Millionaire dilettantes' "education reform" have failed, but teacher-driven, evidence-supported education works miracles

Rich "education philanthropists" (Bill Gates, the Waltons, the DeVoses, the Sacklers) have had a lot of business-world ideas for "fixing education" over the years, centered on a system of carrots (bonuses for high-testing schools and schools whose students get admitted to top universitites) and sticks (funding cuts for "underperforming" schools), all backed by high-stakes tests and standardized teaching materials.

These have been a catastrophe, making poor schools poorer, spawning massive fraud-rings that gamed standardized tests and sent unprepared kids to top colleges through falsified grades, where they immediately sank beneath coursework and student debt.

But even though running schools "like a business" online makes things worse, there are problems with public schools, especially those serving poor and marginalized students, and, it turns out, there are ways of addressing those problems.

After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform, a 2018 book by Andrea Gabor, documents these success stories and outlines their commonalities: in Massachusetts' Brockton High, the state's largest, poorest school now outperforms the state average, with a well-funded faculty that teach speaking skills, fine arts, drama, sports, and provide extracurricular activities.

In Leander, Texas, strict hierarchy and standardized tests were replaced by "a culture devoted to grassroots-driven quality and experimentation" as well as "long-term thinking" and "meaningful teacher training," inspired by the production systems of Toyota, turning the school into a magnet for the best teachers in the state and reversing its education outcomes.

The commonalities in all of Gabor's success stories are "a respect for democratic processes and participatory improvement, a high regard for teachers, clear strategies with buy-in from all stake-holders, and accountability frameworks that include room to innovate. They also feature robust leadership and strong teacher voice. Their success underscores the importance of equitable funding and suggests that problems like income inequality are far more detrimental to education that the usual suspects, like bad teachers."

In 2018, media coverage started to turn from heralding tech millionaires as the intrepid "disrupters" of schools to highlighting the boldness of teachers, especially those in non-union states, engaged in strikes, walkouts, and protests around the country. The American public was supportive of the strikes and resonated with teachers who didn't make a living wage and yet poured their hearts into doing their best for high-risk children under terrible conditions with few resources.

Critics like Gordon Lafer are now warning that if antidemocratic forces and deep-pocketed elites continue to set the agenda for what children should learn, American schools will turn into places where inequality is not only exacerbated, but actually inculcated — something quite different from what most of us grew up understanding as their purpose. Instead of being prepared for lives as healthy and productive citizens, most will be groomed for a life of lowered expetations and servitude.

Gabor sees in all this an opportunity to push to restore democratic principles and participative decision-making to education reform and champion a more humane, sustainable model for success. She views what happens under Trump as the catalyst for better approaches and a recognition that preparing young people for a competitive global marketplace and life democratic society do not have to be at odds: schools can and must do both.

Millionaire-Driven Education Reform Has Failed. Here's What Works. [Lynn Parramore/Institute for New Economic Thinking]

(via Naked Capitalism)