By John Thompson.

The morning presenters at the recent American Enterprise Institute’s conference, Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned, were scholars who mostly documented the failures of test-driven reform. The afternoon panelists were policy people for the Bush and Obama administrations, and they clearly remain in denial.

The University of Oklahoma’s Deven Carlson got the discussion off to a great start by framing the key accountability issue in a balanced, research-based manner. He explained that accountability-driven reform raises test scores, but those increased scores don’t necessarily mean that student learning improved. Carlson contrasted the dramatic growth in state scores with the modest gains that occur on reliable tests like NAEP. He then reviewed the unintended negative results of the last 25 years of accountability. Educators have responded with dubious practices such as focusing on “bubble” kids, or students with scores just below the passing levels, narrowing the curriculum, dubious test prep, and cheating. Consequently, “achievement increases may not correspond to actual learning gains” and “reading and math gains came at the expense of instruction in other subjects.”

The only thing I would add is that even the real increases probably are accompanied by the learning of bad habits and misconceptions about education (and life.) Even if an increase in the number of right answers reflects real learning, those gains are offset by teaching kids the destructive belief that there is one “right” answer and that the purpose of education is spouting it out. As a high school teacher, I’d always had to help students unlearn many legacies of middle school worksheet-driven instruction. The longer test-driven accountability persisted, the more miseducation had to be undone.

Carlson notes that this long-running policy era was sponsored by elites, and it hasn’t been able to get other stakeholders, like educators, to sign on. It thus has a political problem that looks insolvable. Unless we can agree about what we want from schools, the emergence of better accountability systems is unlikely. And since we’re not going to agree on the purpose of education, he said, the most promising approach would be to use “transparency as accountability.” (Of course, that was what educators supported before test-driven accountability compromised the data.)

Carlson was followed by Ashley Jochim who says that the “high water mark” of school reform has passed. Jochim reviewed the Obama administration’s $7 billion School Improvement Grants which produced negligible gains and, sometimes, negative results. Among other things, reformers forget that it is people, not their policies, who improve schools. Reformers often tried to idiot-proof their programs. The result is dissatisfaction among stakeholders.

This is part of the problem described by Stefanie Sanford as the failure of reformers to conduct a “humility check.” These non-educators were unaware of how nuanced school improvement is. They pushed policies that educators would inevitably see as “silver bullets,” and “one-size fits-all” quick fixes. When reformers ran into unanticipated complications they were hit by the reality that complexity breeds distrust and when their jargon was added to the mix, it bred contempt. So, reform is now a “tainted brand.” And rather than face those facts, reformers turned to “the last refuge of policy scoundrels: insisting, ‘The theory was right, it was just the details of implementation that went wrong.'”

Stanford is witty and insightful, but the most valuable part of their panel for practitioners was the juxtaposition of Carlson’s research with that of Tom Loveless.  Loveless’ paper, “Why Standards Produce Weak Reforms,” showed how the Bush-Obama test-based era grew out of the standards-based efforts of the 1980s and 1990s. Although most experts support such an approach, I agree with Loveless, and see it as disconnected from reality.

It is easy to ridicule the education establishment’s mentality that gave us standards-based reforms, and Loveless began with a great example. When Language Arts standards were released, the New York Times editorialized, “A curriculum guide for teaching English has just been released in a tongue that is barely recognizable as English.” But the stakes attached to 1990s tests weren’t as onerous as during the NCLB and Obama years, when individuals were held accountable for test score growth. Scores on the reliable NAEP tests were increasing significantly on the eve of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.  Despite dramatic increases in spending, growth on NAEP growth slowed during after 2003, and now they are stagnant.

Best of all, Loveless points out that standards-based policies were based only on an assumption. Reformers couldn’t understand that good teachers deal with students with a wide range of abilities, interests, and backgrounds, and they may not want to be aligned with each other. I’d push that point a step further. It’s obviously impossible to cover all of a year’s standards, and the only way to so do is to rush through the subject manner in a skin-deep manner that produces “in-one-ear-out-the-other” learning. When standards-based reform was combined with the test-based reform of the last 16 years, great harm was unleashed.

And that brings me back to Deven Carlson’s research. I like to tease Carlson, asking why he would want to be an objective, data-driven reformer. As was later explained by Robert Pianta, state education leaders don’t read high-quality research. They look at summaries of the studies, presented from the perspectives of “intermediaries” pushing their own agendas. I was in the room for too many of those meetings during the Bush and Obama eras, and I don’t recall a single administrator or teacher who believed that what we were doing was a good idea. We just saw it as something to be endured, as we tried to minimize the harm that we knew would be inflicted on our students and profession.

I read the researchers’ analyses of the Bush-Obama accountability era as confirmation of our common sense and professional judgments.

What do you think? It is no surprise that research is documenting the failure of corporate school reform, but is it surprising that so many researchers affiliated with reform organizations are being so blunt? Will true-believing policy-makers ever listen?

Image by Mike Licht, used with Creative Commons license.


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody


  1. Lisa M    

    Benchmarks became standards, curriculum became scripted and the stupid test became everything. That doesn’t sound like education to me.

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