The Splintering School Reform Movement

One of the great misconceptions in education is that the reform movement is monolithic. There have always been competing camps, often defined on ideological grounds. Conservatives and libertarians tend to stress school choice, for example; liberals are much more comfortable with an intrusive federal role.

But the divisions feel more rigid today than at any other time that I can recall, the rivalries more heated. This is a big problem, one we need to get a handle on lest school reform go the way of Syria, with rival factions spending more time clobbering each other than fighting a common foe.

I was reminded of this on Friday, when I had the honor to speak to the nation’s state superintendents. During a panel session on the Common Core, I made an off-hand comment that riled several of those in attendance. “Let’s be careful about the happy talk,” I said, “about Common Core and teacher evaluations peacefully coexisting.” I went on, “It’s not hard to understand why teachers are nervous when we tell them that we expect them to teach to new, higher standards but that their heads are on the chopping block if they don’t succeed.” We should allow for a pause in the consequences associated with the evaluations, I argued, echoing a recent statement from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Not surprisingly, this rankled the handful of state supes who are pushing hard on the teacher accountability agenda. And upon reflection, I can understand why. I get angry when fellow reformers cavalierly propose to do away with Common Core for the sake of school choice or, more to the point, when they suggest that “pausing” the implementation of the standards or tests is necessary to keep them from disrupting the move to consequential teacher evaluations. I’m incredulous when friends suggest that we can always get to the rigorous tests down the road, just as some of the state superintendents (and analysts like Eric Hanushek) are incredulous about the suggestion that we can get to teacher accountability down the road.

And that’s the point. Different reformers prefer different reforms, and it’s becoming all too clear that those reforms are colliding. Something has to give. We need to either pause the move to the tougher tests (as Tennessee recently did) or pause the stakes attached to the teacher evaluations (as the District of Columbia recently did).

So let me propose a truce: let’s agree that either of these options is acceptable, even if we agree to disagree about which one we personally prefer.



Now let’s go back to fixing America’s schools, rather than fixing to fight one another.

-Michael J. Petrilli

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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