The Unknown Revolution

Despite decades of ferment and experimentation in schools across the country, the debate over “school reform” remains locked in a sort of time capsule, with advocates hurling insults at each other and people on both the left and the right despairing of the whole enterprise of educational improvement. All that could be about to change, says Washington Monthly editor-in-chief Paul Glastris in an introduction to a special report in the May/June issue of the magazine, “The Next Wave of School Reform.”

Unlike previous waves of school reform, which were debated in Congress and covered in depth by the press, this next one is the product of compacts among states and a quiet injection of federal money—and has therefore garnered almost no national attention. Consequently, few Americans have any idea about the profound changes that are about to hit their children’s schools.

This “next wave,” says Glastris, has three interconnected elements, each of which is explored in a subsequent article in the Monthly‘s special report.

The first, well under way among the states, involves the adoption and implementation of “common core standards” for curriculum which create “a demanding new set of shared benchmarks that define what students should know and be able to do at the beginning of each grade,” displacing weak and conflicting “state education standards” that often aimed at setting a low bar for success.

The second, and by far the most controversial, is the development of a new generation of high-stakes tests based on higher common core standards, and “are already being crafted by university and state education departments across the country.” We’ll start seeing those, says Glastris, in 2014. “They will be fully computerized and far more demanding than anything most American schoolchildren have ever experienced.”

But at the same time, in the third stage in this “next wave” of school reform, will come “new kinds of computer-based learning software, often in the form of games, in which testing happens automatically as students play and work.” At this point, perhaps a decade from now, “learning and assessment will meld into a single process, and high-stakes testing as we know it will virtually disappear.”

All these unfolding reforms will play out against the background of global competition for knowledge-driven economic success, in which the United States is famously losing ground.

It should be obvious that the political debate over school reform, mired as it is in ancient battles for and against “teaching to the test” and for and against centralized education policy, is ill-equipped to cope with this new landscape. And as Glastris notes:

[It is] curious that the new tests and standards have garnered almost no press attention, especially in a presidential election year in which the future of the economy is front and center. That’s a testament not only to the way these policies slipped in under the political radar, but also to the fact that writing about abstruse subjects like norm-referenced testing and PISA [Programme for International Student Assessment] scores is hard to do.

Hence the need for this special report and many more like it. We hope you read it and help participate in the new debate that is already urgently overdue.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.