Sunday, June 30, 2013


from the AALA update of July 1 |

27 June 2013  ::  The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA), a national campaign launched by the Economic Policy Institute to focus on how socioeconomic status impacts schools, recently released a study entitled Market-Oriented Education Reforms’ Rhetoric Trumps Reality ( The authors were Dr. Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator of BBA, and Don Long, an independent education research consultant.

The study looked at the impact of test-based teacher evaluations, school closures and increased school choice (charter) access on student outcomes in Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C. These districts were led, at the time, by noted reformers, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Michael Bloomberg and Michelle Rhee. (Need we say more?) These same reformers often tout the aforementioned actions as ways to improve student achievement and decrease race and income-based achievement gaps. The three districts were selected because they were under mayoral control and had reliable data from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). The districts were compared to ten districts that were in the NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment program (TUDA) in 2003Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Houston, Los Angeles, New York City and San Diego. The study found that the reforms in Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York actually delivered, “ … few benefits and in some cases harm the students they purport to help, while drawing attention and resources away from policies with real promise to address poverty-related barriers to school success.” Key findings cited were:

 Test scores increased less, and achievement gaps grew more in “reform” cities than in other urban districts. While test scores increased and the race-based achievement gap decreased in the TUDA districts, the scores for low-income and minority students remained stagnant in the reform districts. New York ranked second to last among the ten TUDA districts in test score gains from 2003 to 2011. In Chicago, Hispanic students gained little and black students gained nothing, while in D.C., the Hispanic students’ scores fell 15 points and black students’ scores fell 2 points.

 Reported successes for targeted students evaporated upon closer examination. Reformers in D.C., New York and Chicago reported “success” in large test score gains and shrinking achievement gaps. When the data were recalibrated to make standards consistent, broken down by race and income and compared with NAEP scores, the gains vanished and gaps grew. For example, Mayor Bloomberg claimed that his district cut the race-based achievement gap by 50% from 2003-2011, when in reality, it just closed by 1%.

 Test-based accountability prompted churn that thinned the ranks of experienced teachers, but not necessarily bad teachers. In Washington, D.C., 52% of the teachers left after four years of reform and few ever reached experienced status. Even reformers have to know the effect that teacher turnover has on achievement. New York City spent $50 million on bonuses to teachers who substantially raised test scores only to have a RAND study say that the bonuses weren’t having much effect, failing to improve student achievement at any grade level. Chicago used test scores to close schools, forcing out many experienced teachers. In 2010, 749 of those teachers won a discrimination suit and the district was ordered to recall them.

School closures did not send students to better schools or save school districts money. The study found that when a school was closed, the students usually moved to schools with lower test scores or went to schools that became academically overwhelmed due to the large increase in population which resulted in attendance and graduation rates declining. In Chicago, only 6% of the students from closed schools moved to schools that had greater resources or better scores.

 Charter schools further disrupted the districts while providing mixed benefits, particularly for the highest-needs students. We often hear how charter schools offer better options for students in “failing” schools, yet the study found that when the public schools were turned over to charter management in the nation’s capital, none improved. New York charter schools spend more per student and have fewer special needs, very low-income or English learners, so comparing achievement data is not valid.

 Emphasis on the widely touted market-oriented reforms drew attention and resources from initiatives with greater promise. Some promising small pilot programs in all three districts showed success, but could not be expanded due to the focus on the market reforms. These programs had smaller class sizes, coaching, internships, college counselors and expanded opportunities for 3- and 4-year-olds. They all lost funding when the focus turned to reform via privatization.

 The reforms missed a critical factor driving achievement gaps: the influence of poverty on academic performance. Much has been written about the need to address the increasing childhood poverty in this country. Lack of consistent physical and mental health care is a major driver of the opportunity gaps associated with growing up in poverty. Low-income children miss many more days of school due to preventable illnesses, relative to their wealthier peers—a reality largely dismissed in reform agendas. The report states that, “Failing to provide supports that alleviate impediments to learning posed by poverty ensures continued low student test scores and graduation rates, and large gaps between average scores of white and affluent students and scores of minority and low-income students.”

In all three cities, the focus on the market-driven reforms diverted attention from the need to address the socioeconomic factors that, as research continues to validate, impede learning. School reform has become an industry with billions of dollars to be made and urban districts have become the breeding ground. The public has been convinced that high-stakes testing and tying those scores to evaluations is the way to improve achievement, and the effect of poverty and poor health care has all but been cut out of the conversation. However, we know that achievement gaps have their root in opportunity gaps.

Only by closing the latter can we begin to shrink the former. Market-based solutions are not the answer.

The authors of this study conclude that reform must be more realistic, patient and multipronged if it is to achieve real, sustained change.

Read the executive summary

Market-oriented education reforms’ rhetoric trumps reality


Read the report

Market-oriented education reforms’ rhetoric trumps reality

The impacts of test-based teacher evaluations, school closures, and increased charter school access on student outcomes in Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C.

By Elaine Weiss and Don Long



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