Skepticism Grows About High-Stakes, Test Based School Accountability and Privatization

Nick Hanauer’s confession that neoliberal, “corporate accountability” school reform doesn’t work is not entirely surprising to me.  After all, No Child Left Behind was left behind several years ago.

And Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on our 25 year experiment with high stakes, test-based accountability, says: “It’s no exaggeration to say that the costs of test-based accountability have been huge. Instruction has been corrupted on a broad scale. Large amounts of instructional time are now siphoned off into test-prep activities that at best waste time and at worst defraud students and their parents… The primary benefit we received in return for all of this was substantial gains in elementary school math that don’t persist until graduation.”(The Testing Charade, p 191)

Nick Hanauer is a smart venture capitalist who has been paying attention, so it isn’t so surprising he has noticed that we still have enormous gaps in school achievement between the children raised in pockets of extreme privilege and the children raised in the nation’s very poorest and most segregated communities. Because he is an influential guy, however, I am delighted that Hanauer published his confession in The Atlantic:

“Long ago, I was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system… This belief system, which I have come to think of as ‘educationism,’ is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world…  But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way.  We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall.  School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy.  As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class… Taken with this story line, I embraced education as both a philanthropic cause and a civic mission… All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools… American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again… But after decades of organizing and giving, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was wrong.”

Hanauer—along with Bill Gates, the Waltons, and other philanthropists—has continued to invest heavily in the growth of charter schools.  The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss interviewed Hanauer last week about his recent confession: “In 2009 or thereabouts, I had an awakening. A friend sent me the IRS tax tables that showed the changes in income distribution that had occurred over the decades I had been working on education. The story those numbers showed was devastating.  When I graduated from high school in 1977, the top 1% of earners got less than 8% of national income. In 2007, 30 years later, that number had increased to 22.86%.  Worse, the bottom 50% of Americans’ share of national income had fallen from approximately 18% to 12%.  I was horrified by these trends, and frankly, shocked.  I had put so much work and so much faith in the Educationist theory of change, and all my work had amounted to nothing…. Nevertheless, I was under pressure to keep grinding on the same stuff in the same way, only harder.  You get a lot of strokes in the community for working on public education, and I did.  I was ‘the education guy.’  But it just didn’t feel right.”

Strauss describes how the priorities of hedge fund leaders, venture capitalists, and giant philanthropies dovetailed with the education priorities of the Obama administration, “which launched a $4.3 billion education initiative called Race to the Top.  It dangled federal funds in front of resource-starved states if they embraced the administration’s education priorities.  Those included charter school expansion, the Common Core, and revamping of teacher evaluation systems that used student standardized test scores as a measure of effectiveness….”

Barack Obama jumped on the education “reform”  bandwagon early, back in June of 2005, when, as the junior Senator from Illinois, he spoke at the launch of Democrats for Education Reform. In his, 2011, history of education “reform,” Class Warfare, Stephen Brill describes the players in the effort to lure Democrats into embracing corporate accountability for schools.  DFER was launched by a bunch of New York hedge fund managers when Obama was in New York City raising money to run for a second Senate term: “While in town he helped Boykin Curry, John Petry, and Whitney Tilson launch a group they had created called Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Obama had agreed to be a guest at a party they had put together for people who shared their interest in school reform and wanted to get involved. Curry, Petry, and Tilson had chipped in a little of their own money plus some from a few friends, to start DFER.  The fourth member of their board was Charles Ledley, another value investor friend… Curry, Petry, and Tilson were immediately smitten with Obama, who seemed to talk about education reform as if it was no big deal for a Democrat to be doing so.  He recalled visiting a successful Chicago school where one teacher had complained to him about what she referred to as the ‘these kids’ syndrome that prevailed at traditional inner-city public schools, which, she explained, ‘was the willingness of society to accept that ‘these kids’ can’t learn or succeed.’… Obama… spent part of his talk extolling charter schools and what they demonstrated about how all children could learn if they had good teachers in good schools.” (Class Warfare, pp. 131-132)

Obama was, of course, merely articulating what had become the conventional wisdom among wealthy hedge funders, philanthropists, and even Democratic politicians. The term, “conventional wisdom,” was defined by economist, John Kenneth Galbraith as, “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.” The “corporate school reform” conventional wisdom—about the failure of traditional public schools as the cause of a wide achievement gap between white children and children of color and between wealthy children and poor children—had been cast into law in the No Child Left Behind Act, passed with bipartisan support and signed by President George W. Bush in January of 2002.  The law was designed to pressure staff in low scoring schools to raise expectations for their students or their schools would be sanctioned with a cascade of ever more punitive consequences.  No Child Left Behind’s strategy was neither to increase public investment in the schools in the poorest communities nor to ameliorate child poverty.

Last week, after Hanauer published his admission that he no longer supports school reform based on high stakes, test-and-punish accountability and the reliance on privatization as a turnaround strategy, former President Barack Obama responded.  Valerie Strauss quotes the response to Hanauer tweeted by President Obama: “This is worth a read: a thought-provoking reminder that education reform isn’t a cure-all.  As a supporter of education reform, I agree that fixing educational inequality requires doing more to address broader, systemic sources of economic inequality.”  In his response to Hanauer, Obama doesn’t fully reject the school turnaround strategies embedded in his administration’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant programs, but he admits that he has himself done some rethinking.

It is significant that Nick Hanauer, one of America’s financial and philanthropic glitterati, is openly questioning corporate, accountability-based school reform ideas, and it is also a good thing that former President Obama, who promoted such policies, is listening.  But it should concern us all that the ideas and biases of the wealthy have such inflated influence on public policy these days. How did it happen that those who have shaped the conventional wisdom about education blamed the professionals in the schools instead of listening to school teachers?  And how did policymakers miss an enormous body of academic research that has shown for half a century that poverty and inequality are a primary cause of gaps in school achievement?

In November of 2016, in a brief from a leading center of academic research, the National Education Policy Center, William Mathis and Tina Trujillo warn about Lessons from NCLB: “The No Child Left Behind Act was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) with great fanfare and enthusiasm. Granting more power to states and curbing what was seen as federal overreach was well received.  Nevertheless, the new system remains a predominantly test-based accountability system that requires interventions in the lowest scoring five percent of schools.  The new law… shows little promise of remedying the systemic under resourcing of needy students.  Giving the reform politics of high-stakes assessment and privatization the benefit of the most positive research interpretation, the benefits accrued are insufficient to justify their use as comprehensive reform strategies. Less generous interpretations of the research provide clear warnings of harm. The research evidence over the past 30 years further tells us that unless we address the economic bifurcation in the nation, and the opportunity gaps in the schools, we will not be successful in closing the achievement gap.”

School reform, according to the theories of venture capitalists, hedge fund managers, and giant philanthropies, is emblematic of the sort of policy—driven by elites— that Anand Giridharadas warns us about in his, 2018, book, Winners Take All: “What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests. We must decide whether, in the name of ascendant values such as efficiency and scale, we are willing to allow democratic purpose to be usurped by private actors who often genuinely aspire to improve things, but first things first, seek to protect themselves… We must ask ourselves why we have so easily lost faith in the engines of progress that got us where we are today—in the democratic efforts to outlaw slavery, end child labor, limit the workday, keep drugs safe, protect collective bargaining, create public schools, battle the Great Depression, electrify rural America, weave a nation together by road, pursue a Great Society free of poverty, extend civil and political rights to women and African Americans and other minorities, and give our fellow citizens health, security, and dignity in old age.” (Winners Take All, pp. 10-11)

2 thoughts on “Skepticism Grows About High-Stakes, Test Based School Accountability and Privatization

  1. It is good to see a billionaire say that he made an incorrect choice and wants to atone for it. Would that our supposedly wealthy POTUS had that much humility and integrity to admit he was wrong. It’s hard to assess how much damage has been done to current and future generations of children the past quarter century. What an immeasurable loss of time, talent as well as water taxpayer dollars. As always, Jan, thanks for this excellent synthesis and analysis of this topic.

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