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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 09/20/2010

Has education reform jumped the shark? A teacher says 'yes'

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by Anthony Cody, a science teacher in inner-city Oakland for 18 years who now works with a team of experienced science teacher-coaches who support the many novice teachers in his school district. It originally appeared on the Teacher Magazine’s website, here. Cody is a National Board-certified teacher and an active member of the Teacher Leaders Network. You can read more by Cody at his website, Teachers Lead.

By Anthony Cody
Education reformers have invested billions of dollars in numerous ventures that promote their vision, and we'll see them in the next few weeks. The release of the documentary Waiting for Superman, NBC’s Education Nation specials and teacher town hall, and D.C. Schools Superintendent Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates on The Oprah Winfrey Show -- all will create a crescendo of voices, images and the master narrative that has been carefully developed over the past decade

That narrative goes like this: Our schools are failing. The only way to save them is to expand charters, remove due process for teachers so they can be fired, and further raise the stakes on standardized test scores.

But ideologically driven projects like this have a way of over reaching, over-promising, and overestimating their strength. And the moment that they reach their apex is actually the moment they begin to collapse. Education reform has finally jumped the shark.

The signs of its imminent collapse are all around us.

They begin with the fundamental problem the education reform movement faces. We are more than 10 years into a massive reform effort revolving around high stakes attached to standardized tests, and there is no significant growth in actual learning -- even in terms of the test scores most valued by proponents.

Charter schools likewise have shown themselves to be, on the whole, no better - and many times worse, than the public schools they are supposed to replace. Firing teachers is a poor strategy for turning around supposedly failing schools, as we are seeing at Fremont High School in Los Angeles.

We are seeing an enormous propaganda effort to bolster the education reform agenda, but the public has been lost.

The public has turned against the project’s central device. The latest Time Magazine poll on education was released with fanfare for showing public support of education reform. But as Mathew Di Carlo points out on Shanker Blog, the poll actually reveals something quite different:

The vast majority of Americans believe that test-based accountability has either not worked or has actually been harmful. Asked about the "increased focus on standardized testing and data in public schools over the past decade," 33 percent feels that it has "had little effect," while 36 percent believes it has "actually done more harm than good."

So almost 70 percent say that the testing explosion has had a negative or negligible effect, and only 22 percent say that it has "done more good than harm."

Although the education reform agenda is nearly always justified by its supposed concern for students in poverty, voters have begun to reject it at the ballot box. The recent election of D.C. Council President Vincent Gray, who beat Mayor Adrian Fenty in the Democratic primary last week, means that Rhee, who had Fenty's total backing, will soon be gone. Mike Klonsky wrote, "The vote was as much a rejection of Michelle Rhee’s top-down, divisive, anti-teacher school-reform as it was of Fenty himself."

New York also saw pro-charter candidates defeated, as reported by Crain's:

"Tuesday’s primary was a disaster for charter school proponents and their hedge fund backers. They funded three insurgent state Senate candidates, only to see them lose by huge margins to incumbents viewed as hostile to charter schools: Sen. Bill Perkins in Manhattan, Sen. Velmanette Montgomery in Brooklyn and Sen. Shirley Huntley in Queens."

NBC has been promoting Education Nation, and soon will air a series of programs heavily dominated by the familiar voices of "reform." It is sponsored by the Broad and Gates foundations, and a handful of other corporations.

Poorly represented on the main stage, teachers are given a special event of our own, the Teacher Town Hall, which promises to bring together thousands of teachers from around the country. Any time you bring people together, the results are unpredictable.

Every teacher who wishes to have a voice should register and attend, and everyone with an organization and further opportunities for teachers to stay involved and vocal should be there as well, so teachers understand we will need to get organized and hold our OWN town hall events if we really want results.

Lastly, the November mid-term elections are fast approaching. Democratic party turnout is likely to be lackluster, and a huge reason is the administration’s insistence on following a failed model of reform for our schools.

If Democrats do as poorly as projections indicate, they will need to do some soul-searching about this issue. Teachers and parents pushing for a change in education policy cannot be easily dismissed as "the professional left."

We offer, potentially, some of the most powerful grassroots support a political party could have - but that support will be largely absent this fall. Professional Democrats will have to decide if they can afford to continue to do without that support in 2012.

Politicians are getting wise to this, and are starting to speak their minds. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said about the Obama administration's signature education initiative, Race to the Top:

"You leave no child left behind. You race to the top. Next year, you race to the bottom. Next year, you race to the side. Everybody’s racing to something. Why can’t you send us money to build our schools. ... All the teachers know that these are just political slogans. We should end it."

But projects of this sort do not fully collapse until a viable alternative appears. That means the ball is in our court to develop our vision for how schools can be improved.

Organizations such as Teachers Letters to Obama have been organizing teachers so that our voices are clear and present in this discussion. Over the summer, we developed a set of seven principles to guide Congress in reauthorizing NCLB, and collected numerous letters from teachers and parents expressing our views. These letters are now available for download and distribution here.

Teachers Letters to Obama will be holding our own Teachers’ Roundtable, "Stop Griping, Start Organizing," on Tuesday, Sept. 28. Panelists will include Jesse Turner, who has just completed his walk from Connecticut to Washington to protest federal education policies; National Education Association Vice President Lily Eskelson; Chris Janotta, founder of the Million Teacher March; and parent activist Leonie Haimson, of Class Size Matters.

The online event will take place on Tuesday, Sept. 28, from 8:30 to 10:30 Eastern, and 5:30 to 7:30 pm Pacific Time. You can register here.


Follow my blog every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | September 20, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Anthony Cody, Guest Bloggers, Race to the Top, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  anthony cody, arne duncan, bill gates, education nation, gates on oprah, michelle rhee, nbc education nation, oprah, race to the top, rhee on oprah, teachers and reform, teachers town hall  
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Posted by: davisjack20 | September 20, 2010 6:19 AM | Report abuse

Yes, most parents are sick of standardized tests that promote the school and do nothing to educate our children.

I think that the standardized testing craze has a very negative impact on students.

I am just sick of the nonsense and wish my children were not be experimented with to provide a statistic.

Please bring back "love of learning" as a goal and field trips.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 20, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

I'd so like to share your optimism, Anthony. I wish I could find similar signs of hope in the big picture, and be sustained by the little victories that happen in my classroom. Alas, it seems to be getting harder the more I discover about the forces behind education reform and how the public school system was designed to begin with. I'm coping with the gradual realization that not only is the US not the country I thought it was, it probably never has been.

Posted by: Coachmere | September 20, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

This is a great idea.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 20, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse

Great points. Finally, somone speaking some sense. Is it me or is the charter school movement just an effort to privitize the schools? Also, the Gates foundation is educationally a joke of a non-profit, lobbying for more school takeovers. Just becuase Bill Gates was well served by private schooling, as were many of the ruling elite, doesn't mean that public schools don't work.

Posted by: hokiematt10 | September 21, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Lets see. If Educators were really part of the change as you suggest then they would forgo their Teachers Unions which for the most part is used to power play politicians and to hold parents hostage. Superintendents of failing schools making 300K or more per year is no dirrent than banks and wallstreet.Lifetime over generous pensions regarless of performance. Superintendents retireing at 50 ?? from failing schools or going out on lifetime medical leaves. Please.
The ACLU August 2009 reporting on children with specail needs being abused in the public schools. The 20% of home school rise because of horrible public school engagement.By the way Home Schoolers are 20 points higher on SAT scores and spend just 3-4 hours per day in class. Public schools don't teach any more. They send the teaching home for parents to do anyway. Instead they teach Ultra Liberal agenda to the minds of our kids.They probe kids on private family business and violate parents and students civil rights. They retaliate aganist kids if parents complain and do everything they can to avoide providing kids with special needs the services they are entitled to have. 65% of children in trouble are children with special needs who never received services. To suggest our public schools are working is to suggest that all of the data ,reserch and proof is not true. This can only be a comment made by someone in the public school system. The public schools seem to think that we the tax payer are here to feed them and that the money belongs to the Administrators and not the children. Make every state school choice. Make the money belong to the child and close down the teachers unions. Then we can start a discussion. Make every school outline their performance. Do not provide a free education to illegals and make parents pay for bi lingual services.
Yes, private schools provide a better education. Why is that?? Luck??
Wake up..These public schools don't want to answer to anyone. They want to fool parents into thinking that its our responsibility to take over the teaching of Math, Science, Reading and the basics so they can push social ultra liberal agenda. Just do your job in the public schools just do your job and teach already..just teach..

Posted by: CynthiaAllenSchenk | September 22, 2010 6:49 AM | Report abuse

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