Chester Finn, president emeritus of the Thomas Fordham Foundation, Frederick Hess, head of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas Fordham Institute, have been arguing this summer about whether public school reform based on test-and-punish school accountability is dying. For decades, these three men have been central to defending the changes embedded into federal law by the 2002, No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and into state laws across the United States as Arne Duncan’s Department of Education made states comply with these educational theories to qualify for federal Race to the Top grants in 2009.
While these three proponents of accountability-based school reform disagree on where this movement stands today, they all agree on what it is. Petrilli remembers how he defined school reform back in 2006: “There is now a Washington Consensus in education. It has been entrenched since the middle of the Clinton Administration, was integral to the crafting of NCLB in 2001, and for the most part remains intact today. It embraces three big ideas. First, that the nation’s foremost education objective should be closing racial and economic achievement gaps. Second, that excellent schools can overcome the challenges of poverty. And third, that external pressure and tough accountability are critical components of helping school systems improve.”
Petrilli explains further how these ideas coalesced: “These ideas took shape as a series of federal mandates, most visibly enshrined in NCLB. States had to set academic standards in English language arts, math, and science; to test students annually in math and reading and regularly in science; and to create accountability systems that would not only report results, but also intervene in chronically low performing schools in very specific ways—the law’s ‘cascade of sanctions.’ Meanwhile, as NCLB was debated, enacted, and implemented, the charter school movement expanded rapidly….”
Finn and Hess add: “This early 21st-century focus on accountability and choice signified a pair of important shifts in Americans’ understanding of K-12 education. In the era before A Nation at Risk, people generally gauged school quality on the basis of inputs, resources, and reputation, not student-learning outcomes… Yet by the time Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, a ‘good ‘ school had come to mean one with high reading and math scores… (and) the right of parents to select their child’s school was increasingly taken for granted.”
Finn and Hess trace a retreat from the heavy hand of the federal government as the 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act replaced No Child Left Behind. They believe the “school choice” strand of school reform is definitely thriving today, but the focus on test-and-punish school accountability has faded. Importantly they admit that this kind of school reform did not achieve its stated goal of closing achievement gaps as measured by test scores: “Did the movement do any good while it lasted? It certainly yielded unprecedented transparency regarding student achievement. It produced a massive expansion of charter schooling and parental choice. And it pushed educational outcomes to the center of the national conversation about opportunity and economic growth. Yet there’s scant evidence that it improved student outcomes, especially in the upper grades. Meanwhile, by enlisting Uncle Sam as the nation’s school superintendent, reformers helped entangle education fights with broader clashes over politics and culture. Along the way, they narrowed school curricula, dismissed the concerns of middle-class parents, and defined success using a race-centric notion of achievement gaps.”
Petrilli reaches a very different conclusion: “Let’s take a look at the real world shall we? The charter school sector continues to grow, energized by the lackluster response of traditional public schools to the pandemic. The Common Core standards remain in place in a majority of states, even if they go by different names. Annual testing is still here—with better, tougher tests than we had a decade ago. High-quality instructional materials aligned to the standards continue to gain market share. And that’s not to mention the explosion of private school choice (mostly supported by Republicans) or the progress on school funding equity (mostly supported by Democrats)…. Energizing grass-roots support for standards-based reforms would be fantastic….”
Finn and Hess are correct that the wave of support for technocratic school accountability has utterly faded from the national political conversation. But, while Petrilli’s allegation about a wave of high-quality instructional materials over the past two decades is highly questionable, and although there is abundant evidence that public school funding equity has not thrived under the “school reformers” agenda, I think MIke Petrilli has a point. Even while what he calls “the Washington Consensus” has faded, the consequences of test-and-punish school accountability are still very much with us. Our kids in public schools still have to be tested every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and the federal government still forces states to rate and rank public schools by their aggregate test scores.
The most profound long term impact of the whole school reform agenda is deeper, however, than Mike Petrilli acknowledges. The meaning of standardized test-based school accountability is best captured by rhetorician Robert Asen in recent book, School Choice and the Betrayal of Democracy. Asen believes that the school reformers significantly changed the way America thinks, imagines, and talks about public education: “In a bipartisan manner, accountability and standards functioned analogously to the roles of central banks and other regulatory market institutions in establishing common measures of educational value and exchange. Various actors, from state education officers to individual families, could participate in educational markets confident that they could exchange with others through commensurable means. Testing and test scores served as market valuations and currency. Individual schools, local districts, and states could market themselves to individual and institutional investors as sound opportunities. Test scores also provided market actors with the information they needed to make comparative choices among various education providers.” (School Choice and the Betrayal of Democracy, p. 81)
The era of test-and-punish set the stage for thinking of education as a consumer marketplace.
Cognitive linguist, George Lakoff would explain that the movement for school accountability based on standardized test scores changed the frame in which we conceptualize our public schools: “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or a bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out our policies… You can’t see or hear frames. They are part of what cognitive scientists call the ‘cognitive unconscious’—structures in our brains that we cannot consciously access, but know by their consequences: the way we reason and what counts as common sense. We also know frames through language. All words are defined relative to conceptual frames… Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world. It is changing what counts as common sense.” (Don’t Think of an Elephant!, p. xv)
The most basic critique of accountability-based school reform—whose impact is currently being debated by some of its strongest adherents—Finn, Hess, and Petrilli—is that its frame is entirely quantitative. School accountability based solely on aggregate standardized test scores fails to measure the qualitative process of education as experienced by students and practiced by teachers. Here we can turn to the late Mike Rose, a professor of education and a discerning writer.
Rose considers students’ lived encounters with schooling: “I’m interested… in the experience of education when it’s done well with the student’s well-being in mind. The unfortunate thing is that there is nothing in the standard talk about schooling—and this has been true for decades—that leads us to consider how school is perceived by those who attend it. Yet it is our experience of an institution that determines our attitude toward it, affects what we do with it, the degree to which we integrate it into our lives, into our sense of who we are.” (Why School?, p. 34) “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate—or conducted at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation. But what is the experience of opportunity? Certainly one feels a sense of possibility, of hope. But it is hope made concrete, specific, hope embodied in tools, or practices, or sequences of things to do—pathways to a goal. And all this takes place with people who interact with you in ways that affirm your hope.” (Why School?, p. 14)
What about the school reformers’ quantitative attempts to measure and evaluate the quality of teachers? (Reminder: A central requirement for states to qualify for a Race to the Top grant was that states evaluate teachers based on their students’ aggregate standardized test scores.) In an important 2014 article, Rose challenged this technocratic frame based on his qualitative observations of teachers when he visited their classrooms: The “classrooms (of excellent teachers) were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”
Although many of us, if asked, will qualitatively describe our own schooling or our children’s schooling from our values and personal experience, aren’t we still likely to cling to the frame of test-based accountability when we think broadly about American public education? As we read Mike Rose’s descriptions of what really matters in students’ experience and in the practices of their teachers, aren’t many of us tempted to wonder if his thinking isn’t old fashioned? Could most of us even conceptualize a society without quantitative evaluation and the ranking of schools and school districts even though we know that No Child Left Behind’s policies failed to equalize educational opportunity and leave no child behind? I wish I did not fear that, as a society, we are a long, long way from being able to reject the worn out school accountability frame brought to us by the likes of Checker Finn, Rick Hess, and Mike Petrilli.