The Counterrevolution Against School Reform

We are in the midst of a harsh counterrevolution against school reform, and severed heads are beginning to pile up.

Entrenched empires, when they begin to lose battles, strike back hard. There’s even a word for that: Counterrevolution. Right now we are in the midst of a harsh counterrevolution against school reform, and severed heads are beginning to pile up. 

  • In New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, and other areas where alternative schools have chalked up remarkable results, politicos are suddenly turning down applications for new charter academies, and obstructing growing schools from procuring buildings.
  • This June, a California panel appointed by the governor in response to teacher strikes proposed many new strictures on charter schools, including giving local school-district officials the ability to ban any charter. 
  • Nationwide, two decades of explosive growth in charter schools—from zero campuses to more than 7,000—coasted to a near halt in the latest year.
  • The scholarship program in Washington, D.C., that has given more than 11,000 poor children a chance to attend private schools hangs by a thread after being repeatedly targeted for shutdown. 
  • The school board in Houston (birthplace of KIPP, Harmony, YES Prep, and other pioneers of school reform) recently announced it will no longer allow Teach For America volunteers to serve in the district. TFA, some board members complained, undermines union power.
  • The most prominent acts of labor militancy over the last two years were the teacher strikes that swept the country from West Virginia to Colorado to Washington. In response there is ratcheting pressure to rescind school choice, unionize charters, and reverse reforms like the connection of teacher pay to performance. 
  • Efforts to end the Lake Wobegon effect in teacher assessments (where nine out of ten instructors get certified as excellent even in miserable districts) have lost leaders like the Gates Foundation, worn out by years of footdragging, personal attacks, and bureaucratic blockage. 
  • Crucial reform concepts are increasingly watered down: State tests of student learning loosened to avoid embarrassing laggard schools; zero-tolerance policies for classroom violence abandoned for fear of “disproportionate impact” on minorities; the emphasis on hard STEM subjects softened into STEAM (lumping “art” in with science, technology, engineering, and math).
  • Political support for strong school reform previously included not only conservatives like Jeb Bush, John Boehner, and John Walton but also liberals like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Bill Gates. (Obama described charter schools this way in 2016: “These innovative and autonomous schools often offer lessons that can be applied in other institutions of learning…including traditional public schools.”) Today, the Left has closed ranks against charters, school choice, testing, teacher certification, and other reforms, and Democrats ranging from Presidential candidates to city mayors are overtly hostile to alternatives to conventional government schools.

While enemies of innovation have got the upper hand right now, they’re not offering something different to replace the reform agenda of the last two decades. They’re simply suffocating the reform wave whose demands for higher performance discomfited the educational establishment. That’s bad news for disadvantaged children stuck in dysfunctional district schools, and for friends and funders of educational excellence.

Counterrevolutions against education reform have happened before in our country. All of the initial efforts in America to improve schooling for neglected populations were fueled by ostracized outsiders. In 1831, philanthropist Arthur Tappan put up money, began negotiating with Yale faculty, and bought land in New Haven to establish the country’s first college for educating blacks. Then the New Haven government and local establishment lashed back violently to crush his effort.

This delayed by generations the necessary work of offering African Americans a decent education. But philanthropists like Tappan didn’t give up. They kept funding and creating schools where neglected children of all sorts—black, white, Indian, poor, rural—could be educated. “You poked the system in the eye, and now it’s fighting back with all of its resources. They are coming for you.”

In the initial decades after the Civil War there was a bloom of new education offerings for freed slaves. Then the forces of reaction gathered to choke off many of the black schools. So private donors like George Peabody, Anna Jeanes, Julius Rosenwald, George Eastman, John Rockefeller, Caroline Phelps Stokes, Virginia Randolph, John Slater, and Katharine Drexel, along with thousands of small givers who poured gifts into organizations like the American Missionary Association, the Negro Rural Schools Fund, and the Fisk Jubilee campaign, created an alternate education system that taught millions of children who government officials preferred to forget. They built up several thousand grade schools, thousands of high schools, and scores of colleges. Private action bridged us across an educational gap that was damaging and dangerous for our country.

Today’s counterrevolution against education reform is likewise dangerous for our country. It’s damaging the development of promising alternatives. It is harming children.

“School reformers are getting punched in the face,” is how education expert Chris Stewart described current dynamics at an April Philanthropy Roundtable conference. “You poked the system in the eye many times, and now it’s fighting back with all of its resources, all of its bargaining units, all of its foot soldiers, its journalists, contracts, professors. They are coming for you now. You are in combat with a $600 billion organization with many entrenched interests. You have to charge the hill. This is a moment to fight and fight hard.”

One encouraging element is that results are on the side of reformers. We now have a set of education reforms that have been proven effective: Apply good ideas outside the sclerotic system of official government schools. Build parallel infrastructure for delivering services directly to families. Create your own nimble institutions for teacher training, curriculum development, building acquisition, and other central tasks. It works.

However: this strategy of building effective schools that operate outside the reach of the education blob has a vulnerability. It can’t succeed, Stewart warns, without “protective policies” that shield reformers from political attacks and regulatory shutdowns. Reformers need “insurance around them” in the form of community protection, grassroots rallying, and public advocacy. Stewart urges philanthropists to fund advocates who will guard school reformers when they are beleaguered in public battle.

One new example of organized protection for school reform comes from a source so unlikely it ought to put a smile on your face. Andy Stern was the long-time president of America’s most politically active labor organization—SEIU, the Service Employees International Union. Today he is rallying opinion in favor of charter schools and educational experimentation. One of his projects is promoting a National Parent Union that can represent families in school-reform skirmishes and “redirect the conversation from one about adults to one about students. The teacher unions currently have no countervailing force. We envision the NPU as being able to take on the unions in the national and regional media, and eventually on the ground in advocacy fights.”

Two other things that should put smiles on the faces of school innovators are the feature articles in this issue of Philanthropy magazine. We spotlight a pair of potent education-reform entities that understood from the beginning that parents are the real customers in schooling, and need to be trusted and pulled deeply into their children’s education. Each of our articles centers on a heroic reformer whose story will warm you. And both stories discuss the importance of marshaling parents to protect nascent educational reforms.

Virginia Walden Ford rallied hundreds of Washington, D.C., moms and dads to stand and fight for their children when they were being lost in her city’s miserable public schools. The parents she gathered together provided the grassroots community protection and political insurance that education reformers needed to push the landmark D.C. Opportunity Scholarships program through Congress in 2003. After passing by just one vote, this measure offered over 11,000 endangered children an escape hatch into private or religious schools and became a model for similar scholarship programs in other parts of the country.These two education-reform heroines understand that parents are the real customers in schooling, and need to be trusted and pulled deeply into their children’s education.

Ford’s tale is now brought to life in a very fine theatrical movie that will release in October. Savvy philanthropists supported both the creation of this film and campaigns to spread its inspirational message, because they realized its emotion retelling of some raw history could put new wind in the sails of education reform—in the same way that previous movies like The Lottery, Waiting for “Superman,” Lean on Me, and Stand and Deliver sparked popular pressure on behalf of fresh thinking about schools. See our behind-the-scenes report later in the Fall issue of Philanthropy.

One of the most remarkable examples of social invention in America over the last generation is Success Academy—run by another school-reform heroine, Eva Moskowitz. This network of 45 campuses enrolling 17,000 kids from New York City’s roughest neighborhoods, South Bronx to Harlem, gets results that can only be described as astonishing. Not only is it effectively the highest-performing urban school district in the country, Success Academy actually pulls better performance out of children from disadvantaged backgrounds than wealthy suburban districts are able to achieve with their students. (See nearby chart.) No wonder five times as many families enter the lottery to get into Success as there are seats available.

As another soon-to-be-posted article makes clear, the accomplishments at Success are a true co-production with families. The charter-school choice process itself stirs up energizing effects among parents. Combine that with Moskowitz’s genius for commanding family participation in the day-to-day work of education, and the effects are explosively positive. Lots of schools pay lip service to family involvement, but none go to the lengths that Success does to mobilize moms and dads to be full partners in the training of their kids (which gold-standard research shows to be the most important element by far in educational success).

Even amidst today’s pushback, there’s another reality that should prevent ed reformers from becoming gloomy. The hard-won accomplishments of the last two decades are not going to go away. There are now tens of thousands of schools of choice across the country, enrolling more than 10 million children. Whole states like Florida, Arizona, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, and dozens of cities like New York, Washington, Boston, New Orleans, and Los Angeles have become entirely different ecosystems, educationally, than they were 20 years earlier.

A generation ago, lots of Americans didn’t even realize we had an education problem. They sure do now. And there are hundreds of new toolkits local residents can pull wrenches out of as they labor to fix their breakdowns. Chris Stewart notes that “We have standards in place that didn’t use to be there. We have proof points that didn’t exist before.”

Over the next few difficult years, school improvers may not be able to move the ball much further down the field. But they’re not going to surrender the yardage already gained. That’s because, beneath the carping of apologists for failed schools, the classroom innovations of the last generation have produced concrete results in volume.

Graduation rates, student safety, life success, child happiness, and parent satisfaction have all been elevated by school entrepreneurs. Thousands of incompetent teachers have been weeded out, and we are approaching the point where a quarter of all new teachers will come from alternative-certification programs instead of the uninspiring old teacher colleges. Subject knowledge has increased in the bottom half of the academic spectrum. (Raising proficiency among the upper half of students should be made a priority by the next wave of reformers.)

Sophisticated assessments like those by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes find that typical charter schools serve their students demonstrably better than standard schools. Catholic schools produce impressive student citizenship, and are stabilizing their business models by borrowing management techniques from charters and creating their own advances like the Cristo Rey work/study mix. Thirty states plus D.C. now offer parents funds they can use to educate their children at private or religious schools. Overall options for families have widened dramatically—in numerous cities, half of all families now choose something other than their nearby district school. Philanthropists can be proud to have played crucial roles in many of these triumphs.

These achievements, ratified in hard data, will eventually dampen today’s politicized reprisal against school reform. The bureaucratic establishment lashing out to protect their status quo can slow down the pace of progress. But if they try to drive children back into floundering government-run classrooms, they will face fury.

So if you are someone trying to provide better options for kids stuck in crummy classrooms, don’t give up! These are undeniably tough days for education reform. But the current backlash is all about power politics, rather than powerless children. That can’t last, and eventually will be reversed. As they say, the darkest hour is often just before dawn.

To be published in the forthcoming Fall issue of Philanthropy magazine