By Anthony Cody.

There is growing evidence that the corporate-sponsored education reform project is on its last legs. The crazy patchwork of half-assed solutions on offer for the past decade have one by one failed to deliver, and one by one they are falling. Can the edifice survive once its pillars of support have crumbled?

Teach For America: This project had as its central premise the idea that what was wrong with the teaching profession was that not enough really smart people were becoming teachers. So we will recruit some high flyers and fill the gaps in high needs schools. And because these folks are sooo smart, they do not need the year or two of preparation that regular old teachers needed – they could learn to crunch data, manage a class and prepare for tests in just five weeks. And if they leave after a couple of years, that’s ok too. They can transform education as the next generation of leaders and policymakers, because they will have brains that classroom experience, and TFA’s no excuses philosophy to guide them.

But this year TFA is hitting some serious headwinds. They are finding that recruitment has dropped for some reason, and the organization is even closing its New York training institute  office. Perhaps students have been finding out some of the problems with the program, discovering in advance that five weeks is not adequate preparation for the challenge of teaching in a challenging school. Perhaps potential recruits have encountered TFA alums sharing their experiences, or even some of those organizing to resist the program. And word may have leaked out that TFA is not the best vehicle for those concerned with social justice – given that corps members are sometimes being used to replace veteran teachers.

Charter schools: We were told that charter schools were where innovation was happening. Freed from the dual constraints of district management and union contracts, these schools were going to show the laggards in public schools how it should be done. Some even claimed to have “figured out” how to overcome the effects of poverty on student achievement. So the billionaire geniuses of corporate reform insisted that all barriers and regulations on charters be removed or minimized. This requirement was written into Race to the Top and NCLB waivers. Want federal money? Better open the door for charter schools. Want special grants from the Gates Foundation? Open the doors to charters in your district.

But now charter proponents admit they have no secret sauce beyond excluding students who are difficult or expensive to educate. Their plan is to “serve the strivers,” and let the rest flounder in an ever-more-burdened public system. The states where regulations are weakest, like Ohio, have charters that perform worse than the public schools, and even the self-described fan of free-markets, Margaret Raymond, lead researcher at CREDO, recently concluded that using market choice to improve schools has failed. In the state of Washington, where Bill Gates and other reform titans spent millions to pass a law allowing charter schools there, the first charter school to open is struggling to stay afloat, having suffered massive staff turnover in its first year. How ironic that 13 years after the corporate reformers labeled their flagship of reform “No Child Left Behind,” that now their leaders are left defending leaving behind the very children they claimed their project would save.

New and Improved Standards and Tests: Since 2010 we have heard that the answer to the terrible impact of No Child Left Behind was to create better tests, aligned with the new Common Core standards. Modern technology would allow the tests to be taken on computers, which would cleverly adjust themselves to students’ ability levels. These would be tests worth teaching to. Now the tests have arrived, and there are three huge problems. First, the tests themselves are confusing and unworkable, leading a growing number of states to reject them. Second, the tests require a huge investment in technology, since they must be taken online on computers. Third, when students take these tests, proficiency rates are plummeting, leading many to question their legitimacy. How can a test that labels upwards of 80% of students of color below proficient be considered a tool for advancing their civil rights? And when these tests are used to determine who receives a high school diploma, the results could be devastating. When a fourth grader can deliver a devastating statement like this, the Common Core tests cannot long survive.

The Pseudoscience of VAM for Teacher Evaluations: One of the central pillars of the Gates Foundation’s dream for making standards and tests consequential to each and every teacher in the nation was the use of Value Added Models in teacher evaluations. As Peter Greene pointed out this week, this is one hill that Arne Duncan has staked out as one he will defend to the end — but the end may come nonetheless. The use of VAM to evaluate teachers has been roundly discredited and even disavowed by the American Statistical Association, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. But Duncan now wants to use VAM to punish schools of education whose graduates are not sufficiently “effective” in raising test scores. This is one dead horse that Duncan needs to stop flogging.

Over at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog, there is some headscratching going on. Andy Smarick wrote last week of what he described as a return to homeostasis. In the world of the reformer, disruption and instability is to be created and celebrated. Homeostasis, that stable state that healthy organisms require to sustain health and vitality, is the enemy. He cites the exodus of reform-era state chiefs and their replacement by actual educators, and the dangers that annual testing — one of the bedrocks of test-driven accountability – may face when ESEA reauthorization comes up this year. Smarick concludes: “Homeostasis may be bringing this heady era of reform disequilibrium to an end.”

It is perhaps a basic truth that it is easier to tear something down than to build something new. This may explain some of the trouble reformers are facing. Our schools are flawed in many ways, and do not deliver the sorts of opportunities we want all children to have access to. Racial and economic segregation, inequitable funding, and the replication of privilege are endemic — though truly addressing these issues will require change that goes far beyond the walls of our classrooms. Corporate-sponsored reformers have blamed the very institution of public education for these problems, and have set forth a set of alternatives and strategies to overcome social inequities. Here we are a decade into this project, and the alternative structures are collapsing, one by one.

We cannot pass laws that declare others “accountable” for making sure 100% of our children will be proficient and act as though we have accomplished something. It is time to go back to basic premises, and in every community, ask ourselves what we want from our schools? How can we meet the challenge of educating all our children – not leaving any behind? The answers will not come easily or cheaply. But just as a previous generation faced the challenge of the 20th century Civil Rights movement, our generation must respond.

What do you think? Can further investment by corporate foundations keep the reform project alive? Or are its days numbered?

Image by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, used with Creative Commons license.


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.


  1. RSR    

    I think grifters and con artists don’t give up their games. They’ll move before they quit; hence the relocation of that TFA unit you mentioned. Now, they’ll be training here in Philly, where the movement is still lucrative.

    Just blocks from me a development rehabbing an old factory is reported to be soon hosting a TFA regional HQ, a charter school, and get this, subsidized housing for teachers (because we don’t pay them enough?!?).

    Maybe they got some New Markets Tax Credits, but either way, the taxpayers will be paying a large portion of their rental fees.

    Cuomo’s still gungho in NY; Michigan has done little to improve its situation. I noticed an article about for-profit ITT tech now trying to open charter schools. A couple were shot down by local gov’ts, but yup, they got one opened in Michigan.

    And in Philadelphia, wow, the reform movement is really doubling-down. They got the archdiocese to shutter a bunch of parochial schools, whose students become prime potential charter school customers. The school district is handing over numerous schools to outside operators. The School Reform Commission is trying to terminate the collective bargaining agreement with teachers. And finally, for a pittance of funding, we were compelled by the state to begin accepting new applications for more charters.

    Yes, we may all know that their grand scheme is flawed–even they seem to know it–but the flow of money is still so great that these charlatans will continue to spread like a plague.

    1. Susan Kay Anderson    

      I like your language here, “grifters and con artists” yes–these scams are crimes against teachers and students.

  2. carolcorbettburris    

    Thank you Anthony for another insightful piece. I would add this to the TFA discussion….the economy is improving. TFA flourished during the recession. Young people went to TFA to get a a job to leverage them into a future career. They do not need to do that anymore.if they truly wanted to be a teacher, they would have attended Ed school. TFA, for many, was a resume builder. Sad but true.

      1. JoeK.    

        It’s all a farce, a charade, just a strategy for the already very rich to get richer at the expense of the middle class and even the poor. POVERTY and RACISM are at the core of this disgraceful situation and all thinking people know it. Charter Schools are designed to make money for the crooked pols who put them there and for the operators who just happen to be well connected politically with those crooked pols. What A JOKE !!

  3. Dale Lidicker    

    As always, I appreciate your optimism. Perhaps there is a distant light at the end of this tunnel that is in sight…

  4. Doug Little    

    It will die because it is built on false assumptions.

    1. Kuhio Kane    

      “It will die (reform) because it is built on false assumptions.” What? Beliefs continue to be the cornerstone of presumption. Take religion. Reform will exist until there are no reasons for reform (whether well-founded or false). That is, until the current social inequalities of race, economics, and welfare become the target for reform, until the aversion to social democracy by not only the plutocrats but by those who continue to believe that free market capitalism is good for the social commons is overcome, then those pillars may tumble with haste.

  5. F. Kevin Moquin    

    Michael Fullan shares his insights on this situation in his work titled, “Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Educational Reform.” It is important that we collectively move forward by creating a new reality. Fullan describes the foundation of a new reality in the following link. His reasoning is clear and sound. Please take the time to read it.

  6. BillG    

    Re; Washington charters, the First Place Scholars management bailed once it became clear that a) charters won’t be entitled to state general ed funds and b) the schools still have to follow federal regulations to qualify for federal funds.

  7. Susan Kay Anderson    

    “The crazy patchwork of half-assed solutions on offer for the past decade…” love this–“on offer” is more like MANDATED though–no choice for teachers–I am tired of keeping up with these. Thanks for writing this.

  8. willrich45    

    Thanks for the work you do Anthony. It’s important for our kids and our schools.

    Corporate reform is going to fail because it doesn’t see as its end result agency being transferred to the learner. But this is a problem with the argument to make traditional schooling “better” as well.

    There are three narratives around schooling right now. There’s the “let’s make everything more efficient and beat Finland by using technology” corporate narrative. Then there’s the “let’s pay and respect teachers more and rethink assessments but not fundamentally change the structures or systems or the curriculum in the traditional sense” narrative. Or something like that. But that narrative isn’t working either. Less than 15% of the kids who entered high school eight years ago graduated from college this year into a job that required their degree. Is that “success?” Look at the latest skills list put out by LinkedIn and tell me where current school thinking and practice prepares students for those outcomes? ( Look at the latest Gallup poll of student engagement. ( Short story is that school as it’s currently constructed is working by traditional measures but isn’t working when you take into account the new realities of the world. (I have two teenagers who will agree.) Tweaking it isn’t going to work either.

    The growing narrative is that learners no longer need the mediation of school for curriculum, information and knowledge. What learners need from school is to learn how to learn. Access to knowledge, information, teachers, and tools is nearly ubiquitous, yet current school practice is to increase curriculum and assessments, reduce student agency and choice, and deliver more AP courses. (Ask an AP student what he or she learned about learning sometime.)

    All of this is going to have to change or schools will become the collection points for kids who can’t opt into better learning, creating, connecting, experiences which are already making inroads to higher ed and will no doubt be on our doorstep shortly.

    So, be truly happy if the corporate version of reform is on it’s last legs. But understand that schools as we know them are going to have to be rethought given the contexts of modern learning.

    1. kathymclinn    

      I really don’t think corporate education reform is showing signs of defeat because it doesn’t work. Since when did we throw out a proposal in education because it doesn’t work? The modus operandi in schools is and has always been eerily similar to that of corporate ed reform proposals. “Reformers” are just re-branding the same old crap. Education reform is starting to falter for one reason- the intensity, intelligence, size, and commitment of a resistance movement that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere and who won’t let “reformers” get away with faulty rhetoric without shining the light on it. We are in the midst of a powerful grassroots social action movement that may just succeed.

      I also wanted to suggest that the three narratives that you describe share the same purpose of education- vocation. That’s why all three take us in the wrong direction. Technology can be good and can create efficiency. Teachers should be respected and paid more. Students should be learning how to learn. None of these should be implemented to get kids jobs. All of these should be implemented on their own merits and as they are aligned with a school that seeks self-actualization and active citizenship in a democracy. Further, college degrees used to empower students with an enlightened critical reflective mind with which to participate fully in the domains of work, politics, community, family, and self. In that context, 85% of graduates not employed in their area of study is not alarming to me at all.

      Educate for the highest noblest of ideals. Our society will transform. Our kids will grow into happier adults. And I guarantee they will be equipped with the skills to find the vocation that each is called to.

      Thanks for letting me be a small part of conversation. And thanks for being part of the resistance that I think can take credit for Ed reform’s defeat, but let’s not lose our edge. There’s a lot of work to do.

      1. wierdlmate    

        Good comment, kathymclinn. Perhaps it’s worth noting that, at least in my opinion, the grassroots movement needs to achieve more than it presently aims for: until the main players are not held accountable for what they are doing, they will always come back: too much money ($500 billion a year) is at stake. More precisely, the laws controlling corporate influence on politics and other public functions need to change, and need to change completely. A good start would be to focus all efforts to go after the main influence behind the ed reform movement: Gates, the general. Once he is held accountable (and not just “pay $2 million in penalties”), it’ll spill over to induce all other needed changes in society.

  9. Jim Horn    

    I think that you are fucking kidding yourself, but what’s new.

  10. wierdlmate    

    Well, there’s a problem with this optimism: Bill Gates’ Microsoft has been screwing people left and right for over 20 years now, but it’s running stronger than ever. Windows started out as a very low quality computing platform (crashes, slow, vulnerable, primitive) but through clever marketing, false claims, devouring competition, bribery, etc, it spread all over the World. You could easily compile stats that seemingly indicate the imminent collapse of MS: almost all viruses are spread and received by MS products, Windows crashes more than any other system, insecure, losing server shares, etc. But, in fact, it thrives. The same guy, who weathered all this and came out as the richest person in the World, is now putting his weight behind ed-reform. Is he going to be unfazed by any setbacks like the story of TFA? So TFA will regroup by training kids seemingly longer., and they will get a different name. Actual results don’t matter at all to Gates: Windows has always been rated lower by professionals than any other operating system. Only market success matters.

    As for regrouping, just consider TN: ex TFA high priest Hoffman got fired as Ed Commissioner, but now we got a Commissioner of the same breed

    No, the war is far from over, imo. Please prove me wrong.

  11. thoughtfuleducator    

    This felt like a conversation right out of our lunch period teacher-talk. These issues are on the minds of every honest, hard-working public school teacher who has been dragged through several years of reforms with nothing to show but anxiety, frustration, exhaustion, and disillusion. What struck me most was your very insightful comment, “It is perhaps a basic truth that it is easier to tear something down than to build something new…truly addressing these issues will require change that goes far beyond the walls of our classrooms.” I can’t help but wonder if this goes beyond education, and provides us a lens to think about the recent tragedies in Ferguson and New York. We could be at a real crossroads here, as more and more people have found the courage to express their outrage at the way we’ve swept poverty and discrimination under the rug with tragic consequences. I wonder if we’ll have the courage to fight for real change “beyond the walls,” beyond Ferguson, beyond decades of backwards progress. Here’s hoping!

  12. CitizensArrest    

    If Wendy Kopp had any integrity and honesty at all she would throw in the towel on the whole TFA fiasco and admit that Poverty is the biggest problem facing our most at risk students. If she truly had any vision whatsoever for education as was committed to it she would appeal to her corporate supporters to assist her in repurposing TFA into an organization that would directly confront the actual problem, the effects of poverty in the communities feeding the lowest performing schools. Since doing anything that resembles this would require that her supporters admit they were wrong about education and about inequality of opportunity and all the other things they have been so obviously wrong about, things they have no small part in causing, it will never happen. And that demonstrates their actual commitment to improving the lives of others whether in school or out, ZILCH. If they can’t make a hefty profit while imagining themselves as white knights riding in to rescue people of color they’re just not interested.

  13. jeff    

    The teacher reform movement was all premised on a poor economy and surplus labor. With the economy improving, teaching isn’t looking good at all. It doesn’t even offer security any more.

    1. Kuhio Kane    

      The improving economy tends heavily upward class wise in net value. Even Forbes agrees with this. If by teaching you mean real teaching, then I would agree that job security for real teachers is falling and, indeed, becoming the lesser of choice by those entering the workforce if employee protections and salary are unstable and diminished.

      However, your premise that the economy is improving and that there is less surplus labor is based upon a misguided view of the real numbers behind the false edicts spread out to mainstream sources by the plutocratic ownership. Most of the reductions in surplus labor has been due to increases in low wage or minimum wage sectors.

      Teaching isn’t looking good because the ownership of our federal government and the neocon leaders of many states are bringing to bear an austerity upon public education. Not only in reduced subsidy but by decreasing, often deleting, long established teacher protections.

      In fact (do your own research), the reform movement began well before the orchestrated economic dump that left taxpayers’ incomes and pensions at the mercy of rebuilding corrupt banking practices while our government continued allowing bonuses to accrue to the Wall Street ownership responsible for the greatest economic collapse in modern times. It began, most ostensibly, in the era of Ronald Reagan continuing through the Clinton years. Years, presumably, of a great economic boom while being “A Nation at Risk,” and determined to leave no child behind. Two of the biggest lies, among many, that were predicated upon the greatest advancement of corporate intrusion into public education as never before.

      Actually, an “improving economy” (insert your source for this phrase here), necessarily demands that labor costs remain stagnant or be reduced (do you think that $10.10 minimum wage will be worth ten dollars when the increase is fully implemented in 2018? What a cruel joke insinuated upon the working poor). An improving economy, as designed by banking investment, expansion of federal funding for education (don’t hold your breath), billionaire philanthropists, insinuates at-will jobs at the lowest pay rate the market bears. That is, unless there is a true economic improvement and not just for the wealthy, nothing is looking good at all.

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