The Deadlocked Debate Over Education Reform

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Few would argue that she was a good choice. But as you watched the almost giddy reception that greeted the departure of the New York City schools chancellor, Cathleen P. Black, last week — “She wasn’t in the class for the full semester so it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to give her a grade,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers — it was hard not to wonder whether the debate over school reform has reached a point where debate is no longer possible.

How did we get here? The modern school-reform movement sprang to life in 1983, with the release of “A Nation at Risk,” an education report commissioned by the Reagan administration that boldly stated — note the cold-war era metaphor — that the United States had embarked upon a “unilateral educational disarmament.” From there, a line, however jagged, can be drawn through the Clinton administration’s emphasis on national standards, to President George W. Bush’s declaiming of “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” and on to the current generation of reformers, with their embrace of charter schools and their attacks on the teachers union. The policies and rhetoric changed, often dramatically, but the underlying assumption remained the same: Our nation’s schools are in dire need of systemic reform.

Opponents of reform will tell you the movement was built on a false premise, that the Reagan report was based on declining SAT scores, which weren’t really declining; it was just that more people were taking the test. The anti-reformers (for lack of a better term) have their own founding document, too: “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” a federal study released a bit awkwardly in 1966, in the midst of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s efforts to persuade Congress to devote more resources to schools through programs like Head Start. It concluded that school-based factors like money and teachers actually have little bearing on student achievement, that what happens outside the classroom is actually far more significant than what happens inside of it....

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