A recurring question in recent years is whether the education reform movement is dead. I’ve argued that it’s not—that the “Washington Consensus” that gave rise to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top may be long gone, but that education reform itself is alive and well. Then again, as my longtime colleague and friend Checker Finn would tell you, I’m a famously (and perhaps naively) optimistic guy. If someone handed me a partial cup of poison, I would probably notice that at least the glass is half full.
So even I will admit that something about education reform changed significantly in the mid-2010s, and not for the better. Political polarization put serious strain on the bipartisan movement, and culture wars are stressing what is left.
Some on both right and left remain sanguine about these developments. Some school choice supporters view Democrats as non-essential baggage. Why compromise when Republicans have the votes in red states to enact education savings accounts on their own? Likewise, some Democrats don’t want to sully themselves by cooperating with Republican “book banners,” especially when they aren’t committed to the cause of racial equity and social justice anyway.
I strongly disagree. It wasn’t perfect, but the bipartisan era of education reform, from the 1990s until the early 2010s, accomplished a great deal of good for America’s children. If you aren’t convinced, spend some time with Dan Goldhaber’s and Michael DeArmond’s wonderful overview of the research literature in a recent report for the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, Looking Back to Look Forward: Quantitative and Qualitative Reviews of the Past 20 Years of K-12 Education Assessment and Accountability Policy.
(If you are convinced, you can skip the next few paragraphs!)
First, it’s clear from multiple studies and analyses that student achievement in the United States improved dramatically from the mid to late 1990s until the early 2010s—especially in math, especially at the elementary and middle school levels, and especially for the most marginalized student groups. The proportion of Black fourth-graders scoring at the “below basic” level on the NAEP reading exam, for example, dropped from over two-thirds in 1992 to less than half in 2015. Likewise, the percentage of Hispanic eighth-graders scoring “below basic” in math dropped from two-thirds in 1990 to 40 percent in 2015. Those numbers were still much too high, but the improvement was breathtaking.
Sure, helpful social trends may explain some of this progress, yet much can be attributed to reform. A seminal paper by Tom Dee and Brian Jacob compared states that adopted “consequential accountability” in the late 1990s to those that adopted it in the early 2000s after NCLB required it. Whenever states adopted these policies, Dee and Jacob found large impacts on math achievement (an effect size in the neighborhood of half a year of learning), with even greater effects for the lowest-achieving students, as well as Black, Hispanic, and low-income kids. Another study by Manyee Wong and colleagues used Catholic schools as a control group, and found more evidence that accountability policies raised achievement in math in the public schools. And a brand-new study by Ozkan Eren, David Figlio, and colleagues found that accountability policies had an impact on more than just test scores: “Our findings indicate that a school's receipt of a lower accountability rating, at the bottom end of the ratings distribution, decreases adult criminal involvement. Accountability pressures also reduce the propensity of students’ reliance on social welfare programs in adulthood and these effects persist at least until when individuals reach their early thirties.”
That’s real-world, real-life progress for millions of kids.
Or consider this week’s brand-new study of KIPP middle schools and high schools, showing that students who were selected by lottery to attend these institutions back during the heyday of reform were almost twice as likely to complete college.
Bipartisan reform is worth fighting for
Standards-based reform and high-quality charter schools made a tangible difference for hundreds of thousands of kids and for our country. And neither would have been possible without bipartisanship. The lesson to me is clear: We need to build a bridge back to bipartisan education reform if we want to keep making progress, especially in the wake of the awful Covid pandemic.
Which is why I’m thrilled with this week’s release of an important new Call to Action, A Generation at Risk, published by the Building Bridges Initiative. This Initiative is a partnership of Democrats for Education Reform and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. We launched it eighteen months ago with the hope of bringing reformers together from left, right, and center. Our top goal was essential if modest: to rebuild relationships that had been frayed by the polarization of recent years. We gathered a dozen and a half amazing leaders for six in-person sessions. We learned the obvious lesson that Zoom is no substitute for sharing meals together, chatting over coffee, looking each other in the eye, and respectfully sharing our hopes and dreams for America’s children.
A secondary goal was to see if we might come to an agreement on a new reform agenda. To be honest, it looked for a while as if that goal would not be met. This is an incredibly diverse group of people, reflecting the diversity (racial, ideological, and otherwise) of today’s reform movement. We got stuck at times, but we kept at it, and I’m proud of where we landed. I hope you will read the Call to Action (it’s short!) and, if you agree with it, sign onto it yourself.
Though “written by committee,” it proposes some very bold ideas! We desperately want America’s leaders to show a greater sense of urgency in meeting the needs of today’s students, struggling as they are with learning loss and mental health challenges in the wake of the pandemic. But we also want policymakers to start building a more responsive system for the future, meaning one that should do the following:
- Be firmly centered around students and their needs.
- Give parents and families true information, power, and agency to understand, support, choose, and advocate for their children’s education in a real and actionable way.
- Aim for a broader definition of student success and enable a broader set of providers—inside and outside of schools—to play a role in meeting our students’ needs.
Taken seriously, those are some big ideas—some of which overlap with Reform 1.0, but some which push far beyond it.
And more than anything, we hope that others will share our commitment to rebuilding the bipartisan education reform movement, step by step and conversation by conversation. As we say in the conclusion of the Call to Action:
We need you, the reader, to take action on behalf of America’s children and to continue the dialogue.
Are you in?