30 Years of K-12 School Reform Have Barely Moved the Needle on Improving Learning or Reducing Equity Gaps

30 Years of K-12 School Reform Have Barely Moved the Needle on Improving Learning or Reducing Equity Gaps

I don’t know whether those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.  But I do know this: Those with a grasp of the history are never surprised by what happens.  

Take the example of school reform.

Read enough articles on school reform and you are struck by the recurrence of certain words:  “thwarted,” “unfinished,” “unrealistic,” “unlikely,” and, most disturbing of all, “failed.”

The history of school reform is as old as the history of public schooling. Indeed, the very first “common schools” that arose in the 1840s were championed by those who considered earlier approaches to education as wholly inadequate.  That early system consisted of a mishmash of charity schools for the poor, dame schools for the very young, and so-called free schools for older boys that required parents to pay a fee and entering pupils to already know how to read and write.  

Educational reformers like Horace Mann and Henry Bernard drew upon preexisting models in the Netherlands and Prussia to argue in favor of a radically new approach:  Local systems of free, tax-supported public schools.

Common schools, the reformers claimed, would ensure that all students, regardless of social class, began the race of life from a common starting point. Not only would schools drive social mobility, but by introducing all children to a shared culture in a calm, orderly environment, mass education would cultivate the knowledge, dispositions, values, and behavior that democracy required.

The reformers’ success was extraordinary, even though it took decades for their vision to be embraced by all the states.  Not only did the school reform movement result in one of western society’s first “socialistic” (if radically decentralized) systems of education, it also introduced many of American public education’s defining and enduring characteristics.  

One-room schoolhouses that promiscuously and indiscriminately mixed various age groups together were replaced by age-graded classrooms.  The curriculum was divided into a succession of age-aligned grade levels.  Schools beyond the early elementary grades were structured around departments.  All this was paid for by relying heavily upon female teachers, who earned half or a third as much as male schoolmasters, permitting the system to expand at minimal public cost.

As David B. Tyack and Larry Cuban, two of the great historians of American public education. have shown, educational reform has been consistently two-faced.  Even as some advocates called for more child-centered pedagogies and elimination of public shaming and corporal punishment, others focused on the organization, administration, and structure of schools.  Educators praised the active-learning pedagogies of progressive thinkers like John Dewey, but it was the ideas of progressive administrative reformers that ultimately prevailed, with their emphasis on letter grades, standardized testing, promotion requirements, bureaucratic hierarchies, and centrally administered district-wide curricula that all teachers were required to follow.

It’s often said that the history of K-12 schooling in the United States is a history of educational fads, ideology, and wishful thinking.  There’s more than a grain of truth to this claim, though I should note that teaching isn’t the only field prone to faddishness.  Remember the siren call of total quality management, delayering, agile development, and open offices?  

But there’s no doubt that K-12 education has proven especially susceptible to gimmicks and various panaceas and nostrums without demonstrated value promoted by quacks, hucksters, and snake-oil touting charlatans. 

As one educator put it, schools are highly vulnerable to the “bandwagon effect,” with innovations invariably touted as “research-based,” “best practices,” or “standards-based” widely adopted and then discarded.

Why is teaching so prone to fads that all too often fail the students who need the most help?  Some attribute this to the field’s relatively low status as a profession, but other factors strike me as more persuasive:

  • The lack of an evidentiary base resting on controlled experiments.
  • The desire for quick fixes, efficiencies, and one-size-fits-all solutions that will transform student learning and close achievement gaps.
  • Intense pressure from various constituencies, such as education schools, professional societies, and foundations, as well as from non-educators, including school board members, public officials, policy advocates, journalists, and parents.

The 20th century witnessed a succession of crazes, for example: 

  • Tracking and ability grouping.
  • Technology-enhanced learning, involving film strips, educational television, and, more recently, white boards, clickers, and tablet and computer-based instruction.

But before we succumb to the temptation to dismiss all education innovations as faddish, we need to recognize that some innovations made a genuine difference.  These include:

  • The introduction of the kindergarten (and now the preschool) to prepare children for formal education.
  • The rapid growth of the high school to delay entrance into the work world and better prepare students for a rapidly evolving economy.
  • The replacement of a highly differentiated system of technical, vocational, and college-prep curriculum with comprehensive high schools that offered a more democratic approach to education that didn’t confine students, largely on the basis of socio-economic class, race, and gender, to separate tracks.

Without a doubt, the past 30 years, dating from the Clinton administration onward, witnessed a proliferation of educational fads and well-meaning reforms:  

I’m sure you remember at least some of the ballyhooed innovations:  authentic and portfolio-based assessment, back-to-basics, block scheduling, character education, cooperative groups, culturally-responsive teaching, differentiated instruction, discovery learning, gifted education, global education, inquiry-based teaching, learning styles, left-brain, literacy circles, multi-sensory education, right-brained teaching strategies, multiple intelligences, phonics versus whole language, a raise the standards movement, school-based management, the self-esteem movement, social-emotional learning, total quality management, values clarification, and zero tolerance.

In an important essay that is well worth reading, entitled “The End of School Reform?.” Chester E. Finn, Jr., president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, offer a succinct, highly accessible history of three decades of school reform.

The author chart the rise and fall of efforts to craft a bipartisan, technocratic approach to raising academic standards, improving learning outcomes, narrowing performance gaps, and holding teachers and schools accountable for ensuring that no student, due to race, family income, or disability, was left behind.

Igniting waves of reform was the 1983 report of the U.S. Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, which claimed that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” Its clarion call for change was summed up in a famous phrase:  “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Ironically, at that very time, the overwhelming majority of parents gave their children’s schools a grade of A or B, with only 15 percent awarding a grade of D or F.

First at the state and then at the federal level, educational reformers from both political parties called for ensuring that the high school graduation rate would reach at least 90 percent, that every school would be violence and drug free, and that American public education would be “first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.”

The much-maligned Clinton administration took the lead at the federal level by requiring states to spell out minimal academic standards, institute metrics for school performance, and adopt a testing and accountability plan as conditions for receiving federal educational funds.  

At the same time, with bipartisan support, a school choice movement emerged with charter school laws adopted in Minnesota in 1991 and California in 1992.  By 2011, 41 states allowed charter schools to operate, while home schooling also rapidly increased, reaching 3.4 percent of all school-aged children in 2012 with another 6 percent attending private or religious schools.

The accountability movement reached a high point in 2001 when Congress overwhelming enacted No Child Left Behind, which required districts to reduce performance gaps along lines of race, gender, disability status, or English language proficiency.

Finn and Hess offer a stinging criticisms of the initiative’s flaws:  “[I]ts stated targets were unrealistically ambitious, and its laudable aspirations were paired with a set of rickety performance measures, rigid accountability directives, and formulaic remedies that resulted in unreliable measures of school performance, dubious interventions, and clumsy strategies for improvement.”  A key symbol: In 2011, nearly half of all schools were labeled as failing with one or more subgroup failing to make adequate yearly progress.  Try to impose a grade of F on a prestigious suburban public high school.  A backlash was inevitable.

Two developments during the Obama years, Finn and Hess argue, undid the bipartisan consensus favoring school reform:  the push for states to adopt Common Core learning standards and to evaluate teachers on the basis for student test scores.  Ferocious opposition came from multiple sides, including teachers’ unions, Tea Party small government advocates, and the tens of thousands of parents who embraced the “opt-out” movement and refused to allow their children to take the mandated standardized tests.

Political polarization replaced consensus.  Reformers on the left repudiated charter schools and rigid test-based accountability measures and called for policies more attentive to race and equity.  They sought culturally-responsive, injustice-aware, and socially and emotionally-sensitive curricula and pedagogies.  Meanwhile, reformers on the right became tenacious and insistent advocates for school choice, charter schools, and vouchers.

What possible relevance does this history of school reform have to do with higher ed?   More than you might assume.

To be sure, public colleges and universities, at least those outside the deep red states like Florida, North Carolina, and Texas, are better insulated from direct legislative and gubernatorial pressure than are public school districts.  In addition, 2- and 4-year institutions have greater autonomy over their curriculum and degree requirements.  Indeed, the accreditors who hold institutions to account largely consist of serving or recently retire faculty and administrators.

Nevertheless, public higher ed faces many of the same challenges, political pressures, and clamorous demands confronting K-12 schools.

Many of those demands make a lot of sense, but are, nonetheless, contradictory and often divisive, with solutions extremely difficult to devise or implement.  Administrators are hard pressed to figure out how to respond to demands from activist students to embrace and embody values and practices that those advocates hold dear but that many alumni and donors (and sometimes faculty) resist and that threaten to harm institutional finances. 

Nor are there easy ways to cut the cost of tuition and reduce student loans while expanding program portfolios and student support services.  Every institution is eager to diversify its student body and faculty, but many have found this difficult to accomplish for an array of reasons including location and shrinking enrollments.  Similarly, every broad access college and university wants to significantly raise its retention and completion rates, strengthen advising, offer more experiential learning opportunities, improve career preparation, and expand counseling and other student supports.  But innovation is easier said than done in contexts where finances are constrained, veto power is widespread, and consensus-building is essential.

Which, in my view, makes it essential for senior administrators to follow much the same advice as we give to instructors.  Be clear and be transparent.  Clearly spell out your priorities and objectives, be as transparent as possible about the challenges that the institution faces, use data to inform policy decisions, focus laser-like on student retention and academic momentum, and be closely attuned to changes in the job market that should guide shifts in curricular offerings.  Above all, share your stats.

In today’s fractured, constricted environment, institutional leadership can’t please or even appease everyone.  But it can be open, honest, responsive, proactive, and collegial, yet decisive.  

Finn and Hess end their essay by reminding readers that the collapse of the bipartisan push for school reform based on strict standards, testing, and teacher accountability isn’t the end of the story.  The very inadequacies of that phase of educational reform will, with time, give rise to new reforms.  

At the college level, we already have a pretty good idea of what to do:

  • Implement a robust new student orientation.
  • Ensure that every new student has a degree plan.
  • Place as many first-year students as possible in a learning community, a Meta Major, or a cohort or research program that has student success and major selection components. 
  • Guarantee the availability of essential gateway and other required courses. 
  • Look for red flags and intervene proactively when students are off track.
  • Monitor high DFW classes and address their deficiencies.
  • Accelerate time to degree by eliminating extraneous major and degree requirements and by awarding credit, when appropriate, for dual degree programs and prior learning.
  • Do everything in your power to reduce transfer shock and the loss of transfer credits.
  • Embed career development across the curriculum.
  • Prioritize student engagement.
  • Identify a graduation concierge to help students approach completion to make it across the finish line.

Just do it.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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