What Should Progressive Education Reform Look Like?

We have now had over two decades of school reform with not much to show for it. We have witnessed “Value Added Measures” (VAMs) erode the professionalism of public school teachers, charter schools drain the resources and talent from public schools and standardizing testing skew the curriculum. Despite these failures, education policy continues to plod along as usual with the same recirculation and repackaging of reforms. Mainstream Republicans and Democrats may disagree on almost every other policy issue out there, but on education, they have been strangely in accord over the last few decades. In this eerily bipartisan environment, is difficult to distinguish the education policies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Lamar Alexander, Margaret Spellings or Arnie Duncan (or now John King). Both Republicans and Democrats agree that education is “in crisis.” They both believe a skills gap caused by schools and universities threatens economic competitiveness. Both rail against “low educational standards.” Most favor the expansion of charters schools and “school choice.” Both sides are distrustful of teachers, teacher unions, teacher training and overall teacher quality. Most on both sides favor high stakes standardized testing. Most want more technology in the classroom. And both groups want the curriculum to be geared almost exclusively toward STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

With the surge of the social democratic stance of Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton’s rhetorical slide to the left, there finally appears to be the political space necessary to offer a new policy direction that abandons the standard market-centered approach that has dominated public education policy over the last 30 years. Below are eight tenants of what these future progressive reforms might look like.

1. End the rhetoric of crisis. The crisis in education rhetoric should be understood as a political tactic and not an accurate assessment of the state of US schools. US public education as a whole is not in crisis, even if we parse the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, which has become the focal point of many cries for reform. We must recognize that this is a manufactured crisis generated by those that want to privatize public institutions. Some schools may indeed be in trouble, but the system as a whole is not “in crisis.”

2. Education should be decoupled from economic growth. Somewhere over the course of the implementation of market-based reforms, education was transformed from a multidimensional endeavor that contributed to students’ intellectual and social development, cultural enlightenment and civic engagement into only something to contribute to individual human capital and national GDP. This emphasis has pigeon-holed education and ironically led to less creativity and innovation in schools.

3. Charter schools should return to their original purpose. Many forget that the concept of a “charter school” was first put forward by American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker in 1988. It was originally conceptualized as a place where curricular experiments could be tried out before migrating to more mainstream public schools. When vouchers experienced resistance, market-based reformers seized upon and co-opted the idea of charter schools, and began to use them as a way to make schools compete and achieve a type of privatization that vouchers could not.

4. Teachers should be re-empowered and re-professionalized. The last few decades have seen an ongoing assault on teachers as the ones responsible for the perceived decline in public education. This has resulted in teachers leaving the profession and potential teachers steering clear. It has also resulted in rubrics and standardized assessments replacing the autonomous decision making of teachers. New policies should be directed at restoring teacher professionalization and control.

5. The managerial school should be returned to more local and profession self-management. In order to muscle through market style education reform, reformers sought to transform public school administrators into business-style managers, and to replicate the command and control structure of the corporation within schools. This has contributed to low morale and too much top-down decision making. Professionals in all fields work best when they operate under conditions of relative autonomy with a strong system of peer review and support.

6. Standardized testing should be limited, heuristic and developmental. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Common Core emphasized testing, testing and even more testing as a means of information gathering and as a method for punishing teachers and schools. This encouraged a “teaching to the test” type of gaming that undermined the purpose of education. Assessment should be limited, developed in-house based on the goals of the teachers and be understood as an instrumental that serves as only one small bit of a larger information pool. This limited testing should be geared toward the individual student, not politicized to determine the fate of schools or teachers.

7. The curriculum should be expanded and re-enriched. Under policies like NCLB, if it wasn’t tested, it didn’t matter. Such a testing pressure invited an intense focus on only tested areas, such as math and reading. The result was a myopic curriculum that was too limited and restrictive to inspire students or teachers. New policies should expand these areas and work to restore the inherent fun in learning and knowing.

8. Technology should supplement rather than replace teaching. For the past decade, schools have been under pressure from governments and various edu-companies to incorporate new technologies. Although these are often presented as pedagogical improvements, they are often simply cost-saving devices for governments and profit centers for edu-companies. As various studies have shown, these technologies have little positive (or even a negative) effect on actual learning

Public education needs desperately to return to its social democratic roots rather than being the plaything of handful of philanthropists and the “astroturf” organizations they have spawned. If progressivism can politically prevail, the days of market-based reforms may at long last be nearing an end, and the time for a new focus in public education may finally be possible.