Study: School reform in 3 major cities brings few benefits, some harm

Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan

Many people paying attention to corporate-based school reform in recent years will not be surprised by this, but a new study on the effects of this movement in Washington, D.C., New York City and Chicago concludes that little has been accomplished and some harm has been done to students, especially the underprivileged.

The report looks at the impact of reforms that have been championed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other well-known reformers, including Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, and, in New York City, Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City Public Schools and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It says:

The reforms deliver 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…

The full study, titled “Market-oriented education reforms’ rhetoric trumps reality,” was conducted by Elaine Weiss and Don Long of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education initiative, which was convened in 2008 by Economic Policy Institute President Larry Mishel in an effort to champion a well-rounded approach to education that goes beyond test-based accountability. It will be available here next week. The executive summary can be seen here now.

Market-oriented education reform refers to a series of initiatives that include educator evaluations based in large part on student standardized test scores, the closure of schools that are considered failing or underenrolled, and an increase in the number of charter schools, many of which are operated by for-profit companies. Many people in the education world have long argued that the public education system is a civic enterprise that shouldn’t be operated like a business,  but modern reformers have imposed market-oriented initiatives anyway.

The three cities studied were chosen because their school systems have all operated for years under mayoral control, participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress and have been led by well-known proponents of market-based reform. Furthermore, the reforms they have used have become the basis for much of federal education policy.

The executive summary of the report says that impacts of reform include:

* Test scores increased less, and achievement gaps grew more, in “reform” cities than in other urban districts.
* Reported successes for targeted students evaporated upon closer examination.
* Test-based accountability prompted churn that thinned the ranks of experienced teachers, but not necessarily bad teachers.
* School closures did not send students to better schools or save school districts money.
* Charter schools further disrupted the districts while providing mixed benefits, particularly for the highest-needs students.
* Emphasis on the widely touted market-oriented reforms drew attention and resources from initiatives with greater promise.
* The reforms missed a critical factor driving achievement gaps: the influence of poverty on academic performance. Real, sustained change requires strategies that are more realistic, patient, and multipronged.

The report says that benefits of corporate-based reform have been exaggerated in each of these cities. For example, it says Bloomberg “claimed to have cut the race-based achievement gap by 50 percent from 2003 to 2011″ but “in reality, the gap closed by 1 percent.”

In Chicago Public Schools (CPS), it says:

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan (when he was CPS CEO) have both cited large increases in elementary school reading “proficiency” of 29 percentage points—from 38 percent of students in 2001 to 67 percent
in 2008. CPS used these figures in January 2009 brochures. When scores were adjusted for changes in tests and procedures, however, the percentage of elementary and middle-school students deemed proficient (“at or above
grade level”) had grown by about 8 percentage points, while the percentage of proficient high school students had grown only a point and a half.

Furthermore, though Arne Duncan, who ran Chicago Public Schools before becoming Obama’s education secretary, said that students in closed schools would move to better-resourced schools, only 6 percent of those who did had better outcomes.

The summary points to incredible turnover in D.C. Public Schools as a result of Rhee’s reforms; after four years, 52 percent of teachers had left. And though Rhee and other D.C. officials have repeatedly touted a rise in standardized test scores, the executive summary points out that while black eighth-graders in D.C. schools dropped two points in reading between 2005 and 2011, their counterparts in other large urban districts overallgained five points.

It further notes that leaders in all three of the studied cities gave short shrift to more holistic approaches to education that have shown to have promise.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · April 13, 2013

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