What Is Education “Reform” Really About?

The education strategies pursued by many policymakers in the last decade, focused on high stakes testing and sanctions based on low performance on standardized tests, are controversial. Critics argue that such strategies are cruel and likely to prove ineffective given persistent poverty in America. But what’s the motivation behind such efforts?

According to a piece by David Sirota at Salon:

In the great American debate over education, the education and technology corporations, bankrolled politicians and activist-profiteers who collectively comprise the so-called “reform” movement base their arguments on one central premise: that America should expect public schools to produce world-class academic achievement regardless of the negative forces bearing down on a school’s particular students.

That’s a worthy goal. “No excuses” is the bumper-sticker version of this. “Every child deserves a good school,” is another way to describe the movement. But arguing that poverty shouldn’t be a barrier to success is one thing. Ignoring poverty and expecting its effects to disappear by virtue of more sanctions is something else.

For education, technology and charter school companies and the Wall Streeters who back them, it lets them cite troubled public schools to argue that the current public education system is flawed, and to then argue that education can be improved if taxpayer money is funneled away from the public school system’s priorities (hiring teachers, training teachers, reducing class size, etc.) and into the private sector (replacing teachers with computers, replacing public schools with privately run charter schools, etc.). Likewise, for conservativepoliticians and activist-profiteers disproportionately bankrolled by these and other monied interests, the “reform” argument gives them a way to both talk about fixing education and to bash organized labor, all without having to mention an economic status quo that monied interests benefit from and thus do not want changed.

This is not exactly an unbiased view, of course. It’s likely “education, technology and charter school companies and the Wall Streeters who back them” really do believe the school system is inherently flawed and that more sanctions and competition will fix the problem.

But it’s that last line in the paragraph that I find most interesting. Structural inequality, low taxes, and limited social services represent “an economic status quo that monied interests benefit from and thus do not want changed.”

One of the main criticisms offered at those who oppose current education reform efforts is that they use poverty as an excuse for low education performance, rather than as a starting point to address that performance.

That’s a valid criticism but, as Sirota points out, the reality is that neighborhood and family poverty continues to be the major factor that determines education performance. It matters more than anything else. And it matters more than anything else regardless of school structure. These reform efforts just aren’t working.

We can’t really say that education reform is a deliberate effort to destroy public education in order to support policies that favor the rich, but it sure doesn’t look good.

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