Wendy Kopp

What Ed Reform Is Not Talking About: A Critique From Within

It’s time for the education reform movement to do some soul-searching. A new report and a fresh round of dismal national test results confirm the alarm Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach For America, sounded nearly five years ago: Reform strategies are not fundamentally changing outcomes for kids on a systemic level. “I do think we need to ask ourselves why we haven’t moved the needle in an aggregate sense,” Kopp said in 2011, though correctly adding we have seen tremendous progress for some kids. The movement needs to look at its axioms and decide which have been borne out and which require serious reconsideration. I say this as someone who has spent his entire career as a proud participant in the movement—working with Teach For America, Leadership for Educational Equity, 50CAN and now one of the Education Cities member groups. So this is a critique from within. A report published last month, Measuring Up, came from the reform-friendly Center for the Reinvention of Public Education (CRPE). CRPE looked at 50 major U.S. cities and made a comprehensive assessment of their educational systems on a variety of achievement and equity metrics such as proficiency gains and suspension rates by race. These included many cities with highly favorable reform environments, such as Denver, Oakland and Indianapolis. One of the conclusions was that: “Many cities look successful on a few indicators but none look successful across all, or even most, of them. Our results suggest how difficult it is to ensure both quality and equity in urban education.” When you have been trying a strategy for close to two decades with no transformative change, it is time to reexamine the fundamentals. This is a difficult, painful process; cognitive dissonance provides a strong incentive to shrug off the preponderance of evidence. Yet I know it is feasible, because my friends and colleagues in the movement are without exception thoughtful, passionate, mission-driven, reflective people. I would argue that the successes of the education reform movement has proven three of its bedrock principles to be absolutely true:
  1. All children are capable of learning and achieving their aspirations.
  2. All children should be held to high expectations.
  3. Great teachers and great school leaders matter.
There are real triumphs—the fact that we now talk constantly about educational equity—to be celebrated. Individual teachers and schools throughout the nation have completely altered the life courses of tens of thousands of students. School innovations have given us a vastly greater understanding of what new, personalized models of education can look like in the 21st century. In patches, progress abounds.

Poverty and Learning  

I would also argue that certain principles have been proven false, none more so than this: The effects of poverty are real, but can be overcome at scale by great education. The new scientific evidence about the learning effects of poverty is overwhelming, but repulsion to the idea of poverty as an excuse, a message that has undeniably been a tool of the status quo, is in the reform movement’s DNA. However, we must evolve: We now know that growing up in a high-poverty environment literally influences a child’s gene expression, neural development, sleep patterns, healthy stress response, emotional regulation and memory formation and retrieval. That does not even take into account that post traumatic stress disorder rates among urban youth are estimated to be higher than among returning war veterans. Every research study that has come out in recent years, even from the most reform-inclined researchers, has continued to confirm the outsize impact of poverty on learning. We can no longer reasonably discuss academic achievement as separate from poverty; the factors that impact achievement begin in the womb. We have to bring to bear the full intellectual, monetary and political weight of the reform movement towards tackling the learning effects of poverty while continuing to strive for world-class schools. High levels of support can fuel even higher expectations (Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg’s  new comprehensive anti-poverty school is one example of this approach).

The Discussions We’re Not Having

There are many other axioms to vet. For instance, what does it look like to fundamentally rethink the teaching profession when even high-performing charter operators, let alone the mass of traditional districts, are struggling to attract and retain enough talented educators? What does research on the positive effects of socioeconomic school diversity mean for a charter sector primarily designed to lift up low-income students? Should we take a fresh look at the impact of school funding, class sizes and teacher pay, filtered through the movement’s proven prism of equity and excellence? The larger point is that these are discussions the reform movement needs to have, yet these are not the discussions that seem to be happening. As Robin Lake of CRPE noted in the Measuring Up report, “Rather than be distracted by dogfights over Common Core, testing, choice, teacher evaluations, charter schools, and other policy debates, our city school system leaders need to aggressively hunt for and be open to new solutions.” The same could be said of education reform leaders. There is no reason to think that, on our current course, the conversation will be meaningfully different in 2025 or 2035. We simply have no empirical evidence that the prevailing reform theory of change can dramatically transform outcomes for kids at a significant scale. Not a single major school system in the entire country has accomplished this or is on track to accomplishing this. We need a new iteration of the reform movement, a third-way movement that integrates everything we know about great schools, everything we know about fighting the effects of poverty, and everything we know about systems change. This philosophy—high expectations, high supports, and high coherence—will forge a new path where excellence and equity can be found everywhere, and may just find us a way out of the current education wars. That’s the education reform movement I want to be a part of; that’s the education reform movement our students need.  
Elliot Haspel is a former Teach For America corps member and a longtime public education advocate. The views expressed here are his own. He can be reached at ehaspel@gmail.com.
Elliot Haspel writes about early childhood and K-12 education policy. He works as a program officer for a philanthropic foundation in Richmond, VA. Elliot is the author of the forthcoming book, "Crawling Behind: America's Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It" (Black Rose, Nov. 2019).

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