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On Ed Reform: How Long Will This Take?

March 31, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

A lot of people are frustrated by the pace of education reform. I’m one of them. The equity problems in our school system (part of a vicious cycle of society-wide inequity) are offensive and hurtful. We want them gone, and we wish they had been resolved long before now. Yet the work of reform is agonizingly slow, the changes in the schools seem incremental, and we seem more prone to missteps than to progress. It’s enough to make anyone ask, “How long will this take?”

Recently, the federal Department of Education released a substantial analysis of equity-related school data, ranging from suspension and expulsion rates to preschool access to course offerings to teacher qualifications. Largely, these were not data about the equity of outcomes as measured by test scores. Instead, they focused on equity of experience and equity of access. Unsurprisingly to many, the release shows that the nation’s school system still has a long way to go in addressing the quality of experience students of color and students from under-resourced backgrounds experience at school.

What’s notable about this report is that the equity focus was largely on measures that schools, districts, states, and federal policymakers can more easily influence. The mix of factors that affect students’ test scores make it difficult to pull out exactly what the right way forward is for schools or teachers. Not having a preschool program or failing to offer chemistry are much simpler to understand and fix. Few would question that these are within the scope of policymakers’ reach, provided they have the political will necessary to fund schools appropriately.

In many ways, these data are a much clearer representation of the equity problem in schools. The gaps in test scores can reflect a huge range of student experiences, only some of which can be linked to schools. What a student’s life is like in school, and what opportunities are available to them there, aren’t just easier to address; they’re easier for students to see and feel.

By focusing on non-test-score data, the federal data release also advances a broader discussion of educational equity and school reform that is distinct from the standards-and-testing focus that’s dominated in recent years. While many analysts (including myself) have tended to view the current reform movement as stemming from the 1983 Coleman report, popularly known as “A Nation at Risk,” for the purposes of this article I’ll discuss three distinct reform efforts that have spanned the time between then and now.

“A Nation at Risk” has been conflated with the current equity-focused, testing-and-competition reform movement because both favored similar tools and measurements. However, “A Nation at Risk” focused more on excellence than on equity, looking at aggregate statistics for all US students much more than at the gaps that have since come to dominate. It was part of a long tradition of performance panic that has haunted the US school system for years. Many of its recommendations and ideas continue to have an impact today, with the Common Core State Standards coming at least as much from “A Nation at Risk” style thinking as from the No Child Left Behind school of thought.

While the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era of reform has often been seen as an extension of the reform movement fueled by “A Nation at Risk,” it reflects a shift in thinking from aggregate excellence to universal equity. Piloted while George W. Bush was still the governor of Texas, the principles of the NCLB reform movement adapt the tools of the “A Nation at Risk” movement - standards, testing, punishment - for the purpose of advancing equity. This is why, for as much as people decry many of the specific components of NCLB, its overarching focus on raising awareness of equity gaps remains popular.

The manifest failures of the NCLB era have set up the current moment, where we see a different equity-focused movement emerging. This shares NCLB’s goal of educational equity, but it adopts a different set of measurements and focuses more on the actual experience of students rather than making guesses based on test scores and anecdotes. It also opens the door to addressing many of these gaps that are real, that hurt students on a daily basis, and that can be tackled more directly than the test score gap problem.

Responding to this new data means learning from the mistakes of the past. The testing movement has struggled to achieve its ends in part because too much policy has confused the indicator (testing) for the problem. We cannot make the same mistakes in addressing discipline and access gaps.

All of which brings us to the key question of this article: How long will this take? The short answer is, “Forever.” That’s in part because “this” will change, as we’ve seen happen in the last thirty years. Education reform is not something that completes or is won or lost. It is an evolving process that reflects the changing needs of students, as well as our changing awareness of those needs. This is not the work of a lifetime, but the work of generations. We would do well to remember that.

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