Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Rick Hess: Ed Reformers Overreached, Reform Backlash Resulted

Rick Hess in the Daily News today:

Those who follow New York City schools have been witnessing a time-honored ritual — pro-testing school reformers have mightily overreached, inviting pushback that’s now poised to dismantle much of their useful handiwork.

Mayor de Blasio has said that he and his new chancellor, Carmen Fariña, will “do everything in our power to reduce focus on high-stakes testing.” At the press conference where he introduced Fariña, de Blasio said, “[Testing] has taken us down the wrong road and, within limits of state and federal law, we will do all we can to roll back that focus.”

This strident stance is misguided and likely to yield unfortunate results. There’s good reason to regularly test students in reading and math, and to use those results to inform judgments about how well schools and teachers are doing. When it comes to key skills, such tests can illuminate important truths and make it clear if some schools or classrooms are failing certain students.


All that said, de Blasio and Fariña have tapped into real concerns and raised valid criticisms. However well-intentioned, testing advocates have managed to take a common-sense intuition and pushed it with such reflexive enthusiasm that they’ve created a caricature.

Instead of using reading and math tests as one useful tool, many reformers have made these results the defining measure of school quality. That stance alienates parents and educators who see such an emphasis as narrowing the curriculum and providing a distorted view of school quality.

Last year, Gallup’s annual national survey on education reported that 22% of respondents thought the increased use of testing over the past decade has helped school performance and 36% thought it had hurt. In 2007, the same survey found the public split, 28%-28%.

Meanwhile, reformers have long been hampered by a tendency to overpromise. After suggesting that accountability, charter schooling or now the Common Core standards will spur rapid, profound improvement in schools, they’ve been stuck trying to put a happy face — at best — on much more modest, gradual gains.

All of this has been complicated by reformers’ habit of leaning heavily on federal pressure, first through the No Child Left Behind Act and more recently on the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, to force states and cities to move — even if that meant that policies were pushed forward while still half-baked.

These forces have all combined to transform a promising approach to heightened transparency and accountability into a self-parody that was ripe for blowback. How bad have things gotten? When she accepted the chancellorship, Fariña said, “There are things that need to happen, but they need to happen with people — not to people.”

This unexceptional sentiment was widely regarded as a break with the Bloomberg reforms. Meaning, reformers have seemingly convinced a large swath of the public that they think change happens outside the classroom, and that they believe in doing things “to” people rather than with them.

That’s a clear sign that they’ve driven what was a sensible agenda right off the rails.

Alas, reformers at the New York State level - on the Board of Regents, at the State Education Department, and in the governor's office - continue to do things "to" people rather than with them.

That sentiment was crystallized last week when SED Commissioner John King told the State Senate Education Committee that the the New York State Assembly and Senate have no power to pull the state out of the Common Core State Standards - that's completely in the "purview" of the SED and Regents.

King's arrogance - whether it's talking smack to the Senate Education Committee, calling parents who oppose his reform agenda "special interests" or refusing to do anything with the rising opposition to his reforms other than pay lip service to "flexibility" - is another emblem of the arrogance of the education reform movement and another example of why there is so much growing "blowback" to the reform movement.


  1. There is the implicit assumption in Rick Hess' piece that reformy notions have some basis in reality. In fact, there is good reason to test students in English and math, but not to see how schools and teachers are doing. There's no scientific basis for that.

    As an English teacher, I regularly test my students to find out how they are doing, and I use these tests to inform my teaching. If a large number of students fail, I need to teach the topic again, differently perhaps, and write another test.

    Hess fails to acknowledge the massive time devoted to tests that students will never see again, will never learn from, and which will be used to determine the quality of schools and teachers. Oddly, we already know there is a direct correlation to high-needs, high-poverty, and so-called failing schools.

    Were that not true, Hess might have some sort of argument. Considering reality, inconvenient though that may be, he's just spouting the same nonsense we hear from every corporate reformer from Gates on down.

    1. Unlike many a reformer, however, he is willing to admit tactical errors or delusions of grandeur on the reformer's part He did it with Common Core Kool Aid piece:

      I agree with the rest of what you write, NYC. The Endless Testing regime is absurd and gotten worse by the year. That too is part of the backlash.

  2. How on earth can Rick Hess refer to their work as "useful handiwork"?It is abundantly clear that their machinations are the work of the devil. allied with the subterranean forces of greed, falsehood and corruption. As such their perversions, Mr. Hess, are tbe "devils' handiwork". Decent society objects to their greed, their twisted reasoning and as such seeks to send them back into dark abyss from which they emerged only to reek havoc on free speech and democracy.

    1. Many reformers love testing, data, numbers and total control more than anything.

      There ought to be a 12 step program for it all - Reformers Anonymous:

      "Hi, my name is Rick and I am a recovering reformer. I used to obsess over the need to quantify every interaction between teacher and pupil in the school system but have now let go of my insane need to control every second of the classroom experience..."

  3. Hess is operating under the mistaken notion that reformers just somehow didn't quite package things properly and somehow gave people the wrong idea.

    This: "reformers have seemingly convinced a large swath of the public that they think change happens outside the classroom, and that they believe in doing things “to” people rather than with them." Didn't happen because people got the wrong idea. It happened because people aren't entirely stupid and they can see what's right in front of their faces. They got this impression because it's the truth.

    1. I agree that Hess thinks the reformer messaging has been flawed, Peter.

      He 's wrong. It's of course not a messaging problem at all - its a policy problem, it's an operational problem.

      They developed all this stuff themselves, without any real input from anybody not on board already, then shoved it through while many people were occupied elsewhere (like the aftermath 2008 recession, for example, when the Obama admin shoved through the stimulus with a load of education reform funds in it.)

      The arrogance of these reformers never ceases to amaze me.