Chris Cerf: Equality of Opportunity Is the Ultimate Goal of Education Reform. We Must Never Lose Sight of That Objective

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Kevin Carey’s retrospective on the substance and politics of school reform over the past several decades is both thoughtful and comprehensive.

As a former history teacher, I used to maintain that Karl Marx was unquestionably a superb historian, even if his stature as a futurist was open to serious doubt. Carey’s piece prompted similar thoughts. While his account of the ups and downs of the education reform movement are deeply insightful, I worry that readers might take from it an unduly pessimistic perspective about the future and value of some of the movement’s central tenets, most notably accountability, a relentless focus on educator efficacy, the value of empowering parents with a range of public school options, and high and equal expectations for all children. As one who has labored in this field for decades, as both a state education commissioner and superintendent of an urban school district, I have a different and more hopeful outlook, which can be organized under the following three principles.

1. Abandoning prior reform efforts, despite their uneven successes, in favor of the status quo almost certainly consigns millions of poor children of color to failure.

The status quo — where birth circumstances and the legacy (and present reality) of racism overwhelmingly determine life outcomes — is profoundly immoral and a national disgrace. At the risk of oversimplification, the response to this disgrace over the past several decades roughly divides into two schools: Keep doing what we have been doing, but this time vow to do it better (e.g., more money, smaller class sizes, better training), or take FDR’s approach in the depths of the Depression (we are going to try new and, in some cases, radical things, and if they don’t work, we’ll keep trying new approaches until we make progress).

The animating principle of “reformers” (now a malediction in some circles) can be simply stated: If there is one incontrovertible lesson to draw from both research and history, it is that the first approach guarantees failure and, for that reason alone, is morally unacceptable. Whatever the challenges and disappointments of the reform effort over the past decades, my fervent hope is that we never lose sight of this fundamental truth.

As Carey so effectively documents, however, the gravitational and political pull in favor of resisting significant change is powerful. By definition, preserving the basic structure of the existing order is less disruptive. Perhaps as importantly, it commands the support of critical factions across the political spectrum.

The right fetishizes local control, thus perpetuating a school governance system that is all but indefensible: no national standards enabling comparability; 13,500 school districts that too often concentrate rich and poor children in adjoining enclaves, frequently by design; elected school boards that are highly vulnerable to well-intended but sometimes amateurish or interest-group-dominated leadership; no collective effort to leverage the benefits of scale or a broad commitment to research and development; and more.

I should also add that elements of the right — including some in the well-heeled segment that lives in leafy suburbs — are often less than fully invested in correcting racial inequity. It is actually worse than that: If you can afford an expensive home, you can usually buy a decent public school education. (Incidentally, when a family moves from Roxbury to Newton, no one complains that Newton has “drained” resources from the Boston Public Schools.) “If I did it, why can’t ‘they,’” they seem to be asking. Worse, I have repeatedly been appalled by comments from wealthy whites to the effect that “those children” in the urban core are somehow at fault. Why that is so is never explained clearly. Something about “ urban culture”? Because he or she is the child of a “welfare mom”? Because of the intractable effect of poverty, making further investment pointless? The logic is hard to follow and impossible to defend, but the sentiment is unquestionably there.

The left is equally resistant to mucking with the existing order. Yes, part of it is the institutional interest and political heft of the teachers unions, which understandably prioritize job-related issues over educational outcomes when they conflict (which they often don’t but sometimes do). But that is not the main cause. It is mostly the comparative satisfaction of upper-middle-class and often politically progressive whites who are most protective of the school systems that seem to be working for their children. Tests and accountability may be beneficial for poor children (as I believe they unquestionably are), but for their kids, the costs outweigh the benefits. Charter schools in Boston may be lifesavers for many African-American families there (and there is no possible rejoinder to this evidence-based assertion), but in Newton and Brookline they view the largely theoretical risk of a local charter school as an existential threat to the public school system that is working for them — and that they paid a fortune to get.

If door No. 1 is unlikely to address the core injustice of racial and socioeconomic determinism, it forces one into a more FDR-like mindset. Let’s not just modify things within the parentheses; let’s acknowledge that the parentheses themselves are a big part of the problem. Let’s not accede to what is politically convenient; let’s push the system for real change even if it generates resistance. More on this below, but I believe the “reformer’s playbook” that Carey documents has made a huge difference in the lives of countless children. But it has also had its share of failures and unintended consequences. The answer is not to throw up our hands and default to tinkering within the existing system. Instead, we should celebrate the successes, learn from the failures and continue to push for real reform.

In doing so, we should not confuse the noise for the signal. For all the political noise the “reformer’s playbook” has engendered, its core elements remain both sound and broadly popular: that we should set high and equal expectations for all students (children studying algebra in the Bronx should be expected to master the same essential skills as those in Chappaqua); that having high standards is meaningless unless you have some valid way of measuring whether they are being met; that education should not be the only social or commercial institution in America that is exempt from accountability; that, as in any profession, there is a natural distribution of efficacy among educators, and a system that is deliberately structured to deny that does damage to many children for whom their teachers are the most critical in-school variable in determining their life trajectory; and that empowering poor parents with a range of public school options, when wealthy parents have an array of wealth-determined choices, is unfair, especially when urban charters as a class are getting superior results — and some are educational pace cars even when compared with many schools serving more affluent populations.

2. Wisdom often consists of selecting the best imperfect option.

Every item enumerated in the “reformer’s playbook” is problematic. Some charters are terrible. Focusing on elevating reading and math performance can lead to a narrowing of the curriculum, too much focus on tests, enormous pressure on teachers and, in some cases (e.g., Atlanta), outright cheating. But this honest assessment is not a reason to abandon these core ideas and default to the status quo that history suggests is likely to continue to fail. One could instead try to correct the collateral flaws of these reforms while sustaining the core ideas behind them. More radically, one could agree with each and every one of the critiques and still conclude that the benefits outweigh the costs.

The point is that there is no solution to this country’s educational equity crisis that is an unalloyed, slam-dunk, no-brainer — that does only good things without risking some bad ones as well. One hallmark of maturity is the ability to choose among imperfect options — even, on some difficult occasions, the best bad option. (The sociologically amazing, largely unspoken and substantially unorchestrated flight to Joe Biden on Super Tuesday is a remarkable example of this phenomenon.)

One example: We can agree that too much testing is bad and has all the negative by-products listed above. But which is worse, those problems or the world as it existed before high-quality assessments developed over the past several years? Put differently, which is worse, those challenges or not holding schools accountable for ensuring, at minimum, that students master the gateway skills of reading and math? The answer is clear.

The same can be said about charters, which explains why, when I was New Jersey commissioner of education, we closed 15 percent of them in the state and didn’t grant any in suburbs or small towns that had at least a serviceable public school system and for whom the economics of a charter school would be unmanageable. At the same time, we doubled down on extremely high-quality charters in Camden and Newark, which got outsize results and contributed to improved outcomes across the board in those communities.

3. Carey understates the benefits of the past few decades of reform.

I’ll start with conceding a key point: We have not closed the achievement gap, the stated goal of “A Nation at Risk,” No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. We have nonetheless made tremendous progress. High school graduation rates are a stunning example, as evidenced by a study that came out only last week that debunked the notion that the dramatic increase across the country, especially among African-American and Latino children, was attributable to bogus “credit recovery” schemes and the like. More broadly, it is very hard to find people who have actually been in this world who would not agree that in many cities and states, the positive impact on impoverished children has been substantial, especially in elementary and, to a lesser degree, in middle school. Similarly, the Common Core standards basically carried the day (hard to see through the headlines, but undeniable). Summative assessments are radically better now than before. Hundreds of thousands of impoverished children now have a first-rate public school option that simply was unavailable to them previously — which enabled them to escape unconscionably failing schools that had been immune to repeated efforts to improve them. I don’t mean to be Pollyannaish about this, but when one compares things today to where they were 20 or 30 years ago, it is hard to deny the progress — even as one also honestly concedes the disappointments.

We should celebrate that progress and build on its foundations, just as we should also learn from our failures. What we emphatically should not do is read the challenges associated with prior reform efforts as a reason to revert to a failed past or to resign ourselves to an unacceptable present. The noble objective of equality of opportunity, where birth circumstances do not determine life outcomes, is worth the struggle. On that point, I have no doubt that Kevin Carey and I are in complete agreement.

Chris Cerf is former New Jersey commissioner of education, superintendent of Newark Public Schools and deputy chancellor of the New York City Department of Education.

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