06/21/2013 07:48 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2013

The Worm Is Turning on School Reform

Yes, the "worm is turning" on school "reform." As Karen Francisco's excellent and comprehensive editorial explains, Indiana was once named the "reformy-ist state" in the nation, but now her state's corporate "reformers" are in retreat on all fronts. The test-driven "reform" movement was built on two hypotheses and neither held up in the real world. The next school improvement efforts must learn from the accountability hawks' failures; they must be modest and evidence-driven.

First, the contemporary "reform" movement began with the arcane theory that education's traditional accountability systems based on "inputs" must be driven by "outputs" or metrics that supposedly would reflect actual increases in student performance. This opinion became the basis of No Child Left Behind.

NCLB might not have been such a disaster if it was implemented in a predictable way. Non-educators wanted statistics to look good, so the standard response would be to manufacture the numbers that would make the theorists happy. But, inconceivably, "reformers" were so enthralled by their preferred policies that they strong-armed states and districts into acting as if NCLB-type accountability was not a charade and pretend that their "outputs" could be made real. The result was curriculum narrowing, statistical gimmicks, and destructive test prep.

Secondly, as the NCLB brand became discredited, a new generation of corporate "reformers" doubled down on magical thinking. The Billionaires Boys Club, if anything, had less knowledge in urban realities and less interest in learning about schools. Their hypothesis was that the "status quo" had to be destroyed by disruptive innovation. Use test-driven outputs to defeat unions, education schools, and the teaching profession, it was thought, and "transformative" change will happen.

During the Obama administration, corporate reformers got everything on their wish list and billions of scarce dollars funded their pet hypotheses. But, now, teachers, parents, students, and many policy makers are in "open rebellion."

Bill Gates (if not Arne Duncan and President Obama) at least has the decency to feel hurt by the backlash. The consummate, moderate pragmatist, Jack Jennings, explains that Gates is making "a belated acknowledgment that they were going down the wrong path." The philanthropist has picked up "a garden hose trying to put out a fire he helped start."

Jennings, the founder of the nonprofit Center on Education Policy has been involved in education policy for more than four decades and his institution had once taken the lead in issuing diplomatically worded papers trying to warn the true believers in Reform 1.00 that NCLB was producing a classic bubble, and that its soaring metrics were not grounded in reality. When he is so blunt in addressing the even more messianic believers in Reform 2.00, corporate reformers should realize that their center cannot hold.

As the Atlantic Magazine's John Tierney writes, "It's always hard to tell for sure exactly when a revolution starts." But, he observes, "a new one is taking shape in American K-12 public education." Tierney then points signs of the coming "revolution:"

Teachers refusing to give standardized tests, parents opting their kids out of tests, and students boycotting tests.
• Legislators reconsidering testing and expressing concerns about corruption in the testing industry.
• Voucher and other "choice" proposals being strongly contested and voted down in states that had been friendly to them.

The time is right for our "Education Spring!" The Education Opportunity Network has issued an "Education Declaration of Independence." It calls for inputs-driven accountability. Just kidding! A coalition of educators and scholars call for "supports-based reforms." It tackles the Achievement Gap not with feel-good sound bites, but by closing the Opportunity Gap.

We are declaring our independence from the bubble-in mania that has produced "uncreative, joyless institutions." It has stripped educators of our dignity and autonomy. It has closed neighborhood schools for reasons that are arbitrary (or downright false, I would add.) The voices of parents, teachers, and the community have been shut out. And "children, most importantly, are being systemically deprived of opportunities to learn."

In contrast to the output-driven "reformers," we do not claim our task will be simple. We know there are no shortcuts and that education is an intellectual, social, emotional, and democratic process. A foundation for aligned interventions must be laid. Whether we are talking about early education so that children can read for comprehension at grade level or devising student-centered supports and personalized plans, high-quality implementation is crucial. It will take a great deal of work and significant investments in money to align the system of supports that will be necessary to achieve equity.