Education Trends

Guest Blog: Two Paths to the Brave New World of School Reform

February 8, 2010

Anthony Cody is our guest blogger today. A veteran teacher with over 18 years experience in the classroom, he's skeptical of the free-market approach to education reform. -- Betty Ray, Edutopia Community Manager

With the reauthorization of NCLB on the horizon, it is time to take a look into our future to see where current trends are taking us. As I look ahead, I have two visions that diverge rather sharply from each other.

A hopeful future

In one hopeful future, we have created a strong professional growth continuum for teachers, with room for teachers to take leadership, to actually behave as the 21st century thinkers we claim we want our students to be. There are opportunities for teachers to cooperate and collaborate and innovate, and to make mistakes.

Education is closely connected to the interests and aspirations of our students, which vary greatly -- so there is great variation in what happens in one classroom compared to another. We have realized the folly of trying to standardize everyone and everything. There are some basic skills tests to make sure we are teaching everyone math and language arts, but we are not obsessed with test scores. We have realized that even in the new economy not everyone will go to college, and there is room for humane, decent paying career choices that do not require a degree. Our schools acknowledge this and seek to prepare students for a wide variety of occupations and career paths.

Then there is the vision that I am witnessing unfold. And unless we confront this reality, I really do not see any way we can get to the vision I have suggested above.

Reality by the numbers

We cannot discuss education without considering larger economic trends and patterns. I see the gap between rich and poor widening, even under the current administration. The top 1% of Americans owns more wealth than the bottom 90%. The top 10% owns 72% of the wealth in the US. We have a huge economic crisis where even more wealth is being transferred from the taxpayers to the financial industry. Our tax structure has reduced the corporate tax rate from 35% to 26% in the past decade alone. Fully 41% of our children live in low-income households - 20% in poverty. It has been shown time and time again the powerful effect poverty and violence have on educational achievement, but the schools continue to be expected to cure these problems with little support from society. (Source: National Center for Children in Poverty)

According to a new book, The Spirit Level, by epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, nations that distribute wealth more equitably have far greater outcomes on every indicator of social well-being, including education. So those of us concerned with the educationally disadvantaged would do well to look to reforms that bring jobs, income and health care to the poor.

We now incarcerate 2.3 million people - the highest rate in the world, with a full 25% of the world's prison population (and we only have 5% of the world's people.) That is 3.2% of our adults, and more than 10% of African American males between the ages of 25 and 29. California's prison population has gone from 24,500 in 1980 to more than 170,000 today, with half of these in for non-violent offenses. The State of California will soon spend more money on its prisons than on its universities. We are making choices that reflect our priorities. (Source:

A less hopeful future

If our goal is to prepare all of our students for college (as most reform advocates insist), and that preparation is in turn supposed to deliver a middle class lifestyle to our students some ten or twenty years from now, shouldn't we notice what is happening to college graduates in the job market today? Shouldn't we pay attention to the rapid destruction of the American middle class, college educated or not?

And then there is the reality of what is happening to education, and that is also a bit sobering. According to a recent story in EdWeek the reauthorization of NCLB is likely to follow the path set forth by Race to the Top. That means education reform for the next seven years is likely to be defined as: strong connections between test scores and teacher evaluations and pay, reduction in protection for experienced teachers, national standards and tests closely aligned to them that set clear performance benchmarks at every grade level, expansion of alternative entry paths to the teaching profession, meaning that in every state, not just those with teacher shortages, teachers will be able to take charge of their classrooms after a six week summer training. There will be a corresponding de-funding of schools of education, since they will become irrelevant. There will be an expansion of charter schools, and a corresponding diminution in union representation for teachers, leading to lower pay, longer hours and fewer contractual protections.

Teachers will face constant pressure to raise student achievement, measured in finer and finer grain sizes. Formative assessment will be linked to technology so student performance can be monitored on a daily basis, on assessments closely connected to the big standardized tests that determine success or failure. Since teachers do not always know the best ways to increase test scores, and high turnover means many lack expertise, scripted lesson modules will be mandated, along with assessments that determine if they were delivered effectively. Teachers incapable of delivering these lessons effectively will be evaluated out of the "profession."

Public schools will continue to struggle for funding. Since corporations pay less and less tax, the burden will fall largely on the beleaguered middle class, already overwhelmed by rising health costs and the endless wars of empire we continue to fight. Five thousand schools will be identified as the worst in the nation, and the school reform industry will take billions in public funds to "turn them around," despite the lack of evidence that they know how to accomplish this ill-defined task.

Free market fix or fantasy?

School reform is caught in a trap where it must be justified by finding failure in the public schools in order to fuel interest and resources for the alternatives. But these alternatives will collide with the same realities that public schools face. The fantasy that the free market will fix our school problems will enjoy a bubble over the next few years, then collapse under the weight of its own inflated promises. But not before driving a great many teachers and students out.

The future unfortunately looks much more like the second vision than the first. The only way to challenge these trends is for teachers, parents and students to become far more active in fighting for the future we desire.

Anthony Cody is a science coach in the Oakland schools. His Teachers' Letters to Obama project is galvanizing teachers to speak out about educational policy. His blog is Living in Dialogue.

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