Pass/Fail: The Education Lobby Begins to Flex Its Muscles
Roberta F. Education Reform?
We need to improve our education system. Every politician, from dog catcher to president, from socialist Bernie Sanders to Ted Cruz, would support this statement. What they really mean though is that we need to improve our nation's inner-city schools; the children of the wealthy are doing just fine. And whether they take any concrete steps to actually implement improvement is a matter of debate. What is beyond debate is that this a universally supported statement; no one is going to give you push back for mouthing support to improve education.
And now we have the emergence of the education lobby, who generally want to reform the status quo (i.e., the teachers' unions). The Gates Foundation has given millions to groups that support its world-view of education, as has the Walton Foundation, the philanthropic outpost of Sam Walton's Wal-Mart empire. And that world-view is this:
These newer groups' brand of education reform is data driven and accountability focused: They're advocating for stricter teacher evaluations that take student student performance on standardized tests into consideration; merit pay for teachers; better professional development for teachers; and the elimination or fundamental reworking of teacher tenure.
Follow the money trail and you see how it works. For example, the Walton Foundation gave $8 million to Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst -- you may remember Rhee as the publicity hound/D.C. public school chancellor who seemed to delight in firing "underperforming" teachers and then left the chancellorship leaving behind a cheating scandal (teachers correcting errors on standardized test) -- who in turn gives money to advocacy groups and politicians who support privatizing education.
But the educational output of such reforms remains either murky or shows that these reforms are simply wrong-headed:
Stanford University's 2009 study of charter schools--the most comprehensive ever done--concluded that 83 percent of them perform either worse or no better than traditional public schools; a 2010 Vanderbilt University study showed definitively that merit pay for teachers does not produce higher test scores for students; a National Research Council report confirmed multiple studies that show standardized test scores do not measure student learning adequately.
No matter. The Gates, the Waltons and the Rhees of the world are true believers -- they are education ideologues. They know what they know and do not want to hear from you. When the next school choice battle comes to Houston, watch where the money comes from.