Has the education movement lost its way?

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Kate Walsh

The fall conference season is well behind us, but a bad taste in my mouth lingers.

I’m struggling with the seismic shift in tone at these conferences, where education advocates traditionally assembled to give each other pep talks. In a few short years, we’ve gone from thinking we were right about everything—granted, that was kind of obnoxious—to adopting a rather pathetic and unattractive lament, professing just how wrong we’ve been about everything. I guess I prefer smug to self-flagellation.

Many advocates appear to be abandoning our once shared convictions about what it takes to lift children out of poverty, the very wellspring of the movement’s power and mass appeal. For years, we had stuck hard and fast to a sensible, winnable, and research-based strategy: improve student learning. Teach children to read. That is how we tackle society’s inequities.

Now having donned our hair shirts, these conferences have become both our confessional where we plead for forgiveness for our narrow-minded approach and our penance, where we agree to exchange our convictions for anything that will suggest just how broad-minded we now are—as long as we de-emphasize academic goals.

Sitting through the more fiery conference sessions, I could imagine how organizers made some of their panel picks. “Who do we know that has a knack for cutting people down to size?” Many chosen had no educational expertise on offer, but that didn't prevent the smack down. Shame on us, they would extol, for failing to understand the broader impact of poverty and racism on children’s lives. Shame on us for our narrow-minded views of schools as places of mere learning.

The motivation behind some of this vitriol was well meaning. Obviously, the education reform movement was too white for too long. Advocacy organizations have made impressive progress, both in the diversity of who is coming to these conferences and who is given a place at the podium. But why simultaneously try to fracture a movement?

But that’s the impact. We've now all drunk the Kool-Aid and know the new code. Try suggesting to any audience these days that a school’s first obligation to young children is to teach them to read, write, and become numerically literate, and that their teachers should meet a standard that suggests they are qualified to deliver those skills. These academic skills are, if not verboten, now just an aside, emblematic of our once narrow mindset and too closely connected with The Word We Are Not To Ever Mutter Again: TESTING. 

It’s a sure way to lose an audience these days to remind them that tests have merit, not just for accountability purposes, not just because they measure numeracy and literacy, but because they are highly predictive of the quality of a child's future. (Thank you Raj Chetty and other academic purists.) A few short years ago, reminding an audience of this connection was a rallying cry. Now our eyes avert, we squirm in our seats, and we feel the sudden need for another cup of hotel coffee.

A broader agenda for education advocates might be more justifiable if we had actually accomplished our more narrow set of goals. By many measures, children's academic outcomes have improved—particularly in the charter schools that this movement created—but the consensus is that progress has either not been fast enough or that it's not even legit. If we agree to expand our role to also tackle the social, economic, racial, and political contexts of students' lives, we'll surely be more successful...right?

There is nothing wrong with any of these goals. They're all good—but their collective impact leaves me limp and rudderless rather than inspired. This job was hard enough.

Achieving a complex, ambitious goal—like providing all children in this nation with a strong education—requires laser focus, determination, abundant resources, an ability to measure progress, exceptional expertise, and a strong research basis. The movement had each of these elements and still does (for the most part). What an amazing asset, not to be squandered or defeated after a few tough battles.

While not shying away from our many imperfections, while recognizing that schools do not function in isolation, we cannot and should not turn our back on what gave rise to this movement.

Kate Walsh is the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on the NCTQ Blog.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.