Education Reform Autopsies

Illustration: Aidan Wharton

Education reform is dead. 

Matt Yglesias recently published a series of posts (start here) on education reform’s rise and fall. Meanwhile, last month, the Washington Post’s Perry Bacon built a piece around the fact that “America’s decades-long, bipartisan ‘education reform’ movement, defined by an obsession with test scores and by viewing education largely as a tool for getting people higher-paying jobs, is finally in decline.” 

And yet, as the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli noted last summer, education reform dies all the time: “articles declaring ‘the end of school reform’ pop up regularly—maybe not so often as petunias but certainly more frequently than seventeen-year cicadas.” New America’s Kevin Carey persuasively chronicled reform’s “demise” in the Washington Post in 2020. I, too, have seen education reform’s looming demise. After No Child Left Behind was replaced in 2015, I wrote a handful of pessimistic pieces noting that the new law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, represented a major loss for education reform. 

It’s an odd dynamic: there’s always money in the banana stand, and education reform’s always just alive enough to die again. 

The cycle persists because beating up on reform—and reformers—is a sound political strategy. It starts from humans’ instinctive wariness of changes to familiar public institutions—and it identifies a clear villain responsible for instigating those discomfiting changes. Whether reformers are pushing academic assessments to measure how well schools are teaching students to read, supporting the launch of public alternatives to neighborhood schools, or trying to overhaul how U.S. teachers are trained…they’re messing with the way things are, with the schools that families, teachers, and policymakers expect. Even if those changes hold promise, they’re inevitably going to upset what people are accustomed to. 

Since reform is an easy political target, it’s best to keep it around as a bogeyman—a target for focusing the public’s attention in education discourse. So reform is always dying, but never dead, an ever-present, intolerable threat to the public education system as Americans know it. 

If reform attacks make for sensible politics, they’re also substantive distractions. That’s because the familiar American public education status quo is rife with deep-rooted, systemic problems. Our schools are highly segregated by race, class, and language status. These divisions aren’t just damaging to the long-term prospects for our plural, polyglot democracy; they’re also a critical element of systems that further long-term educational inequity. It’s much easier for policymakers to underfund the educational opportunities of children of color, low-income communities, and English learners when those students are concentrated in particular schools and/or school districts. Unsurprisingly, our deeply unfair, structurally unjust education system replicates deep social biases and reliably consigns historically marginalized children to lower-quality educational opportunities. It’s difficult to materially shift these longstanding hierarchies—and much easier to criticize the reformers who try to address them. 

This gets at the second reason why education reform never quite dies: its critics don’t have an alternative paradigmatic way of diagnosing these systemic injustices and addressing them. Whatever the flaws of the past twenty to thirty years of education reform, it has—or, at least, it had—a host of virtues: 

  1. A clear means of measuring public education’s problems. Reformers generally pushed to set benchmarks for what students should know and be able to do in each grade…and then passed laws requiring schools to measure students’ progress.
  2. A clear theory of action. Reformers generally argued that there should be structural changes to schools where students were reliably falling short of those benchmarks. They further argued that it was fundamentally unfair to leave historically marginalized children with no option other than to attend the neighborhood school assigned to them because of where their families can afford to live. 
  3. Political viability. The core tenets of education reform were—for decades—supported by an eclectic array of organizations, from the nation’s leading civil rights organizations to business interests. 

As Bacon and Yglesias point out, the reform package is inadequate for addressing the full range of race-, class-, and language-based inequities baked into U.S. schools and society. But it’s a fundamentally coherent way of identifying and working on part of the problem, which makes reform substantively hard to kill. 

So: reform’s critics often direct the bulk of their rhetorical firepower towards the limits of reform elements like standardized testing, charter schools, and alternative ways of training teachers, among other reform initiatives, but often remain shy about offering concrete alternatives. 

For instance, reform critics might hate standardized tests, but they are an immensely powerful tool for civil rights activists demanding that English learners have their language skills measured fairly or for litigants arguing that their communities’ schools have been chronically under-resourced by their states. After all, the pre-reform era wasn’t a utopian epoch of universally excellent public schools for historically marginalized kids. Quite the contrary. There’s ample history showing that, when U.S. schools and districts have no external check to measure how well they’re serving students, resources and educational opportunities almost inevitably flow to the privileged. 

It’s not that reform critics have no other policy ideas. Many argue for a sustained push for school integration, fairer education funding, and some combination of major overhauls of affordable housing and transportation policies. There are a lot of good ideas in that list! But it’s only fair to note that enacting essentially any of those—alone or in combination—would require major, all-but-unprecedented shifts in local, state, and sometimes federal policies. 

Maybe major national action, energy, and resources for these ideas are lurking just beyond the present political horizon! But it’s much easier to lambaste education reform and celebrate its eternal dying than it is to engage the deep injustices in American schools meaningfully. 

If education reform really has expired, it clearly didn’t solve centuries-deep American social injustices. Nonetheless, the reform era marked some meaningful, measurable improvements in student outcomes, and that’s the appropriate metric for measurement. A large number of states adopted versions of the more academically rigorous Common Core State Standards and moved towards shared definitions of what kids should know and be able to do in each grade and subject. Charter schools grew rapidly in many communities, generally driven by historically marginalized families’ demand for higher-quality educational options than those assigned to their neighborhoods. While this work left many educational inequities unresolved, it was clearly modest progress. The appropriate comparison is the pre-reform system, not some imagined comprehensive overhaul of US schools, society, and the economy.

Consider that education reform ceased to be the dominant force for shaping U.S. public education with the 2015 end of No Child Left Behind. In the subsequent eight years, under the milquetoast Every Student Succeeds Act, reformers have marked few major policy wins—particularly at the federal level. Remember: they’ve been fading from power for years. 

Given that reform has waned as a movement since roughly 2015, perhaps we can break from dancing on reform’s grave a moment. Turn to the achievements of its critics during the last eight years: the landscape sure looks bleak. Reform hasn’t been replaced by some dramatic rethinking of how to improve U.S. schools and make them fairer. Rather, it’s been marked by collective inattention to educational inequities. It’s been replaced with heightened culture wars over which students can use which school bathrooms and how honest teachers should be about American history. However important these sorts of things seem, it’s clear that they’re not essential components of making schools dramatically better at scale. 

As I wrote in a 2019 requiem for education reform in the 74 Million

Public education isn’t a sealed system, a problem to itself and of its own making. It has always been coterminous with the American public. As we have been racist, selfish and prejudiced, U.S. schools have hurt students of color, the poor and immigrant children. That won’t stop happening because we’ve run out of ideas for halting those oppressions. Without federal policies that pressure states, school districts and local campuses to address these inequities, they will continue.

So: in the meantime, tens of millions of children will wake up tomorrow and head off to public schools. Little will be different from the schools they attended yesterday or the weeks, months, and years before. Little about their opportunities and outcomes will change. The unequal status quo will drift along, safe from meaningful pressure to change.