The Coming Backlash on Education Reform

For the last decade or so education reform, whether pushed by Democrats or Republicans, has been focused on standardized-test based accountability. We will fix education by testing students and then instituting sanctions when schools fail to improve their scores on standardized tests. Teachers will be evaluated (and fired or given bonuses) based on their ability to improve standardized test scores. Schools will be reformed (or closed) based similarly on test results.

Despite opposition from teachers unions, this sort of philosophy dominated the education policies of both George W. Bush (No Child Left Behind) and Barack Obama (Race to the Top). But now this reform strategy might have reached its end.

According to a piece by John Tierney at The Atlantic:

Fueled in part by growing evidence of the reforms’ ill effects and of the reformers’ self-interested motives, the counter-movement is rapidly expanding.

Teachers in various cities (Seattle, for example) have refused to administer standardized tests, and support for their stance has spread; many parents are choosing not to let their kids take the standardized tests, preferring to “opt out,” and those whose kids go ahead with the tests are complaining vociferously about them; legislators in various states (even Texas!) are reconsidering standardized tests and expressing concerns about Pearson and the testing industry; corporate-reform proposals (vouchers and state-not-local authorization of charter schools) got stopped last week in the legislature of Tennessee, a state that previously was friendly to the agenda.

It’s too early to know if this opposition really constitutes a meaningful backlash or just a small group of naysayers. Most of the reasons Tierney offers for a growing counterattack focus on the fact that the reforms aren’t working, not that citizens and policymakers actually object to them. But clearly something’s going on here.

What remains to be seen is what form any new education movement will take. Tierney argues that what we have in America isn’t an education problem, but a poverty problem. I agree but so far we’re not really seeing a meaningful “poverty reduction” education reform movement. What’s the next education strategy really going to look like?

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer