The evolving education reform agenda

Editor’s note: This commentary from Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and executive editor of Education Next, appeared Thursday on the institute’s website. You can read the earlier commentary Petrilli references in the post here.

Earlier this month, I argued that education reform is alive and well, even if the Washington Consensus is dead for now. What’s more, I wrote that we should stay the course on the current reform strategy:

Keep growing charter schools. Keep expanding parental choice. Keep adopting high-quality instructional materials and keep getting teachers trained up on them. Keep testing students regularly and keep reporting the results. Keep being honest with parents and taxpayers about their students and schools are performing.

That was the too-simple version. Let me flesh out three key points:

  • This agenda will of course continue to evolve as reformers debate what’s in and what’s out, informed by research and experience.
  • This is an agenda focused almost entirely on policy, not practice.
  • Remaining agnostic about classroom-level practices—and the culture wars and other controversies wrapped up in them—helps keep the reform coalition together, but it limits our impact, since that’s where much of the action is.

 I heard from a friend that my call to “stay the course” on the current reform agenda sounded “nostalgic in a way that feels like it might be clinging to something we have to rethink.” I can see why it might feel that way.

So, to clarify: The current ed reform agenda is not the same as 30 or 20 or even 10 years ago.

In the 1990s, for example, we were very focused on boosting the percentage of students scoring proficient on state tests – and, eventually, on seeing the “disaggregated data” move in the right direction.

The focus on disaggregated results remains, but thankfully we have largely moved passed a single-minded focus on proficiency, a “snapshot in time,” and toward greater attention to individual student growth.

By the early 2010s, much of the conversation was about holding individual teachers accountable via test-informed teacher evaluations. Ham-handed implementation and poisonous politics led us to leave that misguided reform behind.

On the other hand, an embrace of “high quality instructional materials” is rather new, enabled by the common set of standards for English language arts and mathematics still in place in most states.

No doubt, the agenda will continue to evolve, as well it should, informed by hard-earned, real-world experience, plus what we’re learning from rigorous research studies.

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