EDUCATION REFORM Beneath the Surface
PART I: Motives and Methods

In this multi-part article, I will describe the motivations and methods of the dominant forces in education reform circles, assess the consequences of those reforms, and sketch out an alternative to the complaints and demands of the major opponents of the dominant forces.

The reformers say it over and over again—public education has failed. The numbers support their claims: About 70 percent of students entering ninth grade are reading below expected proficiency, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (N.A.E.P.).

In 1969, 77 percent of high school students graduated but by 1997, the graduation rate had fallen to 65.7 percent. By 2004, it had gone back to about 70 percent but then started dropping a bit. In other words, almost one third of high school students drop out.

About 70 percent of high school graduates continue on to enroll in college; about 25 percent of those who enroll in four-year colleges need at least one remedial course, as do about 60 percent of those who enroll in community colleges.

In virtually every case, black and Hispanic students do worse. According to results from the  N.A.E.P., more than 85 percent of black and Hispanic eighth graders read below grade level. Only 55 percent of Hispanic students and 51 percent of black students graduate from high school in four years. These failures, interpreted within a rhetoric of global competition and U.S. decline, have been driving the last two decades of education reform. The big picture frame of those efforts is the ceaseless promotion of the notion that education is the solution to all the ills that beset us.

I think we would be well-served if we took the reformers at their word—they indeed want to improve, not destroy, public schools—but they want to do so in their own image. The backers of reform, including numerous very wealthy individuals, firms, and foundations, assume that education should be preparing students to live and work within the confines of the existing social and economic order. It’s a fate that they have, for the most part, accepted for themselves and their children. Within those confines, their goal can be described as greater fairness through educational achievement. More specifically, they would like to end the racially coded character of school success and failure in the nation’s public schools—a reality that has stubbornly endured for 60 years since the Supreme Court’s Brown decision overthrowing law-based school segregation from one end of this country to the other, from San Francisco and Seattle, through Kansas City and St. Louis, to Atlanta and Miami.

For the most part, the representatives of the major capitalist sectors have come to believe that they no longer need to or want to rely upon what might be considered “artificial” distinctions—such as race—among the laboring classes. It is not so different from the reason why many of those same forces provide support to the campaign for gay marriage. However, what is seldom admitted, during the public relations phases of the efforts to promote educational achievement as the vehicle to the future, is the unlikelihood that the larger social order will provide the circumstances for the imagined “middle class” utopia of good jobs for all who achieve to be realized. The reality of low-waged and precarious jobs, even for many with all the appropriate credentials, is not exactly the best environment for realizing middle class jobs for all. In that context, it is reasonable to think that the reform project is also intended to forestall the emergence of any significant political challenges to the existing state of affairs—although that is clearly not the intention of all those who participate in education reform projects.

The 11 years when Michael Bloomberg and his chancellors had control of the New York City Department of Education (from 2002 through 2013) provide both a good example of the core components of the now dominant approach to education reform and created a “new reality” which the new leadership of the department, installed upon the election of de Blasio as mayor, must confront. The not insignificant strength of that new reality was on display at the end of March and beginning of April when the state budget machinations, orchestrated by Andrew Cuomo, gave some of the most powerful charter school supporters a major victory and the new mayor a perhaps major setback.

For those who have not followed the intricacies of democracy at work in Albany, the principal effects of the budget deal are the following: 1) any charter school co-location plan changes, approved prior to 2014, would need consent from the charter school to move forward (meaning that the very limited rejections of co-location plans by the de Blasio administration will be undone); 2) new charter schools must be “provided access to facilities” if they request a co-location inside a city-owned school building or, if that’s not possible, the city will have to pay rent elsewhere or pay an extra 20 percent in per–pupil funding to cover the rental costs; 3) charter schools can’t be charged rent if they have space within a district-owned school building. In every detail, a defeat for de Blasio!

But back to the past: Bloomberg’s Department of Education initiated a wave of efforts to transform the school system. The centerpiece of the first year and a half of this era—in many ways, a homegrown idea—combined 32, often troubled and ineffective, community school districts and six high school districts into 10 large geographical regions, each with a superintendent. Each region included some very strong schools and many more very weak ones—the intent was that weak schools would find themselves in close contact with stronger ones and that there would be a transfusion of ideas about the design and operation of good schools. In addition, though, the department mandated that schools, other than a relatively few deemed to be very successful, would be required to adopt and implement uniform curricula in English Language Arts and Math—curricula that would be supported by a substantial program of professional development for teachers. In retrospect, they were approaches that should have been given time to prove themselves.

Fast Policy

But time was not in abundance. What critics Jamie Peck, Nik Theodore, and Neil Brennercall termed “fast policy” became the new game in town. The fast policy landscape, as these theorists describe it in their article, “Neoliberalism Resurgent: Market Rule After the Great Recession” (South Atlantic Quarterly, Spring 2012), is:

A churning, dynamic one, the continued turbulence of which is reflective of neoliberalism’s contradictory creativity—its capacity to repeatedly respond to endemic failures of policy design and implementation through a range of crisis-displacing strategies, fast-policy adjustments, and experimental reforms.

Those same theorists suggest that neoliberalism, including its educational reform versions, can be profitably understood as a “syndrome” rather than a singular coherent plan. A syndrome appears to be especially apt when we look at the results of fast policy in the New York City public schools.

One of the key elements of the education department’s approach was “disruptive innovation” (an idea borrowed from Harvard Business School guru Clayton Christensen).The primary site for such disruptive innovation was in the area of school support—meaning the ways in which the department was organized to make schools function effectively. Within a year and a half of the establishment of the regional superintendencies, the first match was lit. In fall, 2004, a small number of schools (26) were allowed to join a new “autonomy zone” and became liberated from the regional superintendents; the following year, 32 more joined them. At the time, this move appeared to be a bit of an outlier, intended to benefit a small number of what might be considered “schools with good connections” with some of the department’s inside maverick leaders. But then, on the basis of enough evidence of the autonomy zone’s success to justify the posting of a crossing guard at an intersection in southern Staten Island, an Empowerment Zone of 331 schools was established for the 2006 – 07 school year. Most importantly, the small autonomy zone and the much larger Empowerment Zone were constructed without reference to geography; indeed, geography was the target: schools from one end of the city to another were in the same zone but not in the same one as a school three blocks away. To give its architects some credit, there was a long legacy of educational misery concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods of the city and there was not much to recommend continuing that apartheid-like reality. On the other hand, the regional model had already put in place a potentially powerful alternative to the deadly destiny of the zip code—but any recognition of that was brushed aside.

And then, in the blink of an eye, in January of 2007 the department completely destroyed the regional system, establishing system-wide autonomy for principals by enabling all principals to select their school support organization. Even that was not enough. In 2010, the deck was shuffled yet again and schools were asked to choose among almost 60 Children’s First Networks. And that’s where it stands now—pending a re-organization by the new leadership. An intentionally fragmented system!

At the same time that these organizational changes were being implemented at the system level, other equally sweeping changes were taking place at the school level—primarily through the closing down of schools deemed to be failing and their replacement by an ever growing number of small new schools. Over time, the school closing strategy was transformed into a dreary spectacle of schools being identified as in need of possible closing, leading to dumping of students, denial of real support, and predictable death. In all likelihood, the real reason for many of the school closings was a determination to undermine significant centers of the strength of the U.F.T.’s Unity Caucus, schools where the chapter chair was arguably often more powerful than the principal.

I should note that school closings in New York have been quite a bit different from closings in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia. In those cities, many schools have been shuttered as here, but unlike here, new schools have not been opened to replace them. Ultimately, the implementation of “reform” is deeply influenced by local contexts, including most importantly the state of governmental budgets. In New York, for the most part, school reform has not been accompanied by austerity and it would be best to analyze reform and austerity as separate, albeit linked, phenomena.

The complement to chaotic reorganization was, therefore, a forcible reworking of what a school should look like. My next article will deal with school selection and the promotion of charter schools.


John Garvey

John Garvey worked at CUNY for almost 30 years.