained classrooms, student promotion, and retention, textbooks, and state tests. [ii]

Without attending to these basic structures, entrepreneurial donors in their pursuit of particular reforms reinforce the stability of the very organizations they want to transform.  Not intended to be Machiavellian or even necessarily planned, school districts have learned to maintain overall stability in structures, cultures, and practices—the status quo–in the face of strong external pressures by selectively adopting reforms.

Consider the example of grant-giving strengthening the status quo that occurred in the early 20th century when Northern white donors gave money to improve what was then called “colored” or “Negro” education in the South. John D. Rockefeller, Julius Rosenwald, and others gave grants to improve black education by building schools, helping teachers gain more knowledge and learn pedagogy, and raising teacher salaries. In aiding black communities improve schooling for their children, however, these donors gave the money directly to white school boards who then dispersed funds sparingly to black principals, teachers, and communities. In effect, these grants maintained the Jim Crow system of separate schooling for blacks and whites. Positive, negative, and perverse outcomes were rolled into one. [iii]

Fast forward to the early 21st century. I see a similar phenomenon of high-profile reforms ending up keeping public schools stable unfolding in the next decade. For example, donor-supported reforms in urban districts such as opening new charter schools, closing “dropout factories,” distributing vouchers, deploying new technologies, and the like have proliferated. Yet these changes have offered a restricted number of motivated parents and students opportunities that were lacking in under-resourced, inequitably staffed, and highly bureaucratic urban districts. Those parents and students benefited. That was an intended and positive outcome.

However, for the vast majority of parents outside of a Harlem’s Children Zone or passed over in lotteries for charter schools, their children will continue to attend low-achieving schools, dropout in high school, and face dead-end jobs. Age-graded schools will persist. Segregated poor and minority schools will persist. Inequalities in who teaches in middle-class and poor schools will persist. The status quo in low-performing schools will remain.

And the primary reason for stability–an unexpected effect of all of the above changes–is that these donor-pushed reforms concentrated only on the school rather than outside economic and social structures that freeze institutional inequalities in place.

In making this educated guess about unanticipated effects, donors have erred in framing the problem of failed schools as a problem located solely in schools themselves. Yet the evidence is so strong that  academic failure of poor urban and rural children is located in multiple institutions and structures inside and outside schools. Battling low academic performance crosses institutional boundaries.

Because of their can-do and business-oriented ideology, venture philanthropists have largely restricted their grant making to funding changes aimed at the kind of schools that exist, what happens inside of them, and who staffs the schools. In doing so they have unwisely reinforced the myth that schooling alone, not in concert with other institutions, produces miracles ending economic and social inequalities.

And for that error, I believe, donors will receive a full measure of criticism now and in the next decade for preserving the status quo of schooling.


[i] Robert Merton, “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”. American Sociological Review, 1936, 1(6), pp. 894-904; Albert Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, and Jeopardy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

[ii] Donald Schon, Beyond the Stable State: Public and Private Learning in a Changing Society (New York: Norton, 1973). Larry Cuban, Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).

[iii] Historians writing about northern white philanthropy in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have largely agreed on what donors have done in these decades but deeply divide over donor motives and the consequences of their actions (both planned and unplanned) in making grants to get black schools built, help for black teachers, and supplying services that white school boards had failed to provide. See James Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988); Mary Hoffschwelle, The Rosenwald Schools of the American South (Gainsville FLA:University Press of Florida, 2006); Eric Anderson and Alfred Moss, Jr., Dangerous Donations: Northern Philanthropy and Southern Black Education, 1902-1930 (Columbia MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999).




Filed under school reform policies