It’s a terrible time for advocates of market-driven reform in public education. For more than a decade, their strategy—which makes teachers’ careers turn on student gains in reading and math tests, and promotes competition through charter schools and vouchers—has been the dominant policy mantra. But now the cracks are showing. That’s a good thing because this isn’t a proven—or even a promising—way to make schools better.
Here’s a litany of recent setbacks: In the latest Los Angeles school board election, a candidate who dared to question the overreliance on test results in evaluating teachers and the unseemly rush to approve charter schools won despite $4 million amassed to defeat him, including $1 million from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and $250,000 from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Former Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall, feted for boosting her students’ test scores at all costs, has been indicted in a massive cheating scandal. Michelle Rhee, the former Washington D.C. school chief who is the darling of the accountability crowd,faces accusations, based on a memo released by veteran PBS correspondent John Merrow, that she knew about, and did nothing to stop, widespread cheating. In a Washington Post op-ed, Bill Gates, who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars promoting high-stakes, test-driven teacher evaluation, did an about-face and urged a kinder, gentler approach that teachers could embrace. And parents in New York State staged a rebellion, telling their kids not to take a new and untested achievement exam.
More damningly, a new study, by the Economic Policy Institute’s Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, quantifies the negative effects of this test-driven education reform in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Chicago. In these cities, schools whose achievement scores didn’t improve quickly enough to satisfy top officials were shuttered, teachers and principals were fired in droves, and charter schools proliferated. The result, since the much-touted reforms were implemented: Since the supposed reforms, students in those cities have fared worse than those in other urban districts.