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Jeff Bryant: The End of School “Reform”

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Jeff Bryant is a journalist who specializes in education. In a recent issue of The Progressive, he details the many failures of what is falsely called “education reform.” The term for many has been a ruse for privatization via charter schools and vouchers. Instead of “reform,” it should be called disruption and destruction. Bryant leads the Progressive’s Public School Advocate project. This is a good-news story. Ed Reform has no successful strategies or ideas, but it’s billionaire funders and the U.S. Department of Education continue to fund its failed ideas.

He begins:

It was telling that few people noticed when Chicago’s Board of Education announced in late May that it was closing down its school turnaround program and folding the thirty-one campuses operated by a private management company back into the district.

The turnaround program had been a cornerstone of “Renaissance 2010,” the education reform policy led by former Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan, who became U.S. Secretary of Education during the Obama Administration. As the news outlet Catalyst Chicago reported, Duncan used the core principles of Renaissance 2010 as the basis for “Race to the Top,” his signature policy that he rolled out to the nation.

Race to the Top, a successor to former President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program, included holding schools accountable for higher scores on standardized tests, inserting private management companies into district administration, and ramping up charter schools to compete with public schools.

Another news event affecting Chicago public schools that got very little national attention was the decision by the Illinois state legislature to rescind mayoral control of Chicago schools and bring back a democratically elected school board. The plan is backed by the state’s Democratic governor, J.B. Pritzker (and, predictably, opposed by Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot). For years, prominent Democratic leaders—including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and former Chicago mayor and previously Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel—touted mayoral control and a rejection of school board governance.

A third story from the Chicago education scene was that, in December, Noble Charter Network, the city’s largest charter school chain, disavowed its “no excuses” approach to educating Black and brown students because of the racist implications. Noble’s decision added to other reports of no-excuses charter chains dropping their harsh behavioral control and discipline policies during the past year.

These stories highlight the waning of three “school improvement” approaches: strict accountability with private management, mayoral control, and no-excuses charter schools. Each approach was among the pillars of “education reform” favored by previous presidential administrations and heartily endorsed by Washington, D.C., policy shops, such as the Center for American Progress.

Taken in unison, the three stories also contribute to the much larger narrative of how the once all-pervasive and generously funded policy movement known as education reform has ended—not with a bang, but a whimper.

Other policy directives of the reform movement that are also being relegated to the dustbin of history include state takeovers of low-performing schools, evaluating teachers based on student test scores, and flunking third-graders who score below a certain threshold on reading exams.

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