College Guide


May 02, 2013 3:30 PM The Coming Backlash on Education Reform

By Daniel Luzer

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?

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


  • Ron Mexico on May 03, 2013 11:42 AM:

    I'm scratching my head on this one. Maybe I missed something? Because it sounds to me like the following:

    I think my sink is broken. I hire a plumber to fix it. I pay him a lot of money, and he does a bunch of stuff, but none of it affects the sink. Turns out my sink was working just fine all along. And you're asking, am I now going to hire an electrician?

  • toowearyforoutrage on May 06, 2013 10:39 AM:

    Half right.

    Standardized testing is VERY useful for determining school and teacher performance.

    It should be retained, but the way it's used is NOT intelligent.

    The act is promoted as requiring 100% of students (including disadvantaged and special education students) within a school to reach the same state standards in reading and mathematics by 2014.

    Uh huh.

    Here's my test: 2+2=?

    I can get 100% of a student body to pass that test.
    If even one kid fails, yes, my school is a failure.

    Expecting 100% of ALL kids regardless of cchallenges or motivation to pass any test of any level of rigor is clearly a system designed to fail and as Dubya was in charge and it applied only to public schools, I was floored that teachers unions didn't explain exactly that.

    Now that the obvious has come to light, there's widespread gaming, cheating, and protests. No one saw this coming?

    That said, standardized testing is vital to detecting incompetent teachers. It needs to be combined with a path for remediation and or dismissal. Teaching is not a jobs program and bad teachers damage children.

    Expecting "peer review", the gold standard, to step in and expecting teachers to start the firing process of their colleagues is too much to ask.

    Keep the tests, evaluate the teachers on a universal, fair standard, judge them based on demographic statistics to take poverty into account and find the teachers that are two standard deviations beneath the mean.

    Unions stand in the way of proper reform only slightly less than Republicans that want to toss Public Education in the dustbin of the past and march on to all-private schools on the Louisiana model.

    So saddle up

  • Dave Fiske on May 06, 2013 11:07 AM:

    Not bad, Ron.

    I think you're on to something. We know something's wrong, and we clearly don't know exactly what it is. Maybe we should ask the neighbors.

    I'll bet we don't really want to know. In fact I'll bet it's all about money. We're gonna have to shell out for a new kitchen. In our hearts, we know this, but we don't really WANT to know.