What's The Future Of Corporate School Reform During The Trump Administration?

How will the technocrats who have driven school reform respond to this new environment?
04/06/2017 03:10 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2017
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Accountability-driven, competition-driven school reformers, and we educators who oppose them, owe it to our students to take stock in the situation we all face during a Trump presidency. Regardless of the wisdom of their hunches about school improvement, should reformers keep up their campaign to use disruptive innovation to transform traditional public schools? If so, will they collaborate with the ultimate disruptors, Betsy DeVos and Trump, to advance their agenda?

In other words, how will the technocrats who have driven school reform respond to this new environment?

Not surprisingly, the best place to start an evaluation of contemporary school reform is with Professor Emeritus Larry Cuban. Cuban’s “Where Is the US in School Reform in 2017?” reaches three conclusions, the first being, “School reformers have overstated defects in the existing system and made gloomy predictions of disaster. Then they have understated difficulties of changing the system by proposing rose-colored solutions.”

Reformers committed unflinchingly to high academic standards, with state and national tests to determine whether all students meet those standards. Those test scores became the primary metric to hold districts, schools, students, and teachers accountable and to determine the success of their policies. Two of the main drivers of reform were teacher and administrator evaluation and compensation on the basis of student test scores, and expanded parental choice, mainly through charter schools. Great faith also was placed on technology.

Cuban concludes that despite the disappointing results of test-driven, market-driven reform, “the economic aim of preparing students for a market-based democracy continues to dominate public schools in the 21st century.” Moreover, he further explains that, “Most reformers, the general public, and educators have yet to distinguish between cycles of policy talk and action from what actually happens to policies when they are put into practice in schools.”

Cuban has long argued that school improvement is a linear process that “is a world apart from the hyperbole and gloom accompanying cyclical policy talk and action.” Cuban identifies trends that appear over time as he warns, “Because of school culture and organizational realities, change is gradual and episodic.”

On the other hand, recent posts by Cuban indicate that technology enthusiasts may be asking better questions. In a few cases, Cuban sees grounds for hope that technology will be integrated holistically into meaningful classroom instruction. If, as I believe is true, Cuban is correct and there remains a consensus which sees education through an economic lens, doesn’t that mean that a push toward better science instruction is likely?

Even in retrospect, I find the data-driven, competition-driven dead end taken by contemporary reformers to be inexplicable, and almost as weird as a Trump presidency. Who would have thought that the hunches of geeks in Silicon Valley about schooling would be imposed as top-down mandates on schools across our diverse nation? Regardless, will we have to continue to resist their micromanaging, even as we fight Trump’s perversion of populism?

But, perhaps the year’s best news is that Bill Gates has become silent in terms of education policy. This raises the question of whether it would be possible for a new billionaire to walk into schools, to listen to teachers and students, and not impose disruptive innovation on the whole system. Could such a billionaire then agree to honor their requests, help fund an instructional program, and then exit the building without concluding that he needs to micromanage the entire schooling process? Wouldn’t such an offer result in an accelerated commitment to Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM)?

In many ways, classroom educators now face the mirror image of data-driven true believers in the 1990s. Many of us believe that the spirit of our education age is wrong-headed. Just as the way that reformers saw technology as under-utilized, we believe that the economic mission of schooling has been overrated. But, we don’t need to repeat the technocrats’ mistake and impose our values on a society which sees education as primarily a path to successful careers. Whether or not we believe our job is to teach whole students a well-rounded curriculum, we must respect the values of our students and families, as we try to persuade them to keep their minds open. And this must be a part of the struggle for an open society, one that doesn’t flirt with tyrants like Trump.

I wonder if STEAM instruction could provide one doable path towards 21st-century schools. Could it be a pragmatic course that brings educators together? Of course, it’s possible that a new generation of edu-philanthropists will fund a new generation of technology and science programs that would be essential for their vision of education as a driver of economic development. We can only hope that visiting venture philanthropists won’t decide also that they need to disruptively high school basketball programs or resign the logo of every pep club in the nation.

On the other hand, if the new technocrats decide that public schools still need them to micromanage their entire day, that couldn’t be any worse than what the Gates, Broad, and Walton foundations did during the last era of reform. The thing that would be worse than that continuation of our educational civil war would be a battle that distracts us from the resisting the White House’s xenophobia.

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