08/08/2012 02:25 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2012

The Win-Lose-Win School of Reform

When I entered the classroom twenty years ago, education's conventional wisdom was founded on a "win-win" pedagogy. Innovations were largely limited to ideas for better serving students. We looked for ways to replace tracking with differentiated instruction, so nobody would be excluded. Social promotion was an effort to protect the self-esteem of vulnerable children. We emphasized cultural sensitivity and improved classroom management to avoid suspensions. After all, schools were full of children and who would want to gamble with their welfare?

It is thus easy to see why society often blamed schools' problems on progressivism and our unwillingness to make decisions where someone would lose. That was unfair but, still, our win-win approach seemed like a soft-hearted method for ducking tough decisions.

The contemporary school "reform" movement emerged at a time when the destroy-your-enemy politics of Lee Atwater had prompted "New Democrats" of the Clinton era to embrace Dick Morris' version of scorched earth campaigning. For one to win, somebody else had to get bloodied. The key to victory was finding a villain to demonize. President Clinton's hardball tactics included an attack on Sister Souljah and welfare reform. Out of that milieu came the win-lose school of reform.

With incredible chutzpah, "reformers" embraced the ultimate win, a cheap and easy cure for inequality. Had it had a chance of success, it would have been win-win on steroids. Teachers were deputized as agents to defeat poverty. They claimed that teachers alone could overcome generational poverty if they just had "High Expectations!" and did "Whatever It Takes!"

It should have been obvious that such a simplistic win-win of pretending that solutions could be found within the four walls of the classroom would result in a lose-lose formula for teachers. When instruction-alone couldn't undo the damage that historical forces had done to poor families, teachers and unions became scapegoats.

But, that was a win for the politics of destruction. Reformers were able to sound tough by using the word "Accountability!" over and over again. And because they were holding longtime Democrats and civil rights advocates accountable, reformers sounded doubly tough-minded as they condemned their former allies. The ultimate expression of teacher-bashing was articulated by the liberal Education Trust which claimed that there were "high flying schools" where "high expectations" overcame poverty. Their report was eviscerated by Richard Rothstein, but the Trust's Russlyn Ali still claimed, "the biggest challenge these educators face is often not the poverty, health status or mobility of their students. Instead, the longest odds are those created by our education culture, which denies that these children can succeed."

The data-driven accountability movement largely failed to improve educational outcomes for poor children. Reformers won political victories, but they were dismayed by the lack of improvement in student performance. Perhaps the accountability hawks came to believe their own public relations spin, or perhaps they knew so little about the inner city that they were honestly surprised to learn that their "teacher quality" silver bullet was not enough. At any rate, test-driven reformers doubled down with their attacks on teachers and the rest of the educational "status quo."

For whatever tactical reasons, bubble-in testing became the ultimate win-lose solution. Stakes were attached to primitive standardized tests, so increased security was necessary, as was rampant test prep. Had assessments not been used as weapons, a school's full of end-of-the-year testing could have been done inexpensively in a week or two. But, when testing was used for accountability, huge amounts of class time were lost. When, as it often did, testing began on the first day of the last Nine Weeks, a quarter of the year's class time was sacrificed. Presumably, coercing students and teachers to work harder for three fourths of the year would produce enough wins to offset the damage done by forfeiting the Fourth Quarter.

By now, the educational evidence has become clear. Even if our only option were the imperfect, old-fashioned, win-win "status quo" approach, it would be superior to failed win-lose, data-driven "reforms." In a rational world, however, we would learn from those defeats. And, we could even consider a win-win-win plan, with the third "W" being adequate funding of schools, as opposed to computer systems for command and control.

Unfortunately, the win-lose school of reform became a win-lose-win coalition. Testing was a big loss for teachers and students but it was a very profitable win for the testing companies. Just in the last couple of weeks, we have had numerous reminders of corporate gains at the cost of our schools. Hiten Samtani wrote in the New York Times , "In the venture capital world, transactions in the K-12 education sector soared to a record $389 million last year, up from $13 million in 2005." The Huffington Post added, "According to NextUp Research, the research arm of Global Silicon Valley Corp., the e-learning market in the United States is expected to grow to $6.8 billion by 2015, up from $2.9 billion in 2010."

The best analyses of the wins posted by corporations at the cost of children have been written by Diane Ravitch. She described how consultants and charter school chains have made big bucks in Michigan and New Jersey, and then she concluded:

The same ideas -- privatize low-performing schools, close low-performing schools -- are embedded in Race to the Top, also in the Boston Consulting Group's plan for Philadelphia, the Mind Trust plan for Indianapolis, the Bloomberg reforms in New York City, Mayor Frank Jackson's plan for Cleveland. None of these plans ever works, other than by pushing out the low-performing kids and sending them to other struggling schools. It makes you wish that these guys would take a peek at evidence or actually care about the kids.

Ravitch thus points towards the next discussion we must have before we can get back to more constructive solutions. By now, social science shows how and why the win-lose approach of test-driven "reform" has failed. Now, we must document the costs of these political wins for corporate "reformers." Let's hope that it doesn't take another decade before the win-lose-win model is rejected. Then, we can seek funding for win-win-win investments where we provide supports to teachers and students.