It’s hard to imagine a sweeping education initiative driven by a theme like “Making Steady Gains, Little by Little,” or “Inch by Inch,” to borrow from the popular children’s song about gardening. Incrementalism is not something that it’s easy to rally big support for – or big outlays of new public spending.
Instead, policymakers and politicians have launched bold education ventures with grand pronouncements about the new world they will usher in. “Every Child a Winner” was the title of a 1991 report that laid the groundwork for the state’s 1993 education reform law, while the federal version that arrived a decade later, in 2002, was audaciously billed the No Child Left Behind Act.
And there’s the rub, says Jim Peyser.
Peyser, who served the entire eight years of Charlie Baker’s time as governor as the state education secretary, was all-in on the heady goals of those initiatives, and says he still holds to the ideals they embody. But in an essay headlined “Settle for Better” in the latest issue of the journal Education Next, Peyser offers a candid reappraisal of the education reform movement that brings its high-minded aspirations down to earth.
As we mark 30 years since passage of the state education reform law, and 20 years after enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind law, “it’s now clear that our ambitions were exaggerated, and our timeline was way off,” Peyser writes, citing the federal law’s goal of bringing every US child to proficiency in math and English by 2014.
His essay marks a sharp contrast from the often hubristic, if well-intentioned, tone of ed reform advocates in the 1990s and early 2000s.
These days, the education reform movement, with its focus on education standards, assessments, and accountability, finds itself back on its heels, with teachers unions and other groups pushing back against a focus on testing and firm measures of academic outcomes.
While Peyser disagrees strongly with much of the pushback, he says it’s time for education reformers to own up to the ways they helped set the stage for that reaction.
Not only did the education reform movement set unrealistic expectations, he writes, it sought to create a sense of urgency for change based on the idea of K-12 schooling as a fundamentally broken system, something that came off as an implicit attack on those operating within it.
“The rub is that creating excitement about dramatic change can eventually lead to overpromising and under-delivering—and when the results don’t keep pace with expectations, disappointment and disillusionment ensue,” he writes. “What’s more, the narrative of ‘transformation,’ uplifting to many, can have a demoralizing effect on the people and organizations that are doing their best to get results within the existing ‘dysfunctional’ system.”
“That broad narrative,” Peyser said in an interview, “that anybody who’s trying to make big change is inherently not just offering constructive feedback, but trying to tear down the system and all the people in it – we have to be intentionally conscious that that is not the message.”
Education reform may not have been as wholly transformative as it seemed to promise, but that’s not to say it hasn’t made an enormous difference, Peyser writes. He points to big gains in Massachusetts achievement scores that resulted from the combination of standards and accountability and a huge infusion of state aid to lower-income school districts, calling it “arguably among the most successful social-policy stories of the past 50 years.”
But recent achievement trends have been flat or even declining, and Peyser says state policy should focus on a limited number of newer initiatives that have been shown to make a clear difference. He says those include a focus on “evidence-based” strategies to boost early literacy, something now getting lots of attention, vocational and technical education, and boosting educator diversity.
In weighing in on education programming and practices, Peyser writes, “state policymakers need a heavy dose of humility. From a teacher’s point of view, the only thing worse than having someone from the central office telling you what to do is having someone from the state department of education telling you what to do.”
Unlike other initiatives Peyser still voices support for, including charter schools, these newer areas of focus find broader support across the political spectrum. Attention placed on them, he writes, could “help refocus politicians, media, and the broader public on the day-to-day work of schools, which has been overshadowed lately by the din of the culture wars.”
Student gains connected to these newer initiatives, he writes, might also “reinforce the value of the underlying standards-based reform architecture” that has been in place for three decades.
“Without a new, more pragmatic plan to achieve meaningful and sustainable improvement that both students and parents can recognize in their own schools,” Peyser writes, ”we risk losing the gains that we’ve made.”
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