What Is the Future of School Reform?

May 02, 2011

The school reform debate in its current form has its roots in the passage of 'No Child Left Behind' (NCLB), George W. Bush's landmark education bill made into law a decade ago. Since that legislation passed, the reform movement has been a lightning rod topic among educators, politicians and citizens. Where is the movement at - and what is its future?

By Douglas Fehlen

school policy education reform students

Reform = Contention

It's difficult for any reasonable person to attack the idea of creating better schools. The U.S. is heavily built upon the idea of opportunity, and most would agree that children deserve the finest possible education. What seems increasingly uncertain, however, is the best way for schools to leave no child left behind.

On one side of the reform debate, very smart and deeply caring individuals argue that to improve schools, it is necessary to hold all of them accountable. Because all schools must be measured, the use of objective, universal assessments is needed. Standardized tests, heavily emphasized in NCLB legislation, continue to be the primary measures by which schools are judged - a fact reformers like. Advocates of reform are also strong supporters of private charter schools, which often siphon students away from underperforming schools. And education reformers also believe in merit-based teacher pay as well as policies that allow for the more expedient dismissal of educators who aren't making gains with students.

On the other side of the reform debate, very smart and deeply caring individuals argue that current education initiatives are not improving schools, but disabling them. First, they are skeptical that standardized tests are the best method by which to gauge learning and eschew the notion that student scores are a meaningful reflection of teacher performance. They observe that many schools labeled as 'failing' are in urban areas affected by crippling poverty and a high number of students who are learning English. To these critics, redirecting funds to charter schools is only further exacerbating problems at already overcrowded public schools. They see the logical extension of current reforms the dismantling of the public education system as we know it.

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Entrenched in Reform

It has been an eventful year in the world of school reform. In many cases, pet initiatives of the movement have been advanced forward. For example, President Obama's proposed budget provides full funding for Race to the Top, a program that gives schools instituting reforms the opportunity to compete for grants. Among the school practices rewarded by Race to the Top funds are policies that allow schools to fire teachers of students with low test scores. Additionally, legislative skirmishes in state capitols across the country have been successful in reducing the rights and powers of teachers unions. Many reformers suggest this is a step in the right direction as unions are seen by them to protect 'bad' teachers.

However, in other ways the year has been rocky for many in the reform movement. Former chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools Michelle Rhee, who many identify as the face of the reform movement, has been accused of doctoring student test scores to make it appear her policies were more effective than they were. In New York City, Cathie Black was forced to resign after only a few months as chancellor of the public schools. Black had no education background but was brought on by Mayor Bloomberg based on her executive experience. The intent was for her to run the schools more like a business, an arrangement that many reformers champion.

While there may have been public relations setbacks for the reform movement, the fact remains that many in positions of power are all-in on supporting its policies. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently called for revisions to Child Left Behind, but rather than representing an overhaul of the law, alterations are likely to be cosmetic. At this point, even greater emphasis on the use of test scores to gauge teacher accountability is expected, which will make reformers happy. As a result, the immediate future in education may look like a lot like the past few years: More government money moved from public schools to private charters, more standardized testing and more widespread test-score based teacher evaluation systems.

Want to read more about education reform? Dr. Charles Kerchner has a lot of insight on improving schools.


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