Why big bets on educational reform haven’t fixed the US school system

Education reformers are still hunting for solutions to fix what's wrong with public schools

Published March 15, 2018 6:30AM (EDT)

Betsy DeVos   (AP/Alex Brandon)
Betsy DeVos (AP/Alex Brandon)

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

The Gates Foundation is regrouping after its latest school improvement disappointment, but it’s not bowing out of the education reform business.

As the philanthropic powerhouse led by Bill and Melinda Gates explained in their latest annual letter to the public, it ended its effort to overhaul teacher evaluation systems after determining that these efforts were failing to generate intended results.

“We haven’t seen the large impact we had hoped for,” the Microsoft founder and his wife wrote in the note they published in February.

It’s a familiar storyline. Again and again, policymakers and philanthropists have teamed up to reform public education, only to find that their bold projects have fallen short.

Like other educational policy scholars, we have observed this pattern for years. And we have identified a few reasons why school reform efforts so persistently get lackluster results, despite consistent bipartisan support and roughly US$4 billion a year in philanthropic funding derived from some of the nation’s biggest fortunes.

Shiny objectives

The Gates Foundation (which is a strategic partner of The Conversation US and provides funding for The Conversation internationally) poured at least $700 million into upgrading teacher evaluation systems between 2008 and 2013, before quietly pulling the plug. The move echoed a similar about-face that occurred decade ago, when the funder acknowledged that the $2 billion it had spent on making America’s large high schools smaller hadn’t achieved the desired results.

But Gates is hardly the only major philanthropist to come up short. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan spent $100 million of their own money to improve the Newark school system, in an effort that attracted another $100 million from other donors. Their goal in New Jersey, according to journalist Dale Russakoff, was to “develop a model for saving public education in all of urban America.” The results, chronicled in Russakoff’s 2016 book “The Prize,” were mixed at best. Though some education scholars have detected improvements in Newark, and test scores have edged up since the experiment, it generally failed to meet the funders’ lofty goals.

Leaders in government have also been active in the school reform game.

Ever since 1983, when the Reagan administration published its “A Nation at Risk” report bemoaning the quality of American public education, politicians have rallied public support for plans to overhaul the nation’s education system. Over the past quarter century, they have backed the creation of curricular standards and high-stakes standardized tests. And they have championed privately operated charter schools as a replacement for traditional public schools, along with vouchers and other subsidies to defray the cost of private school tuition.

Along the way, reformers — those in government and the philanthropic world alike — have made big promises that American voters have often found irresistible, even though these grandiose proposals have tended to fall short.

Not wavering

Many other billionaires support education reform efforts, including the families of homebuilder and insurance mogul Eli Broad, late Walmart founder Sam Walton and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Individually, their projects have differed. While Gates has favored small schools and teacher evaluation, Broad’s foundation has emphasized charter schools and training school superintendents. Collectively, however, they have sought to transform the way schools look and operate.

All have encountered setbacks. Still, the larger ethos of reform hasn’t changed, and none of these billionaires appear to be wavering in their efforts.

For their part, lawmakers have been equally committed to large-scale reform. From George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Barack Obama’s Race to the Top and the Every Student Succeeds Act that he signed into law in 2015, the federal government has taken a highly interventionist approach to education policy. Educators, scholars and policymakers now almost universally regard No Child Left Behind as a washout. And many critiques of Obama-era reform efforts have been equally blistering. But the core approach to federal education policy has not markedly changed.

The chief reason that all this activity has produced so little change, in our view, is that the movement’s populist politics encourage reformers to make promises beyond what they can reasonably expect to deliver. The result, then, is a cycle of searing critique, sweeping proposal, disappointment and new proposal. Indeed, the Gates Foundation announced in October 2017 that it would carry on with its education reform efforts, putting $1.7 billion into new strategies to bolster K-12 education.

Cookie cutters

Beyond this dysfunctional cycle, the other big reason the school reform movement has consistently come up short has to do with an approach that is both too narrow and too generic.

Ever since 1966, when Johns Hopkins University sociologist James S. Coleman determined in his government-commissioned report that low-income children of color benefit from learning in integrated settings, most education researchers have agreed that economic inequality and social injustice are among the most powerful drivers of educational achievement gaps. What students achieve in a school, in other words, reflects their living conditions outside its walls.

Yet rather than addressing the daunting issues like persistent poverty that shape children’s lives and interfere with their learning, education reformers have largely embraced a management consultant approach. That is, they seek systems-oriented solutions that can be assessed through bottom-line indicators.

This approach fails to address the core problems shaping student achievement at a time when researchers like Sean Reardon at Stanford University find that income levels are more correlated with academic achievement than ever and the gap between rich students and less affluent kids is growing.

At the same time, reformers have tried to enact change at the largest possible scale. To work everywhere, however, education reforms must be suitable for all schools, regardless of their particular circumstances.

This cookie-cutter approach ignores educational research. Scholars consistently find that schools don’t work that way. We believe, as others do, that successful schools are thriving ecosystems adapted to local circumstances. One-size-fits-all reform programs simply can’t have a deep impact in all schools and in every community.

Unfortunately for the Gates Foundation and their allies, successful K-12 reform probably requires abandoning this one-size-fits-all approach. That, however, is unlikely to happen. “We’ve learned a lot about what works in education, but the challenge has been to replicate the successes widely,” Bill and Melinda Gates wrote in their letter.

Entrepreneurial outsiders

Perhaps this flawed approach to education reform has survived year after year of disappointing results because policy leaders, donors and politicians tend not to challenge each other on the premise that the ideal of school reform requires a sweeping overhaul — even though they may disagree about the best route.

Additionally, many leading reformers generally subscribe to the ethos of educational entrepreneurism. They consider visionary leadership as essential, even when leaders have scant relevant professional experience. That was the case with DeVos before she became President Donald Trump’s education secretary and it seems to be true of Laurene Powell Jobs. The widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, a supporter of the Democratic Party who worked on Wall Street before starting a family, is now out to revamp American high schools. As outsiders operating within a complex system, however, reformers often fail take the messy real-world experiences of U.S. schools into account.

Finally, the reformers see failure as an acceptable part of the entrepreneurial process. Rather than second-guess their approach when their plans come up short, they may just believe that they placed the wrong bet. As a result, the constant blare of pitches and promises continues. And it’s possible that none of them will ever measure up.

Jack Schneider, Assistant Professor of Education, College of the Holy Cross and David Menefee-Libey, Professor of Politics, Coordinator of Program in Public Policy Analysis, Pomona College

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