This four part article was originally published in the Field Notes section of The Brooklyn Rail.
In this multi- part article, I hope to describe the motivations and methods of the dominant forces in education reform circles, assess the consequences of those reforms, and sketch out an alternative to the complaints and demands of the major opponents of the dominant forces.
Motivations and Methods
The reformers say it over and over again–public education has failed. The numbers support their claims:
About 70% of students entering ninth grade are reading below expected proficiency, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
In 1969, 77% of high school students graduated but by 1997, the graduation rate had fallen to 65.7%. By 2004, it had gone back to about 70% but then started dropping a bit. In other words, almost one third of high school students drop out.
About 70% of high school graduates continue on to enroll in college; about 25% of those who enroll in four-year colleges need at least one remedial course, as do about 60% of those who enroll in community colleges.
In virtually every case, black and Hispanic students do worse. According to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), more than 85% of black and Hispanic eighth graders read below grade level. Only 55% of Hispanic students and 51% of black students graduate from high school in four years. These failures, interpreted within a rhetoric of global competition and US decline, have been driving the last two decades of education reform. The big picture frame of those efforts is the ceaseless promotion of the notion that education is the solution to all the ills that beset us.
I think we would be well-served if we took the reformers at their word—they indeed want to improve, not destroy, public schools—but they want to do so in their own image. The backers of reform, including numerous very wealthy individuals, firms and foundations, assume that education should be preparing students to live and work within the confines of the existing social and economic order. It’s a fate that they have, for the most part, accepted for themselves and their children. Within those confines, their goal can be described as greater fairness through educational achievement. More specifically, they would like to end the racially coded character of school success and failure in the nation’s public schools—a reality that has stubbornly endured for sixty years since the Supreme Court’s Brown decision overthrowing law-based school segregation from one end of this country to the other, from San Francisco and Seattle, through Kansas City and St. Louis, to Atlanta and Miami.
For the most part, the representatives of the major capitalist sectors have come to believe that they no longer need to or want to rely upon what might be considered “artificial” distinctions—such as race–among the laboring classes. It is not so different from the reason why many of those same forces provide support to the campaign for gay marriage. However, what is seldom admitted, during the public relations phases of the efforts to promote educational achievement as the vehicle to the future, is the unlikelihood that the larger social order will provide the circumstances for the imagined “middle class” utopia of good jobs for all who achieve to be realized. The reality of low-waged and precarious jobs, even for many with all the appropriate credentials, is not exactly the best environment for realizing middle class jobs for all. In that context, it is reasonable to think that the reform project is also intended to forestall the emergence of any significant political challenges to the existing state of affairs—although that is clearly not the intention of all those who participate in education reform projects.
The eleven years when Michael Bloomberg and his Chancellors had control of the New York City Department of Education (from 2003 through 2013) provide both a good example of the core components of the now dominant approach to education reform and created a “new reality” which the new leadership of the Department, installed upon the election of DeBlasio as Mayor, must confront. The not insignificant strength of that new reality was on display at the end of March and beginning of April when the state budget machinations, orchestrated by Andrew Cuomo, gave some of the most powerful charter school supporters a major victory and the new mayor a perhaps major setback.
For those who have not followed the intricacies of democracy at work in Albany, the principal effects of the budget deal are the following: 1) any charter school co-location plan changes, approved prior to 2014, would need consent from the charter school to move forward (meaning that the very limited rejections of co-location plans by the de Blasio administration will be undone); 2) new charter schools must be “provided access to facilities” if they request a co-location inside a city-owned school building or, if that’s not possible, the city will have to pay rent elsewhere or pay an extra 20 percent in per–pupil funding to cover the rental costs; 3) charter schools can’t be charged rent if they have space within a district-owned school building. In every detail, a defeat for de Blasio!
But back to the past! Bloomberg’s Department of Education initiated a wave of efforts to transform the school system. The centerpiece of the first year and a half of this era–in many ways, a homegrown idea–combined thirty-two, often troubled and ineffective, community school districts and six high school districts into ten large geographical regions. Each region included some very strong schools and many more very weak ones—the intent was that weak schools would find themselves in close contact with stronger ones and that there would be a transfusion of ideas about the design and operation of good schools. In addition, though, the Department mandated that schools, other than a relatively few deemed to be very successful, would be required to adopt and implement uniform curricula in Eiools, other than a relatively few deemed to be very successful, would benglish Language Arts and Math—curricula that would be supported by a substantial program of professional development for teachers. In retrospect, they were approaches that should have been given time to prove themselves.
But time was not in abundance. What might be called “fast policy” became the new game in town. According to three critical theorists (Peck, Theodore and Brenner), the fast policy landscape is “a churning, dynamic one, the continued turbulence of which is reflective of neoliberalism’s contradictory creativity—its capacity to repeatedly respond to endemic failures of policy design and implementation through a range of crisis-displacing strategies, fast-policy adjustments, and experimental reforms.” Those same theorists suggest that neo-liberalism, including its educational reform versions, can be profitably understood as a “syndrome” rather than a singular coherent plan. A syndrome appears to be especially apt when we look at what’s happened in the New York City public schools.
Fast Policy at Work
One of the key elements of the Department’s approach in this “fast policy” environment was disruptive innovation (cobbled together from the work of Harvard Business School guru Clayton Christensen). The primary site for such disruptive innovation was in the area of school support—meaning the ways in which the Department was organized to make schools function effectively. Within a year and a half of the establishment of the regional superintendencies, the first match was lit. As of fall 2004, a small number of schools (26) were allowed to join a new “autonomy zone” and became liberated from the regional superintendents; the following year, 32 more joined them. At the time, it appeared to be a bit of an outlier, intended to benefit a small number of what might be considered “schools with good connections” with some of the Department’s inside maverick leaders. And then, on the basis of enough evidence of the autonomy zone’s success to justify the posting of a crossing guard at an intersection in southern Staten Island, an Empowerment Zone of 331 schools was established for the 2006-2007 school year. Most importantly, the small autonomy zone and the much larger empowerment zone were constructed without reference to geography; indeed, geography was the target. To give its architects some credit, there was a long legacy of educational misery concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods of the city and there was not much to recommend continuing that apartheid-like reality. On the other hand, the regional model had already put in place a potentially powerful alternative to the deadly destiny of the zip code—but any recognition of that was brushed aside.
And then, in the blink of an eye, in January of 2007, the Department established system-wide autonomy for principals by enabling all principals to select their school support organization—empowerment and four other more structured options within the DOE and a number of external Partnership Support Organizations. But even that was not enough. In 2010, the deck was shuffled yet again and schools were asked to choose among almost 60 Children’s First Networks. And that’s where it stands now—pending a reorganization by the new leadership. An intentionally fragmented system!
At the same time that these organizational changes were being implemented at the system level, other equally sweeping changes were taking place at the school level—primarily through the closing down of schools deemed to be failing and their replacement by an ever growing number of small new schools. Over time, the school closing strategy was transformed into a dreary spectacle of schools being identified as in need of possible closing, dumping of students, denial of real support and predictable death. In all likelihood, the real reason for many of the school closings was a determination to undermine one of the most significant centers of the strength of the UFT’s Unity Caucus—where the Chapter Chair was arguably often more powerful than the principal.
Before closing this part, I should note that school closings in New York have been quite a bit different from closings in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia. In those cities, many schools have been shuttered as here, but unlike here, new schools have not been opened to replace them. Ultimately, the implementation of “reform” is deeply influenced by local contexts, including most importantly the state of governmental budgets. In New York, for the most part, school reform has not been accompanied by austerity and it would be best to analyze them as separate, albeit linked, phenomena.
I ended the first article in this series by discussing the Department of Education’s focus on closing old and opening new schools. I’ll begin this second article by discussing the complementary focus on the marketization of school selection.
I’m no expert about markets. Indeed, I mostly rely on Michael Lewis, author of books such as The Big Short and the recently published Flash Boys, to understand them. Come to think of it, it might not be a bad idea for Michael Lewis to devote his next book to exposing the underside of the marketization of school reform. In the meantime, let me try to sort things out a bit.
It all began with the establishment of new small high schools to replace quite deadly large high schools, especially in the Bronx. The plan was simple and quite good–close one bad big school and open up three or four new good small schools! That effort began before the Bloomberg era but it was enthusiastically embraced by the new regime. Early on, it secured the support of many millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation. Over a decade, more than 400 new schools were started. A fair assessment would say that most of the small high schools are much better than the schools they replaced, evidenced by much higher rates of high school graduation. But most of those new schools have not realized the goals they were intended to achieve. Those goals were not simply to be better than really dreadful schools; they were intended to be really good schools. That goal remains elusive.
But, in the meantime, one thing did lead to another. The process of developing and approving new schools morphed into what was called a “portfolio” strategy. A portfolio of stocks includes winners and losers; over time, the winners and losers become identified; the losers lose and the winners win. In the meantime, the kids who attend the loser schools—oops!
Ah! The way you avoid that bad outcome is that you give people choices so they can know the difference between winners and losers and pick winners. A big problem—in a school system with only a few winners and a lot of losers, the choice is often a hollow one. Let’s try to understand the balance of winners and losers. Here in New York City, only about 22% of high school graduates are meeting the state’s expectations for being considered prepared for college—meaning that they would not be required to take remedial courses if they did enroll in college. It’s a low bar. But that’s hardly the worst of it. For the just over 350 schools for which data for 2012’s graduates was reported, 10% (about 40) of the schools produced half of the college-ready graduates. Many of those schools are exam schools or have selective admissions policies. About half of the high schools produced 15,000 of the 16,000 deemed ready; the other 170 schools produced a total of just over 1,000 (out of over 22,000 students). Depending on how rigorous you want to be, either 90% or 50% of the high schools are losers.
And then we come to charter schools—perhaps the embodiment of a choice strategy. New York City now has about 180 charter schools, not quite 10% of the total number of public schools in the city. They enroll approximately about 6 to 7% of the city’s public school children. All but six of the charter schools are operated by non-profit organizations and state law prohibits any new charter schools being operated by profit-making entities. Until the recent state budget law was passed, charter schools received the same per capita funding as the city’s regular district schools. The teachers in most of them are not unionized but there is no bar to union organization—teachers in twenty-two of them are in the UFT. Admission to the charter schools is by lottery–open to any interested family. There are preferences given to siblings of children already in a school and to residents of the local community school district. But there are no academic requirements for admission. Charter schools are disproportionately located in local school districts with the worst performing regular schools. Two high-performing districts in Queens have no charter schools.
In Harlem, 20% of children are now attending more than 25 charter schools. While parents of young children in Harlem have no choice about the zoned school their children will attend, no one is forcing Harlem parents to send their kids to a charter school. In all likelihood, they decided to apply to a charter because they hoped their children would get a better education than they would have in the school they otherwise would have had to attend. Whether charter schools deliver on that promise is a separate matter. But a blanket opposition to charter schools simply does not take seriously the disappointments and fears of the parents of black and Hispanic children, among others.
Because charter schools are freed from many of the institutionalized regularities of the larger school system, it is somewhat easier for them to achieve various kinds of social cohesion—not all of them so enlightened. Perhaps the flagship of charter schools are the KIPP schools–the Knowledge is Power Program, the brainchild of David Levin and Michael Feinberg, two Ivy Leaguers and Teach for America members. Their defining mottos are “be nice, work hard” and “there are no shortcuts.” One critic has described their approach:
…. Feinberg and Levin seem to have created a steroid and manic version of the traditional classroom. They combine this vision with ongoing psychological interventions intended to breed an unwavering positive outlook among students. The energetic and bureaucracy-busting reformers also borrowed from the inimitable Harriet Ball, whose teaching style offers a culturally-sensitive mashup of gospel, hip-hop and Schoolhouse Rock, which, no doubt, loses some of its effect and charm in the hands of the white TFA teachers that KIPP has recruited since the early days in Houston. It was one of Harriet Ball’s chants …. that inspired the name, Knowledge is Power Program:
You gotta read, baby, read.
You gotta read, baby, read.
The more you read, the more you know.
Cause knowledge is power,
Power is money, and
I want it.
Put simply, KIPP’s education philosophy is behavior modification and political indoctrination. KIPP has no coherent academic approach other than a series of gimmicks to inculcate student compliance in drill-like activities. While many charter schools share these kinds of approaches with KIPP, not all do. Some have quite sound educational visions and would never imagine treating kids as KIPP does. Similarly, some charters appear to be quite successful in comparison to regular district schools but many others appear to be no better and even worse.
There is another objectionable thing that some charters, including KIPP, do–they exclude kids who they come to believe will not be successful–meaning they will not do well on state tests. Apparently, at one point, Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone simply dismissed an entire class of students from his charter school for this reason.
Which brings us to the next point—the rule of data!! At the same moment when Joel Klein announced the new era of empowerment (described in the first article), he also announced that schools would henceforth be evaluated according to a comprehensive new accountability system that would assess the performance and progress of their students. Thus were born the now well-known Progress Reports which assign schools grades from A to F. (Informed sources believe that the new leadership at the DOE will retain the progress reports but will eliminate the letter grades).
After all was said and done, the centerpiece of the judgment of schools was the performance eof their students on New York State exams—in the case of elementary and intermediate schools, performance on annual tests in English Language Arts and Mathematics; in the case of high schools, performance on Regents exams. The thinking behind the accountability system was fairly simplistic: we want better results; we don’t think that we know how to achieve them; we’ll let individual school principals figure out what to do; we won’t care especially much about what they do or how they achieve their results, and we’ll reward the high performers and punish the poor performers. The data will drive change. The results should not surprise. The writers of the hit TV show, The Wire, boiled it down:
When a new city teacher, formerly of the Baltimore police, hears how his school will teach test questions, the young man immediately recognizes the dilemma: “Juking the stats … Making robberies into larcenies. Making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. I’ve been here before.”
Most standardized tests are “teachable”– when similar tests are used year after year (and they often are since that’s the simplest way for the testing companies to promote the “reliability” of the tests). Schools and teachers can craft their instruction around the expected form and content of the test items rather than more broadly around the content and skills that the test is ostensibly intended to sample. When the future employment of teachers and principals, as well as the future existence of a school, is at stake, many cannot resist the short-term advantage of test prep as a dominant instructional strategy and of cheating as a good back-up. The truth of the matter is that test prep models are not nearly as effective in producing high scores, presumably reflecting high levels of student achievement, as would be the use of high quality curriculum and sophisticated instruction. But far too many teachers and schools don’t necessarily know how to recognize the difference and, if they were freed from the shadow of mandated testing, they might very well use approaches that are not especially more thoughtful than “drill and kill” test prep.
The fundamental emptiness of a strategy grounded in letting principals do whatever they thought necessary to get higher scores was revealed in 2009 when the New York State Education Department recalibrated the scores on its elementary and intermediate school exams and test scores in the city dropped precipitously. A common response from principals to this new specter of unexpected failure was “We’ll have to step up our game!” Not exactly an approach that might lead to more effective teaching!
The specter of data also hangs over teachers as they become subject to more formal evaluations. Most approaches to teacher evaluation rely on standardized test scores for a set percent of a teacher’s overall rating. The balance is determined by student achievement on school-made measures, formal observations of teachers in classrooms and a review of other aspects of teachers’ involvement in the life of the school (such as participation in planning teams). However, the use of test scores has dominated the discussion. In part this is because most states and local districts are making much ado about the use of “value-added” measurements in what they claim is an effort to level the playing field and not to penalize teachers who work with less successful students. In spite of a lot of razzle-dazzle, the claims by the proponents of “value-added” approaches seem to be flimsy ones—so much so that they have led John Ewing, a prominent mathematician, to accuse its proponents of “Mathematical Intimidation.” 
In spite of all the talk and effort, it increasingly appears that the reforms launched by the Department of Education during the Bloomberg regency have not yielded consistent gains. Higher test scores were often enough found to be based on student performance on predictable tests with cut points set far below what had been expected (if not on outright cheating); high school graduation rates have increased but the majority of graduates are still not deemed ready for college.
Early differences matter a great deal. In a report released in late 2013, it was revealed that: “Only 2.7% of students who failed to meet the third-grade English Language Arts (ELA) standard went on to meet or exceed the ELA benchmark in eighth grade, and only one in three of the students who failed to meet the third-grade ELA standard graduated from high school (emphasis added). Conversely, 91.3% of students who exceeded the ELA standard in third grade would meet or exceed the standard in eighth grade, and almost 90% of these students graduated within four years.” The fault lines followed the race/ethnicity ones: “The average white third grader scored at the 75th percentile on the ELA, while black and Hispanic third graders performed at roughly the 40th percentile. Rather than narrowing over time, these early inequalities grew somewhat larger by eighth grade.” But inequalities are not accidents.
In most of the city, elementary schools have attendance zones but parents have choices across and beyond the zone that they live in. PS 321 in Park Slope is one of the most successful and desirable elementary schools in the city. The school’s attendance zone is predominantly white and well-off. In 2011-2012, the school enrolled students that were almost three quarters white. Less than 10% of its students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. PS 282 is located a short distance away. Its zone is also predominantly white and well-off. In 2011-2012, however, only 8% of PS 282’s student population was white. About 55% of students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Lo and behold, it turns out that 321 was mostly an “A’ school and 282 mostly a “C” school on the Department of Education’s Progress Reports.
According to New York Appleseed, the presence of the two schools in the same neighborhood demonstrates that “residential segregation does not provide a complete explanation for the levels of racial and economic segregation we see in New York City elementary schools.” Instead, people of means, admittedly variously defined, have more choices while those with less can starve on the rhetoric of choice. In the PS 321 zone, parents are able to secure a place for their children in the school by affording to rent or buy in the zone. In the PS 282 zone, similar parents can secure a place in a school they deem acceptable by choosing to go to a public school elsewhere or by paying for private school. The city’s system of zones and choice at the elementary school level allows some parents to run away from not good schools while it excludes others from those good schools. The choice and admissions processes are somewhat different at the middle school and high school level are somewhat different but they largely reinforce the patterns set early on.
In a 2011 New York Times column, Michael Winerip reported that children graduating from the fifth grade of PS 24 in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn seldom gained admission to District 15’s most successful middle schools. Of 110 graduates, only five were admitted to MS 51, perhaps the district’s most high achieving school, while 36 were admitted to IS 136, a nearby consistently low-performing school.
Perhaps the single worst example of such inequities is the profile of students admitted to the city’s exam high schools. Black and Hispanic students combined comprise about 70% of the total population in the city’s schools. But at Stuyvesant High School, one of eight schools that admit students on the basis of a special exam taken in 8th grade, only 2% of the incoming ninth graders this year were black and only 3.5% were Hispanic. The percentages at the other seven exam schools are a bit better but still dreadful. In spite of significant exposure of the situation, going back more than fifteen years, nothing effective has been done to change the situation and even modest proposals are shouted down.
Expanding choices in the city’s schools has effectively resulted in expanded choices for two somewhat discrete populations (determined by an inter-play between neighborhoods, wealth, race and ethnicity) and more inequity. Parents of children who were or, would be, more or less destined for educational success have little to lose from choice; parents of children likely destined for educational failure have only a small amount to win.
So we have winners and losers in public education and, for the most part, they remain the same before and after education reform. What might possibly change that all too predictable outcome? In all likelihood, education reform policy has exhausted its potentials. What’s left? How about politics?
Politics has to be based on something and I’d like to suggest that we would be well served if we began to imagine an educational politics based on a vision of a different social and economic future rather than the simple replication of the great misery of a small handful of “haves” and an ever-growing number of “have-nots.”
What does the current future consist of? A short list would include: 1) the dramatic reduction of the number of individuals engaged in what might be considered socially reproductive labor—meaning labor that might allow those individuals and their families to be well-fed, housed, educated, and cared for when ill; 2) the likelihood of catastrophic environmental challenges, including severe climate change; 3) the intensification of inequalities— within and among nations; 4) enduring and intensifying religious and national conflicts; 5) profound social alienation, manifested in phenomena such as increased rates of drug abuse and personal violence, including rape; 6) the not insignificant emergence of far right and neo-fascist movements across the world (from India to Greece to Hungary to France and even to the US). I guess that there a few good things happening (like even smarter smart phones) that I’ve left out—but I’m not too worried about that
And so what does education have to do with it?
In the years before the end of apartheid in South Africa, a great revolutionary and impassioned educator, Neville Alexander wrote: “No government on earth can control the process of schooling completely. The beginnings of trouble in any modern society usually make themselves felt in the schools before they become evident in other institutions precisely because it is so difficult in a modern state to control this process completely.” Students, he thought, could be taught “in such a way that students know exactly what is true, what is half-true, what is simply false, what has been omitted, and why.”
That’s not what happened after apartheid was dismantled. Instead, according to Alexander, the role models for the challenges of life changed “suddenly, as though by some sleight of hand” from those fighting for liberation, justice and equality to “the entrepreneurial, individualistic whiz-kids of the neoliberal epoch. In short, we, especially our young people, were encouraged to become rich without being ashamed or guilty. We were led to believe that in the confines of the capitalist system, where — necessarily — a small minority of very rich people dominate society in all its dimensions and serve as the never-to-be equaled role models for the countless numbers of the poor and the very poor, all of us, if we would only make use of all the wonderful new ‘opportunities’, could become like the ‘best of them’.”
It’s not so different here. The education reformers have narrowly defined what success in school might look like for the great majority of students as being better prepared to compete in the Hunger Games of all against all. Unfortunately, most of their opponents have simply been urging a return to the state of affairs in the miserable pre-reform era. The reformers have so narrowed the debate so that we are encouraged to abandon all desires for education that might transform children’s lives and potentially transform the world. We need, instead, to embrace those desires and not accommodate ourselves to the stunted visions of reformers, or their opponents, who cannot see beyond the continued existence of schooling as we know it. That demands politics of a kind that engages large numbers of people and not merely relative handfuls of benevolent social engineers.
Such a politics would call forth a vision of a different kind of education, albeit one that’s not so different from what the individuals in the commanding heights of the social order usually expect for their own children. Its essential elements might be the following: 1) the cultivation of children’s interests in understanding the natural and social worlds; 2) an appreciation of the world’s cultures; 3) the acquisition of technical proficiency in various domains; 4) ethical practice (by which I mean doing well by our fellow human beings when we’re teaching them, helping them become well, caring for them when they’re old or infirm); 5) making sense of the world—especially in light of all the quite dangerous realities enumerated above.
Such an education would need to provide children with opportunities to acquire knowledge and develop skills in many different domains and, most importantly, would not be especially concerned with how long it might take them to do so. In other words, “grades” as we know them—both the grades that students are in and the grades that students earn—will need to be sent to the graveyard.
 John Ewing, “Mathematical Intimidation: Driven by the Data,” Notices of the AMS (May 2011). The AMS is the American Mathematical Society.