School Reform We Can’t Believe In

By Stan Karp

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

Illustration: Michael Duffy

While running for president, Barack Obama called No Child Left Behind “one of the emptiest slogans in the history of American politics.” By the time he gets a new version of the law through Congress, his own campaign theme—“change you can believe in”—may be a contender for the same title.

In fact, if the healthcare debate is any guide and the reform ideas being floated by the current administration are ultimately adopted, the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, still commonly known as NCLB, could make a bad law worse.

The administration hopes to move a reauthorization bill this year, but Congressional divisions and election year politics make that doubtful. The current law will remain in effect until it’s replaced. It will also continue to trap growing numbers of schools in its test and punish dragnet as the 2014 deadline nears for its unreachable goal of 100 percent pass rates on state tests. Over 30,000 schools, nearly a third of all public schools, are already on the “needs improvement” list. Unless the law is changed, most of the rest will follow.

Even if reauthorization is delayed, the effort to remake federal education policy is well underway. But instead of a dramatic break with the test, punish, and privatize policies of the Bush era, there’s been so much continuity under Obama that historian Diane Ravitch calls it “Bush’s third term in education.” Bush brought in Houston Superintendent Rod Paige as secretary of education to implement the “Texas miracle” on a national scale. Obama selected Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan, with his overhyped résumé of turnarounds and charter schools, to do the same (for more on Duncan’s record in Chicago, see Rethinking Schools Vol. 23 #3.)

The Obama/Duncan federal education policy began to take shape with the “assurances” tied to last year’s stimulus package, which included $100 billion for education. It was further spelled out in guidelines for Title I School Improvement Grants issued last August, and again in the $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTTT) plans last fall. Sidepockets of $650 million in “innovation funds” for partnerships with favored nonprofits and another $350 million for new tests are also part of the mix.

Together, these initiatives amount to another wrong turn for federal education policy, fueled by unprecedented if temporary streams of federal money. So far, many of these initiatives have been defined by federal regulation and U.S. Department of Education guidelines that, unlike ESEA, do not require Congressional approval. In a twist on the Bush-era use of “block grants” to dilute programs for targeted purposes, Obama and Duncan have seized on “competitive grants” as a way to drive top-down reform priorities and pressure states to get with their program.

The new federal funds are tied to four broad “assurances”:

  • Improve teacher quality and distribution
  • Strengthen standards and assessments
  • Improve data collection
  • Turn around low-performing schools

Within these innocuous-sounding categories are landmines that have become defining features of the administration’s reform plans: linking test scores to teacher evaluation and compensation; rapid expansion of charter schools; development of data systems that facilitate remote control of schools and classrooms; and aggressive intervention for schools with low test scores, including closures, firing of staff, and various forms of state and private takeovers.

Early rounds of stimulus spending were only loosely driven by these assurances. Initially, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds allowed states to save temporarily the jobs of hundreds of thousands of teachers. Billions were also allocated for early childhood programs like Head Start, college support programs like Pell Grants, and special education funding through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) without major changes to the design of those programs, in which funds flow to states through formulas based on numbers of eligible students. As some later complained, there were “no grant competitions, no long, complicated applications, no review teams with complex scoring rubrics.”

But the Obama/Duncan version of reform steadily took more prescriptive shape. Eliminating barriers to using test scores for teacher evaluation and expanding charter schools were made conditions for getting RTTT funds. New guidelines for Title I School Improvement Grants gave schools in the latter stages of NCLB sanctions four choices, all of which required staff firings, closure, or takeover by an external agency. Duncan began talking about closing thousands of schools—“the bottom 1 percent of the nation’s portfolio”—like the CEO of a runaway multinational corporation.

The administration appears determined to preserve many of NCLB’s basic elements, including its reliance on test-driven sanctions, while adding some of the worst features of its Race to the Top plans.

The original version of NCLB consolidated decades of efforts to move decision-making over education policy, including curriculum and assessment, away from schools and local districts to distant state and federal bureaucracies. Standards and tests were the primary tools and NCLB mandated massive increases in both. The disaggregated test data highlighted real and persistent gaps in educational performance. But the sanctions imposed had no record of success as school improvement strategies, and no hope of closing the gulfs in achievement and opportunity that the law’s “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) charts reflected.

However, the drumbeat of failure did have political uses. As former Bush Undersecretary of Education Susan Neuman told Time magazine in 2008, many in that administration “saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the choice agenda—a way to expose the failure of public education and ‘blow it up a bit,’ she says. ‘There were a number of people pushing hard for market forces and privatization.’ ”

These aims were reflected in the sanctions NCLB imposed on schools that missed their test targets. Schools “in need of improvement” were required to pay for privatized supplemental tutoring or support student transfers to other schools. But while some profiteers turned these sanctions into lucrative contracts, there were so many problems that these options got little traction with parents or students. Less than 1 percent of those eligible found transfers and fewer than 15 percent found supplemental tutors.

The original law did have a “school improvement fund,” but neither Bush nor Congress ever put any money in it. (Over its first six years, funding levels for NCLB were $71 billion less than promised.) It was increasingly obvious that NCLB was a test, punish, and privatize system, not a school improvement measure.

By the time Bush left office, NCLB was almost as unpopular as he was. The closer you were to a school or a classroom, the more you cared about public education, the more likely you were to hate NCLB.

The new administration arrived with overwhelming support from educators and their unions and a popular mandate for undoing Bush’s agenda at home and abroad. But Obama’s rapid transition from populist antiwar candidate to corporate commander-in-chief was soon reflected in the selection of Wall Street-friendly managers Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers as his top economic advisors, Bush holdover Robert Gates as secretary of defense, and recycled Clinton-era figures everywhere. Similarly, the Department of Education was heavily staffed by corporate and foundation-friendly “reformers” from the neoliberal and conservative wings of the Democratic Party. Duncan was selected over progressive educator Linda Darling-Hammond. The mantra of the “four assurances” came to define the new administration’s school reform policies,and education joined healthcare, economic policy, foreign policy, and climate change as issues where campaign promises of “change” and “hope” morphed into Washington business as usual—or worse.

“Let’s Build Up the System We’ve Got”

Some of the policy parallels have been striking. For example, several times candidate Obama said if he were starting “from scratch” he would favor “single-payer” healthcare with government regulating a nonprofit system to provide access to healthcare for all. But Obama said he wouldn’t press for single-payer because it would be too “disruptive” to the healthcare system already in place. “Let’s build up the system we’ve got,” he argued.

Yet such a single-payer system is pretty much what public education is. The government is responsible for providing public access to a nonprofit system of schools for all children, with state and local agencies providing the bulk of funding and oversight, and the federal government historically responsible for issues of equity and access. But instead of sustaining this hard-won public system and fixing its flaws, Obama and Duncan are proposing policies that would dramatically “disrupt” the “system we got” and introduce some of the same profiteering and inequalities of the current healthcare system into education.

The administration’s promotion of charters and school takeovers by education management organizations echoes its endorsement of “co-ops” managed by for-profit insurance companies as a way to provide healthcare. Mandating school closings and staff firings, and imposing deregulated systems of charters and private management on public school districts will erode the civic common ground and local political structures (e.g., school districts, locally elected schools boards, collective bargaining) that U.S. public education has been built on.

Similarly with what’s often loosely called “merit pay.” Obama came into office well positioned to work collaboratively with the two large teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, to promote needed reforms on teacher tenure, compensation, licensing, and seniority. But while dutifully “bringing everyone to the table,” Duncan has used federal dollars to grease the skids for pay-for-test-score schemes that have huge implications for eroding union power and scapegoating teachers.

No matter how these policies are nuanced in Duncan’s media soundbites, they play out in the real world with blunt impact. “We’re asking Congress for more money to develop compensation programs ‘with’ you—and ‘for’ you—not ‘to’ you,” Duncan told the NEA. But in state legislatures across the country, this has become a license for heavy-handed efforts like those in Tennessee, Illinois, and Louisiana to make test scores count for 50 percent of teacher evaluation ratings.

The avowedly pro-labor administration has been unable to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, designed to level the playing field for union organizing, or take any significant steps to address the gross imbalance favoring capital over labor that has contributed to the country’s economic and social decline. But tying teacher pay to test scores and handing management a hammer to pound one of the last bastions of labor’s strength? No problem.

Credit Default Swaps of the Ed World

Standardized multiple-choice tests have become the “credit default swaps” of the education world. Few understand how either really works, but both encourage a focus on illusory short-term gains over more lasting long-term goals and drive bad behavior on the part of those in charge. The blame-the-teacher potential in pay-for-test-score schemes is hard to overstate. In Michigan last December the Detroit News reported “impassioned parents demanded jail time for educators and district officials following the release of test scores that showed 4th and 8th graders had the worst math scores in the nation.”

Obama claims his reforms are “a classic example . . . of evidence-based policymaking,” but the administration has systematically ignored the record on some of its key initiatives. From the outset, it equated charters with innovation, far beyond any levels justified by their actual impact. The most credible national study of charter school performance showed that, even on test-score terms, only 17 percent of charters outperformed comparable public schools, while 37 percent scored worse. Charters drain resources, staff, and energy for innovation away from other district schools, often while creaming better prepared students and more committed parents. They function more like deregulated “enterprise zones” than models of reform, providing subsidized spaces for a few at the expense of the many. Little attention and few resources have been invested in translating the elusive successes of charters into systemwide improvement. Nowhere have charters produced a template for effective districtwide reform or equity.

Yet, thanks to RTTT, states have rushed to increase the number of charters, enable performance pay, and promise to adopt unproven turnaround plans. Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-market reform group financed by hedge-fund millionaires, told Education Week that “the extent to which the Race to the Top competition seems to be prompting state leaders to pursue concrete policy changes was ‘breathtaking.’” Rep. John Kline, the ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, put it another way: “In many ways it’s a Republican agenda.”

Now the administration wants to integrate RTTT’s competitive grant approach into a revised ESEA, including the $14 billion Title I program for high-poverty schools. All the new education funds in Obama’s FY11 budget would be allocated this way, including a $1 billion package conditioned on passing a new ESEA with RTTT-like “incentives.”

“Race to the Top taught us that competition and incentives drive reform,” Duncan told reporters. “So even as we continue funding important formula programs like Title I and IDEA, we are adding money to competitive programs that are changing the landscape of our education system.” If the administration succeeds, over 30 percent of federal education funds will be distributed to “winners” at the expense of “losers” without reference to equity-based formulas.

No Stimulus for Equity

The change will hurt poor schools. As Anne Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, stated:

The focus on competitive grants and the decision to provide no increase to Title I means rural districts and children in the poorest parts of the country will be left behind. Those districts do not have the capacity to compete for grants—unless you want to shift money from teachers to grant writers.

Gabriel Arana of the American Prospect put it even more directly:

Underperforming schools will arguably be in the worst position to compete for federal aid; it makes as much sense as asking the unemployed to duke it out over benefits.

The emphasis on competitive grants over equity concerns has already undermined the impact of the administration’s sizable increases in federal education spending. Deepening state and local budget crises have heightened the importance of federal education spending, yet the administration is not using its increased leverage to promote funding equity by requiring states to improve their notoriously inadequate and unequal funding systems as a condition of federal aid. A 2010 study by New Jersey’s Education Law Center showed that in most states the distribution of stimulus funds “did not improve the fairness of the school funding formula.” The administration has put more effort into tying individual teacher compensation to test scores than encouraging states and districts to distribute more fairly the $500 billion they spend annually on K-12 education. This means as stimulus funds expire and districts fall off the “funding cliff,” state formulas will exacerbate inequality.

Both Obama and Duncan regularly frame their education reforms as “the civil rights issue for the 21st century.” Yet it’s stunning that the first African American president has increased federal education spending by over $100 billion dollars without directing a dime to promote integrated public education. At a conference last May, a teacher asked Duncan what he would do to address the rampant segregation that marks public education more than 50 years after the Brown decision. Duncan struggled to say a few words about magnet schools before cutting his remarks short to return to the White House for a photo op with his latest school reform cohorts, Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich, who were about to hit the road to stump with Duncan for RTTT.

Potential Risks and Benefits

The push for national standards is another part of the administration’s reform blueprint. For Duncan, the basic problem in NCLB is not the misuse and overuse of standardized testing; it’s that the individual state tests don’t provide a common measure, and instead encourage states to game the system by juggling proficiency levels. Longstanding opposition to national standards and tests forced NCLB to rely on separate state tests that allow such maneuvering.

The latest business and foundation-friendly solution is the “common core” standards initiative. Sponsored by the National Governors Association and funded by the Gates Foundation, 48 states (excluding Texas and Alaska) have agreed to adopt consultant-written standards in multiple subject areas. States that participate will get points on their RTTT applications (applications that Gates hired consultants to help 25 states write). Once the standards are written, Duncan will use $350 million to finance multistate consortia to develop new high-stakes assessments based on the standards.

This will mean still more tests. And more jargon to justify them. RTTT applications are loaded with plans for “benchmark” testing in the name of “formative assessment.” Some “growth models” will require multiple tests throughout the year tied to accountability schemes. Other supporters of common standards want to add tests in subjects besides reading and math to offset the narrowing of curriculum spawned by NCLB. Teachers and students, already sinking in a swamp of data-driven drivel, may drown. Test publishers and data systems companies will get richer.

A lot will depend on how the widely hated AYP system of test score traps and sanctions is revised. Duncan has floated a still vague “college and career ready” standard that could be equally problematic. The “college and career ready” rubric is drawn from foundation-driven national standards efforts like Achieve, Inc.’s American Diploma Project that have attempted to turn “college for all” rhetoric into high-stakes exit testing and new forms of tracking in high schools across the country. As FairTest’s Monty Neill has pointed out: “It could signal support for intensifying the worst components of NCLB—apply high-stakes testing to teachers even beyond what ‘Race to the Trough’ has done; require harder-to-pass tests and perhaps even more testing; mandate still onerous if somewhat different ‘accountability’ expectations.”

One real danger would be ratcheting up high school exit testing in the name of buzzwords like “21st century skills” and “global competitiveness.” A recent report from the Advancement Project noted that, since the passage of NCLB in 2002, 73 of the largest 100 districts in the United States “have seen their graduation rates decline—often precipitously. Of those 100 districts, which serve 40 percent of all students of color in the United States, 67 districts failed to graduate two-thirds of their students. In other words, since the boom in high-stakes testing, many of the students most at risk of not graduating have been pushed out of school.”

Duncan’s “college and career ready” standard could double down on these policies.

On the other hand, abandoning the AYP system could open up possibilities for relaxing the mandate to test every student every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and for supporting development of better assessments. Rolling back federal testing mandates and ending the direct link between test scores and punitive sanctions would be two of the most significant improvements to look for in a revised law.

There will likely be proposals for “growth models” and “multiple measures” that distinguish between schools where a majority of students are struggling and those where low scores are confined to one or two subgroups. Such changes are especially important to suburban and wealthier schools with limited populations of special education and ELL students, whose low subgroup tests scores have exposed schools and districts to sanctions.

The Push for Turnarounds

Revisions that ease pressure on some schools may be paired with increased pressure on others, especially given Duncan’s turnaround plans. His education department wants future rounds of RTTT to include grants that bypass states and go directly to “reform-minded” districts willing to aggressively shut down struggling schools and turn them over to charter operators and educational entrepreneurs. In Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, arbitrary decisions to close schools, some made by dictatorial chancellors backed by mayoral control laws, have disrupted and provoked communities without providing credible options for students. These shutdowns have drawn increasingly angry responses and are likely to grow in proportion to the push for turnaround efforts.

Turnarounds are also a potential growth industry for the charter franchisers, educational management companies, and foundation-funded nonprofits that are now both instruments and influential partners of the administration’s plans. Obama is proposing to invest another $1 billion in school turnaround grants as part of a renewed ESEA, on top of several billion in stimulus funds targeted for these purposes. Already, in anticipation of receiving federal funds, turnaround “specialists” and consortia are taking shape—like the six-state, $75 million agreement launched in February by the School Turnaround Group at the Mass Insight Education and Research Institute.

The federal government has no track record and little capacity to support its turnaround plans. These efforts could accelerate the fragmentation of urban school districts into unequal tiers of schools serving decidedly different populations. The most comprehensive report on school restructuring under NCLB, by the Center on Education Policy, found that 5,000 schools were forced to choose from five options that “did not offer much help to schools that were trying to improve.” Duncan’s combination of more aggressive sanctions, closings, and external takeovers could wreak further havoc in areas with high concentrations of poverty, high-need student populations, and clusters of struggling schools.

Swimming Against the Current

A number of progressive groups are trying to stay ahead of the reauthorization curve and work with Congressional staff on changes that would ease the testing plague, replace punitive sanctions with more constructive supports, and address some of the broader social and economic deficits that translate into test score gaps. The Forum on Educational Accountability (, the Forum for Education and Democracy (, and the Broader Bolder Approach to Education project ( have all made useful proposals. A Rethink Learning Now campaign ( is attempting to bring “powerful learning” and “fairness” stories from teachers and students to bear on the federal policymaking process. Progressive proposals include: roll back the mandate for annual testing, insert opportunity-to-learn standards, allow more varied classroom and teacher-made assessments, and develop more supportive processes for assessing and building the capacity of schools to improve.

However, these efforts are up against not only the test and punish status quo, still heartily endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, but also the newly empowered “market reformers,” bankrolled to the sky with federal and foundation dollars. If the healthcare struggle is any guide, progressives could again face choices between an unsustainable status quo and a package of bad reforms with inadequate funding.

The administration’s distorted reform priorities surface in bizarre ways. For example, Louisiana ranks near the bottom in funding for public schools and almost 20 percent of the school-age population attends highly segregated private schools. Yet the state is regularly praised by Duncan because it has eliminated caps on charter schools and uses test scores to evaluate both teachers and the certification programs from which they graduated. It’s considered a leading example of the kind of reform RTTT seeks to promote. In New Orleans, Duncan’s former Chicago boss Paul Valles has presided over the reconstitution of the city’s devastated school system as a grossly unequal network of semi-privatized charters with selective admissions and less privileged Recovery District Schools with class sizes twice as large. Students are no longer guaranteed placement in any school. Yet, in a January interview, Duncan declared, “Let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘We have to do better.’”

There’s a lot about the path from NCLB to RTTT that echoes Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” theory about how ruling elites use crises for power grabs and paradigm shifts that would be otherwise hard to impose. Disasters, both natural and manufactured, become opportunities to remake economic and political arrangements and reinforce prevailing systems of power. Or, as Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen said, “The whole Race to the Top just provided a focal point for a whole range of things that might have been difficult to do in other times.”

In the heady days surrounding Obama’s inauguration, many political observers predicted a new era of reform and social progress akin to the presidencies of FDR in the ’30s and LBJ in the ’60s. Instead, what we’ve seen so far recalls the corporate neoliberalism of Bill Clinton and the conservative “populism” of Ronald Reagan.

But the problem isn’t just the narrow political vision and corporate allegiances of Obama, Duncan, and company. It’s the fading of the popular mobilization that at times gave Obama’s campaign the feel of a social movement. What pushed FDR to the New Deal were the powerful labor and left-wing movements of the ’30s. In the ’60s, it was civil rights and antiwar struggle that fueled LBJ’s expanded social agenda. That’s the kind of energy democratic school reform—and the country—needs.

The early lesson of the Race to the Top seems to be: Until pressure from below forces a change in direction, the folks at the top will keep leading us over a cliff.

Stan Karp ( is a Rethinking Schools editor.