The Moral Perversity of Today’s Education “Reform”

The narrative of school failure that fuels today’s reform policies in education stretches back to the 1983 Reagan administration report, “A Nation at Risk.”  That document asserted that our national education system was so woefully inadequate to the task of educating for the future, that if it had been imposed upon us it “might be considered an act of war.”  The dire warnings have hardly abated, and in 2014, we are frequently told that our children and economy are in danger unless we fully embrace the vision of today’s reformers.  Moreover, today’s menu of reform, common standards, mass high stakes testing, value added evaluation of teachers, elimination of or severe curtailing of teachers’ workplace protections, promotion of charter schools and school choice, are frequently promoted by politicians and policy makers as civil rights issues.  Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig notes:

Student achievement data in the U.S. show long-standing and persistent gaps in minority versus majority performance (Vasquez Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008). Public concern about pervasive inequalities in traditional public schools, combined with growing political, parental, and corporate support, has created the expectation that school choice is the solution for poor and minority youth (Vasquez Heilig, Williams, McNeil, & Lee, 2011). As a result, many reformers have framed school choice as a “civil rights” issue. Scott (2013a) argued that philanthropists, policy advocates, and leading pundits have followed Secretary Arne Duncan’s conjuring of Rosa Parks and the broader Civil Rights Movement as synonymous with market-based school choice.

It is notable that the school choice movement counts on prominent African American and Latina/o leaders to support vouchers, charters, parent trigger, and other forms of choice….In our recent Twitter exchange, (former California State Senator Gloria) Romero framed her bill as a civil rights remedy for low-performing schools. Clearly, African American and Latina/o leaders have formed advocacy coalitions to press for school choice as an alternative to the status quo as our nation has consistently and purposefully underserved students of color (Scott, 2011).

In the 21st century, we are exhorted to education reformers’ policy agenda by language invoking the struggles undertaken by some of our most heroic figures, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Representative John Lewis, and told that the best way to close the historic education achievement gap between suburban white children and their urban African American and Latino peers is to embrace highly disruptive change.  We are further told that all of our children are still “at risk” because even in the well-off communities of our upper middle class, students are not learning what they need in a global economy.  Without education reform, our impoverished students will remain locked in poverty, and our comfortable students will slide into stagnation.

For the sake of this discussion, let me do something I never do.  Let me assume, momentarily, that the education reformers are correct.  Assume that common standards and aligned mass assessments will create a seamless system of curricula that challenge students meaningfully, and that those standards encompass a strong vision of student accomplishment.  Assume that adoption of the standards and assessments narrow the differences between states and districts so that expectations remain high for all students.  Assume the assessments are well-crafted and valid measures that stand as good proxies for student learning.  Assume value added measures of teacher evaluation are statistically valid and supported by a robust body of research.  Assume that eliminating the job protections of tenure would mean that vast numbers of students would have greater contact with skilled teachers and that there would be no negative consequences to the rest of the teacher workforce.  Assume that the proliferation of charter schools in urban school districts would give vastly more students options to attend a high performing school and that pressures from school choice schemes would increase the quality of zoned schools.  Assume that urban charter schools fully serve all students who arrive at their doors.  Assume that the advocates of “no excuses” charter schools are correct and that they genuinely demonstrate that closing the achievement gap can be accomplished entirely within school through teachers armed with extremely high expectations.

Assume every last bit of that is true.

Then what?

This is a more critical question than many realize because even if the performance gaps in American education closed overnight, we would still need an economy that can accommodate many more and more equitably distributed high performing graduates than we currently have.  Advocates of current reforms certainly seem to be banking on this.  Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine recently wrote that Eva Moskowitz of the Success Academy charter school network should be considered a “hero of American social justice,” and he declared that her schools have “been a staggering triumph of upward mobility.”  That’s quite a claim to make for a chain of schools whose oldest students have just begun high school, and, in fact, it rests almost entirely about the network’s accomplishments in state administered standard examinations.

However, the attractiveness of the claim is fairly obvious.  If we admit that economic injustice and that institutional racism have a detrimental impact upon students in poverty and students of color, then we have to admit that many of the gains made over the decades by students from upper middle class and upper class backgrounds are at least partially attributable to unearned privileges as well as to individual merit.  Further, we would have to engage in a policy discussion that attempts to alleviate the deprivations of poverty and institutional racism rather than to extol individuals to claw their way past such obstacles largely on their own.  The “no excuses” brand of charter schools claims that they have figured out how to lift all of their students to the same level of education and opportunity as students in the suburbs, and their policy allies are hardly shy about singing their virtues, as represented in standardized test scores:

Former New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein does not want to talk about the complicating factors surrounding Success Academy results, nor does he spend time considering how far such results could be replicated. Success Academy fits into a narrative that believes schools and teachers are fully responsible for providing all of the lift out of poverty.

But, as I said, assume that it is possible and that Jonathan Chait’s premature declaration of social mobility comes true.  What awaits these students?  If current trends in economics do not begin to change soon, the answer to that question is not especially hopeful.  While there is still an discernible “college wage premium” for those who earn four year degrees, since the 1980s, a significant portion of that is more attributable to cratering wages among people without degrees than to significant wage growth among those with degrees:

Wage growth and decline by level of education

Wage growth and decline by level of education

While a Millennial with a college degree earns a wage that is $730 more than a late boomer with the same degree, the wage trends for those with either a two year degree and no degree have dropped precipitously since the early 80s compared with decades of modest but steady growth before.  A college degree may be necessary for a middle class career today, but more and more, it looks as if the degree is more a means to keep from falling into chronic income insecurity rather than as a genuine means of economic advancement.

If the middle class is increasingly a tenuous position in the American economy, it is even worse for the lower middle class, an economic stratum that has traditionally helped families transition from working class to more economically secure circumstances.  According the The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, nearly half of American families live at 250 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) or below, and 30 percent live between 100 percent and 250 percent of the FPL.  Unlike families below the poverty level, such lower middle class households are equally likely to be headed by a married couple or a single parent, and nearly half have a head of household who has attended at least some college.  The report on their economic struggles notes that, despite living above the poverty line, large percentages of these families rely upon a number of tax and transfer benefits such as SNAP and the Earned Income Tax Credit to remain above the FPL.  Indeed, without many of these programs, the number of families that would slip from an unsecured lower middle class to simple poverty is significant.  As a transition point from poverty to a more secure middle class, the lower middle class is faltering badly.

And where is the evidence that the economy is desperate for more workers with bachelors degrees?  It certainly is not in the wages earned by recent college graduates.  According to the Economic Policy Institute, wage growth adjusted for inflation has been nonexistent since 2000, and the downward trend has continued even as the economy has recovered from the Great Recession:

Wages for Recent College Graduates

Wages for Recent College Graduates

If college graduates were in short supply, basic labor economics dictates that businesses competing for them would have to offer higher wages, but even in the vaunted STEM fields, wages, while higher overall than in non-STEM fields, have not grown significantly for most of the 21st century.

Reality suggests that even if all education reform assumptions were true, graduates of a “properly reformed” school system would still graduate into an economy that is not equipped to lift them from poverty and that is barely equipped to maintain those in the middle class where they currently reside.  The recently published study by Karl Alexander of The Johns Hopkins University, The Long Shadow, illustrates just how complex and potentially unsuccessful the rise from poverty can be.  Out of 800 children studied from first grade to their late twenties, only 33 moved from the low income to the high income bracket.  While a good education is certainly a PART of a pathway out of poverty, it is by no means the ONLY way out, and with more and more workers in the economy struggling to keep pace, it is perverse to suggest that we bestow upon schools the sole responsibility for lifting children from poverty.

And yet that is exactly what is implicit and even explicit in reformers’ policy objectives and rhetoric.  When Jonathan Chait calls Success Academy a “triumph of upward mobility” he is expressly saying that equalizing standardized test scores through Moskowitz’s “no excuses” methodology will effectively raise the children in her schools to economic security.  But even if everything he says about her accomplishments is true, we cannot blithely assume that this academic accomplishment translates into mobility when the economy shows no indications of providing the kind of reward for work that would translate academic standing into economic standing.  Eva Moskowitz’s scholars still face a world where this trend shows no signs of abating:

Share of Total Income

And, of course, we know that we cannot grant the reformers that their agenda will work because much of it simply will not or is built upon faulty and deceptive claims.  Common standards are being implemented in 45 states simultaneously with virtually no field examination of whether or not they improved instruction at the classroom, school or district levels.  Evaluating teachers based on Value Added Models is problematic at best, statistically invalid at worse. There is scant to no evidence that the elimination of teacher tenure is going to significantly improve the teaching in urban schools, and, in fact, the states with the weakest teacher job protections tend to be states that perform very poorly on national assessments. Success Academy, despite claiming to teach similar high need populations as NYC district schools, has a very high attrition rate, and they do not replace students who leave.  This is a trait shared with many other “no excuses” charter schools who eventually have student populations with many fewer disabled students, English language learners and students on free and reduced lunch than their district counterparts.  They combine the selective attrition of the most difficult to teach students with an extreme emphasis on discipline for even minor infractions of the rules and, at Success Academy and elsewhere, a curriculum aimed at test preparation.  While there is little evidence yet that such test performance training will result in long term economic success, there is evidence that charter school expansion can make segregation actually worse.

And this is where reform advocacy devolves from being merely wrong-headed and into territory that is dangerously close to immoral.  America has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world.  It is well established that poverty and its deprivations have serious, often lifelong, impact on people in health, education and economic outcomes.  While improving educational opportunity for children in poverty is a necessary component of expanding opportunity, left to its own, education reform, ANY education reform, cannot make significant dents into the roadblocks that stand before our nation’s poor.  We do not have an economy where the lower middle class can survive on the wages offered for their work.  We do not have an economy where 90% of the wage earners possess more than 49 percent of the total income in the country, and we do not have an economy where the often expressed need for college educated workers has led to growth in income earned by college graduates.

Worse, we have accepted no society wide responsibility to address child poverty in any meaningful way that would lift more children into the economic circumstances more highly correlated with school success than any other factor.  In fact, as a society, we have responded to current economic circumstances with demands to cut discretionary programs in ways that can directly harm children, deepening the already woeful health, education and economic outcomes for children in poverty.  Matt Bruenig of Demos, estimates that with an investment of 1% of GDP in a straight transfer program, child poverty could be cut by 50 percent, almost instantly.  He further points out that our 24 percent of GDP taxation level is among the lowest in the developed world, and it is hard to argue that there is no room for an extra percentage point of GDP.

But there is no political will to discuss this or other direct approaches to lifting people out of poverty in our government.  More accurately, there is no willingness for the major political donors who effectively leverage significant portions of policy in America to do anything that changes either the economy or their taxation levels.  There is, however, significant interest in bypassing those discussions and placing all of the responsibility to both transforming our economy and for lifting disadvantaged children from poverty upon teachers and school.

It fits the meritocracy narrative, and it may tug at our cultural bias towards individualism in the face of daunting odds.

But it is immoral.


Filed under charter schools, Funding, politics, Social Justice

6 responses to “The Moral Perversity of Today’s Education “Reform”

  1. Pingback: 7 Bogus Assumptions of Education Reform | Peter Greene

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