Achievement Gap

Bob Herbert’s 'Plot' Against the Truth about Education Reform

Bob Herbert’s recent piece on education reform is a good example of how approaching a subject with your mind made up hurts your argument. Like many reform critics, he focuses only on negative outcomes while downplaying positive outcomes. He is selective about his evidence so that it only shows current reforms are not working. And, he completely skips over the compelling reasons reform is needed, which is that schools serving low-income students must improve if we want more a more diverse, college-educated society that works for everyone. Does Herbert and those who agree with him really believe public schools were awesome before reformers came to “ruin” them? His first targets are philanthropists, including Bill Gates, and he recycles the anti-reform lore about the Gates funded initiative to promote small high schools. Gates admits the effort did not yield the “gains we were hoping for,” but a recent report that appeared just after Herbert went to press suggests that in New York City, the Bloomberg Administration’s breakup of large high schools into smaller ones boosted graduation and college enrollment rates. Shall we hold our breath for Herbert to offer a more balanced follow-up piece? Unlikely. He criticizes Gates Foundation efforts to improve teaching with no mention of the rising NAEP scores in places like Tennessee and Washington D.C. that have begun implementing these reforms. He ignores high-performing charters and focuses on one of the lowest performers to make the case that charters, “never came close to living up to the hype.”  He should tell that to the satisfied parents of students in KIPP schools all across the country, North Star Academy in Newark, Denver School of Science and Technology, and Urban Prep in Chicago. The fact that thousands of charter school parents marched in support of their schools in New York City earlier this year shows the innovative school model has created something of real value to parents and students. Herbert commits the same offense that so many other in his camp do, which is to ignore the staggering shortcomings of some traditional public schools, which prompted parents of 2.5 million students to choose charters and another million to put their names on waiting lists. As a recent report from Families for Excellent Schools demonstrates, there are hundreds of schools in New York City alone where the percentage of students on grade level is in the single digits. There are similar challenges all across America, but you would never know it from his article. The fact is, just 10 percent of low-income students earn bachelor’s degrees, and just 40 percent of students overall graduate from high school college-ready. Those are not outcomes we should be defending. Those are outcomes that more than justify every effort to improve schools. Yes, Herbert concedes that Bill Gates is not acting out of greed. That is progress in a debate that so often has anti-reformers casting philanthropists as evil doers, and unionists as champions of the proletariat who have no financial motivation to resist changes in education policy. Still he implies that entrepreneurs in the education space are only driven by profits. Wanting to make a profit and wanting to provide student services are not mutually exclusive. Are private school bus companies somehow evil—or just private tech companies? And why not at least acknowledge that Silicon Valley has also produced people like Sal Khan whose Khan Academy has offered free tutoring videos to millions of students; organizations like Great Schools that are helping parents make more informed choices; and non-profits like Code.org that is prompting schools all across the country to teach young people a vital 21st century skill. Herbert is part of a larger chorus of reform critics who are resisting efforts to improve public education because they aren’t perfect—as if the system they are trying to improve somehow is. Can he really argue we would be better off without technology in schools, some level of accountability and more educational options in underserved communities? At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is results. To that end, there should be some acknowledgement that when you find schools getting outsized learning gains for children of color, and those in poverty, it is because of school reform, not resistance to it.
Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of brightbeam. He was named CEO in April 2019, after formerly serving as chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. In the past, Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, ...

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