Pyrrhic Victories?

The following essay is part of a forum, written in honor of Education Next’s 10th anniversary, in which the editors assessed the school reform movement’s victories and challenges to see just how successful reform efforts have been. For the other side of the debate, please see A Battle Begun, Not Won by Paul E. Peterson, Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Marci Kanstoroom.

On a range of issues, education “reformers” have made great progress in the last decade, certainly among policy elites, but also among the general public. Interviewed in October on the Today Show, President Obama seemed to be channeling a generation of conservative education analysts in stating bluntly that more money absent reform won’t do much to improve public schools. Waiting for “Superman,” a documentary chronicling the travails of five students seeking spots in heavily oversubscribed charter schools, drew rave reviews, star-studded premieres, and breathless talk of a new era of reform. While the American Federation of Teachers and a handful of liberal publications tut-tutted the film’s sharply critical portrayal of teachers unions, its clarion call for change has been embraced by opinion leaders across the political spectrum. Even zeitgeist queen Oprah Winfrey.

Poll numbers show the broader public, too, increasingly supports efforts to create new schooling options, overhaul teacher pay and evaluation systems, and provide strong incentives for improvement. Ideas such as charter schools, performance pay, and consequential accountability are much more widely accepted—and acceptable—today than they were a decade ago. Furthermore, advocates are no longer considered right-wing kooks for casting the teachers unions as a big part of the problem. Even a Democratic president or secretary of education can say so. Indeed, the influential Democrats for Education Reform expends much of its efforts spreading that very message.

Though support for these notions may be a mile wide, it appears to be little more than an inch deep—and to rest as much on pleasing sentiments and newfound conventional wisdom as on informed conviction. The 2010 Education Next poll reported that charter school supporters outnumber opponents by a 44-to-19 margin, but the vast majority of respondents don’t really know what charter schools are. Fewer than one in five know that charter schools cannot charge tuition, can’t hold religious services, and can’t selectively admit students. Charters sport a well-regarded brand, but their popularity rests on a shaky foundation.

And while virtually all Americans embrace accountability in the abstract, most remain reluctant to impose tough sanctions on schools, and especially on individuals, whose performance is found wanting. The 2010 PDK/Gallup poll reported that, when asked whether they preferred to keep a low-performing school in their community open with the existing teachers and principal and provide comprehensive support, to temporarily close the school and reopen it with a new principal or as a charter school, or to shutter the school, 54 percent chose to leave the school open. The EdNext survey asked respondents, “If a teacher has been performing poorly for several years, what action should be taken by those in charge?” Among the general public, just 45 percent thought the teacher should be removed.

Still, reformers have won some major battles over the past decade. The center of gravity in public debates has moved in important ways. But these successes have come with two big caveats. First, reform “support” resides with a mostly uninformed, unengaged public—one that isn’t especially sold on their ideas and that, in any event, is often outmatched by well-organized, well-funded, and motivated special interests. And second, and more unfortunately, many reformers are eagerly overreaching the evidence and touting simplistic, slipshod proposals that are likely to end in spectacular failures. In short, some forces of reform are busy marching into the sea and turning notable victories into Pyrrhic ones. To quote that wizened observer of politics and policy, Pogo: We’ve met the enemy, and he is us.

The Icarus Problem

Advocates drive good ideas to extremes when they oversell their promise and undermine their integrity. Unfortunately, this pattern is all too common.

Problem One: Measures that are overly ambitious or poorly designed risk undermining popular support for sound and necessary reforms. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) took near-universal backing for tenets of accountability and deployed them in an overwritten federal statute that poisoned the NCLB brand. Indeed, EdNext polling in 2007 showed that describing the key precepts of NCLB without using its name drew 71 percent support, but the addition of the phrase “No Child Left Behind” reduced that figure by 14 points.

To be sure, reliable evidence (see “Evaluating NCLB,” research, Summer 2010) shows that NCLB has improved math achievement in states that did not previously have accountability systems in place. The data generated as a by-product of the law’s testing requirements have been a boon to the research community—and may ultimately yield a new body of evidence to inform education policy and practice. Yet the law’s “my way or the highway” approach in areas where best practices were (and remain) far from certain has arguably slowed the development of accountability systems that would provide a more refined view of school performance. In fact, the most convincing criticism of NCLB has come not from accountability skeptics but from states like Florida that were in a position to go beyond what the law requires but were forced to simplify their approach to comply with the law’s mandates. More than nine years after the law’s enactment, and four years after its scheduled reauthorization, the shortcomings of an accountability system organized around the utopian goal of universal student proficiency rather than continuous improvement are all too apparent.

We’re in danger of repeating this same mistake with the Race to the Top agenda. By demanding that states embrace a very prescriptive set of policy reforms in order to win federal funding, policymakers locked in the “best thinking” circa 2010. Just as definitions of Adequate Yearly Progress, Highly Qualified Teachers, and other core elements of NCLB, circa 2001, soon grew obsolete and problematic, so too will today’s conventional wisdom around teacher evaluations, charter caps, and all the rest. Rather than encouraging problem solving and policy tinkering, these “shoot the moon” initiatives freeze reform in one moment in time. And they run the risk of backlash if and when early results prove disappointing. A better means of driving reform would be to reward states and districts based not on unenforceable promises but on specific, concrete steps to overhaul anachronistic policies like teacher tenure, now granted in most states as a matter of course after just a couple of years in the classroom.

Problem Two: Overpromising. When they insist that ideas like school choice, performance pay, and teacher evaluations based on value-added measures will themselves boost student achievement, would-be reformers stifle creativity, encourage their allies to lock elbows and march forward rather than engage in useful debate and reflection, turn every reform proposal into an us-against-them steel-cage match, and push researchers into the awkward position of studying whether reforms “work” rather than when, why, and how they make it easier to improve schooling.

Consider performance pay. Just recently a three-year randomized evaluation of a Tennessee merit-pay experiment funded by the federal government’s Teacher Incentive Fund found that bonuses tied to test scores didn’t lead to higher performance in middle-school math. “Study Casts Cold Water on Bonus Pay,” read Education Week’s headline, and the news was widely interpreted as a setback for attempts to link teacher compensation to classroom performance. Yet the most compelling rationale for merit pay is not any short-term bump in test scores, but rather its potential for making the profession more attractive to talented candidates, more amenable to specialization, more rewarding for accomplished professionals, and a better fit for the 21st-century labor market. Whether or not bonuses linked to test scores had any effect on measured achievement in the short run says absolutely nothing on this score. Yet, the lust for simple answers and for research that “proves” those answers right has led many would-be reformers to adopt and defend half-baked versions of pay reform.

The primary goal of reform efforts should be to make it easier for problem solvers to gain access to and traction in the system, coupled with thoughtful public oversight of results. The impatient rush to “fix” teacher quality in one furious burst of legislating may instead lead to a situation in which promising efforts to uproot outdated and stifling arrangements become enveloped in crudely drawn and potentially destructive mandates. Rushing forward with statewide mandates to incorporate value-added assessments into teacher evaluation systems, for example, may wind up stifling innovation. Systems built around individual value-added calculations can stymie the smart use of personnel that reformers should encourage. Principals who rotate their faculty by strength during the year, or augment classroom teachers with online lessons, will find their staffing models a poor fit for evaluation systems predicated on linking each student’s annual test scores to a single teacher.

Uprooting the old, intrusive superstructure, not imposing a new one, must be the first order of business. And unwinding a century’s worth of accumulated detritus and replacing it with a functioning system will take time. Only after a few years of stripped-down tenure and evaluations focused on performance, and after a few locales craft some promising approaches, will it make sense for state legislatures to wade in more aggressively.

Problem Three: Obsession with “gap closing.” For the past decade, school reform has been primarily about “closing achievement gaps” by boosting math and reading proficiency and graduation rates, among black, Latino, and poor students. “Conservative” notions of accountability have been linked to old-school liberal conceptions of “social justice.” This is all admirable. At the same time, this emphasis signals to the vast majority of American parents that school reform isn’t about helping their kids. And, given that only about one household in five even contains school-age children, 80 percent of households are being told that extra dollars and energy should be redirected into urban centers simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Well, perhaps. But those policies that most often succeed in the U.S. are those that recall the Tocquevillian adage that Americans embrace the precept of “self-interest properly understood.” Policies that work are those that work for all families. Efforts to squeeze inefficiencies out of schooling or enrich instruction and improve services for all kids can command widespread support.

Like the architects of the Great Society nearly half a century ago, however, too many school reformers have an unfortunate habit of deriding apathy or opposition from middle-class families. They have blithely ignored lessons learned when the Great Society’s social engineers sought to sustain ambitious social programs on the backs of guilt-ridden white suburbanites, only to fail spectacularly. They dismiss concerns that their reforms do nothing for suburban schools or may adversely affect them. Until we enable suburban legislators to regard a vote for reform as a political winner, and not merely a vote they’re allowed as a display of political guilt, the underpinnings of reform will remain thin.

Looking Ahead

The latest silver bullet appears to be the lure of Hollywood. Since Teach For America and the KIPP Academies haven’t yet saved the world, 5,000 charter schools have not prompted the remaking of urban school systems, and we’re saddled with the disappointing legacy of NCLB, maybe what we’ve been missing all along is a sufficiently sentimental, gut-wrenching presence in the nation’s cinemas. Perhaps with the arrival of documentaries like The Lottery, The Cartel, and, of course, Waiting for “Superman,” this is the moment when the public will finally awaken and make its voice heard, and resistance will come crumbling down.

Rather than taking a hard look at why NCLB proved to be such a gross distortion of accountability, why so many merit-pay schemes eschew sensible principles of professional compensation, or why the public has so little understanding of charter schooling, some reformers may decide after seeing these films that they’ve paid too little attention to marketing. The problem isn’t overreach, bad politics, or bad proposals; it’s the need to fuel a greater sense of urgency. As Davis Guggenheim, the director of “Superman,” put it: “we’ve cracked the code” on how to make high-poverty schools work. All that’s needed now is the political will to make change happen.

This is a story we’ve seen before. We saw it with A Nation at Risk. We saw it when the nation’s governors gathered in Charlottesville two decades ago. We saw it with the Annenberg Challenge. We saw it with No Child Left Behind. We saw it with “ED in ’08,” the expensive and ultimately futile foundation-backed effort to boost education’s salience among voters in an election dominated by other pressing issues. We know how it ends.

Instead of more cheerleading, what’s desperately needed is more humility. Our current education system is the product of multiple generations of previous reforms, also promoted by well-meaning activists and educators. Building on the best of what remains of their architecture—and sweeping the rest out of the way—will take time and patience. But that’s what’s called for. We’re not urging delay or half-measures, but merely a willingness to see ourselves as problem-solvers, solution-finders, and tool-builders rather than warriors going to battle with intransigent educators. Let us proudly declare: we don’t yet know what works, but we’re committed to figuring it out, the best we can, along the way.

Frederick M. Hess, Michael J. Petrilli, and Martin R. West are all executive editors of Education Next.

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