School Reform-A Professor’s Brawl with the Billionaires

On her Washington Post education blog, Valerie Straus has a guest post by Jack Schneider, assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross and the author of “Excellence For All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America’s Public Schools.”

In the article titled, “How school Reform Became the Cause Célèbre of billionaires”, Schneider opens with some praise, but quickly proceeds to build his case for how clueless reform-minded billionaires are:

Educational reform was once the unromantic province of government bureaucrats and community organizers. Today it is the cause célèbre of billionaire philanthropists.

On the one hand, this is a major triumph for school improvement efforts. Deep-pocketed donors have brought unprecedented resources to the table and, along with those resources, extraordinary public attention.

On the other hand, the rise of the billionaire reformer has made school improvement an outsider’s game. Making a case for “disruptive” change, philanthropists with names like Broad, Dell, Gates, Fisher, and Walton –working either directly, or through an infrastructure of nonprofit organizations and political action committees–have won unprecedented influence in the world of education. In the process, they have stigmatized state and district leadership, shown a surprising indifference to educational research, and framed school improvement as a process best pursued through common sense.

How did we get here?

The piece is well written and researched and includes the author’s short history of school reform. Towards the end, Schneider makes his main point that although testing to see “what works” makes sense in theory, improvements can’t be applied at scale:

It is now almost an accepted truism that successful schools offer lessons about “what works” and that those lessons can, in turn, be taken to scale. It’s a nice, simple idea, and a particularly attractive notion for those put off by the tentative nature of educational research and the often lethargic pace of grassroots reform. But despite the triumph of this vision, its expression in policy has produced only mixed results.

Schneider ends his article with pistols blazing, labeling those who have invested billions of dollars of their own money as arrogant. Perhaps they deserve that title, but what is the educational value of such a label? Let’s take a quick look at his main points: that there are no easy solutions; there are no easy fixes; and educational change is very slow.

Redirecting the entire education enterprise is a difficult task considering the disparate political, economic and social realities that our school districts face. It is almost certain, that an easy quick fix will not be discovered for all or perhaps most of the problems. Certainly, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work on seeking technological and pedagogical solutions to improve teaching and learning. Even if these solutions won’t address the political, economic and social realities, they can make a difference in many classrooms. What we need to do is educate the reformers, work with them, recognize their successes, and not brand their entire efforts as a failure.