Why Are the Rich So Interested in Public-School Reform?

They want to remake America's students in their own high-achieving image, but they're overlooking socioeconomics

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It was perhaps inevitable that the political moment that has given birth to the Occupy movement, pitting Main Street against Wall Street and the 99% against the financial elite, would eventually succeed in making some chinks in the armor of the 1%’s favorite feel-good hobby: the school reform movement.

It’s been a good decade now that the direction of school reform has been greatly influenced by a number of highly effective Master (and Mistress) of the Universe types: men and women like Princeton grad Wendy Kopp, the founder of the Teach for America program, her husband, Harvard graduate Richard Barth, who heads up the charter school Knowledge Is Power Program, the hard-charging former D.C. schools chancellor (and Cornell and Harvard grad) Michelle Rhee and the many hedge fund founders who are now investing significant resources in the cause of expanding charter schools. Excoriating the state of America’s union-protected teaching profession and allegedly ossified education schools, they’ve prided themselves upon attracting “the best and the brightest” to the education reform cause, whether by luring recent top college graduates into challenging classrooms or by seducing Harvard Business School or McKinsey-trained numbers-crunchers away from Wall Street to newly lucrative executive positions in educationally themed social entrepreneurship.

The chief promise of their brand of reform — the results of which have been mixed, at best — seems to be that they can remake America’s students in their own high-achieving image. By evaluating all students according to the same sort of testable rubrics that, when aced, propelled the reformers into the Ivy League and beyond, society’s winners seem to believe they can inspire and guide society’s losers, inoculating them against failure with their own habits of success, and forever disproving the depressingly fatalistic ’70s-style liberal idea that things like poverty and poor health care and hunger and a chaotic family life can, indeed, condemn children to school failure.

And yet as schools scramble to keep up with these narrow demands, voices are emerging to suggest that perhaps the rubric-obsessed school reform game, as it’s been played in the Bush and Obama years and funded and dressed-up by the well-heeled Organization Kids, is itself perhaps due for a philosophical shake-up.

(MORE: Andrew J. Rotherham: Cheating on the Hard Work of School Reform)

Earlier this year, S. Paul Reville, the Massachusetts Secretary of Education, blogged in Education Week that reformers need now to think beyond the numbers and “admit that closing achievement gaps is not as simple as adopting a set of standards, accountability and instructional improvement strategies.” In Massachusetts, he wrote, “We have set the nation’s highest standards, been tough on accountability and invested billions in building school capacity, yet we still see a very strong correlation between socioeconomic background and educational achievement and attainment. It is now clear that unless and until we make a more active effort to mitigate the impediments to learning that are commonly associated with poverty, we will still be faced with large numbers of children who are either unable to come to school or so distracted as not to be able to be attentive and supply effort when they get there.” Reville called for “wraparound services” that would allow schools to provide students with a “healthy platform” from which they could begin to work on learning.

Diane Ravitch, the education policy specialist and reformed charter school advocate, made the same argument in a trenchant New York Review of Books article this fall, where she enumerated the many reasons that school reform as we’ve come to know it needs to be called into question. For one thing, like so much else “the best and the brightest” have brought us in recent years, many of the reform movement’s results don’t stand up to scrutiny. After reviewing the data, she writes:  “Most research studies agree that charter schools are, on average, no more successful than regular public schools; that evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores is fraught with inaccuracy and promotes narrowing of the curriculum to only the subjects tested, encouraging some districts to drop the arts or other nontested subjects; and that the strategy of closing schools disrupts communities without necessarily producing better schools.”

Striking a serious blow to the contention that it’s bad teaching — not bad luck in life — that makes some American students perform much worse than others (and all of them much worse than students in other countries), Ravitch noted that on a recent international test, the Program for International Student Assessment, “American schools in which fewer than 10% of the students were poor outperformed the schools of Finland, Japan and Korea. Even when as many as 25% of the students were poor, American schools performed as well as the top-scoring nations. As the proportion of poor students rises, the scores of U.S. schools drop.”

In other words, more than good teachers, more than targeted testing, more than careful calibrations of performance measures and metrics that can standardize and quantify every aspect of learning, it’s the messy business of life — where a child comes from and what he or she goes home to at the end of the day — that really determines success in school. This message flies in the face of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-boostrap individualism, the extreme emphasis on private (read: teacher) responsibility that has animated the school reform movement in recent years. It demands a complete rethinking now of what our public response to the perennial crisis of public education in America should be.

(MORE: Warner: Overmedicating Foster Kids: The Cost of Skimping on Care)

Fortunately, there are some programs in place that have had real success in providing “wraparound services” that help children come to school ready to learn. In Northern California, for example, the Making Waves Foundation has for decades run a program providing  tutoring, academic advising, college counseling, after school enrichment programs, mental health services, nutritional food, transportation and parent education to more than a thousand low-income children, selected by lottery. In Cincinnati, where more than 70% of children live in low-income households, a program called the Strive Partnership coordinates services and support for school children that include mentoring, health care, arts programs, quality preschool and financial aid for college — and the result, according to a new report from the independent think tank Education Sector, is that, over the last four years, Cincinnati schools have made greater gains than any other urban district in Ohio and have had the most success in reducing the percentage of its students who score at the very bottom on achievement tests.

The Obama Administration hasn’t been blind to these initiatives, and has committed $40 million to a new Promise Neighborhoods program that seeks to link family support services to schools. But, the Education Sector report notes, that initiative is unlikely to receive the $150 million the Administration requested for 2012, given that its 2011 budget request of $210 million was cut down to $30 million.

Thinking structurally about social ills, rejecting excessive individualism for community-based, it-takes-a-village-style responsibility, has been out of favor in America for a long time. In education reform, what’s been in style instead is vilifying teachers and their unions. For some schools, making the grade has meant cooking the books to show results. Let’s hope that the time to reform this business-modeled mindset has finally come.