How The Education Reform Movement Affects Your Child

May 26, 2015 by Geoff Nixon

Is Your Child Better Off With All of These Education Reforms?

In these days of education reform, schools are being run more and more according to business principles:

  • “Measure it and it will improve” — leading to testing and standards
  • “People work harder with incentives” — teacher accountability, pay for performance, and school funding based on test results
  • “Private beats government” — charter schools and vouchers

This is very different from 50 years ago in America and very different than most of the world’s top performing education systems.

These business-oriented reforms that are gaining momentum are part of a worldwide movement known as the Global Education Reform Movement or GERM by its adversaries.

The reasons for the emergence of GERM are understandable.

The graph below shows that despite a surge in per-student spending over 40 years  — spent mainly on smaller class sizes (more teachers) and infrastructure (equipment, computers, school buildings) — student outcomes have barely budged.

education reform sparked by poor student outcomes

Meanwhile, in the face of these poor educational returns, teachers unions have focused on job protection and other measures, raising the ire of many parts of society. This unfortunate confluence of events has lead to the political will to reform US education in a big and bold way, kicking off in 2001 with the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Main Education Reform Tenets

Mediocre literacy and numeracy progress and a higher priority on education for all citizens are worldwide trends.  And so it is not surprising that in addition the USA, other countries — particularly the UK, Sweden and Australia  –have gone through a fair amount of GERM-inspired changes with the common themes being:

  • Standards – specific skill targets by grade in reading, writing and math, and often other subjects.
  • Test-based accountability – used to assess and fund schools, to reward and fire teachers.
  • Narrowing of curriculum goals to ensure progress in literacy and numeracy.
  • Injecting competition into the system by expanding charter schools and introducing vouchers to subsidize private schools.
  • Unwinding restrictive teacher union work rules to encourage teachers to behave more like employees in the business world (and presumably, less like trusted professionals).

The world splits into two camps on education systems. Some, most notably, the US and the UK, are committed to this path of business principles-based education.  Others, such as Asia and much-respected Finland, recruit super-high quality graduates, value teachers highly and give them autonomy using school inspections to track results. Many countries straddle both approaches.

Education Wasn’t Always a Political Issue and Wasn’t Always Reforming

As the knowledge economy has made life more complex and career requirements more demanding at every level, a good education has become a more pressing basic necessity for every citizen.  This has meant that education has become more of a mainstream political priority over the past 20 to 30 years.

Concerns about the lack of progress in educational outcomes and concerns about equity of outcomes — the gap between rich and poor student performance — have become emotional flash points on both sides of the political aisle, putting politicians under pressure to act!

And since the 1990s they have.  There has been increasing willingness to overrule professional educators who previously controlled the levers of power in education, to “reform” education and to legislate what goes on in the classroom.  Education reform has been happening at district, state and the federal level.

This growing boldness to reform is occurring in a period of market-based reform elsewhere, and so not surprisingly the main thrust of reforms has been around privatization, business-like accountability and incentives.

How The Sides Line Up

According to the reformers, the villains are the teachers unions who resist accountability and bloated public education bureaucracies that are slow moving and over-staffed.

On the other side we have teachers.  For them, the villains are big business — e.g., Pearson the testing conglomerate, Bill Gates and others who are leading the charge on bringing business accountability to education — and ideological politicians who teachers feel do not understand education.

education reform in the classroom

How GERM Is Impacting Schools

Regardless of where you stand on all this, there is no doubt education is going through a period of manic change.

The main education reform tenets are now the subject of countless bills in every state congress in the US.  All aspects of education are under the microscope.

This has lead to a somewhat disenfranchised teaching profession.  Many teachers say that GERM reforms are taking the joy out of teaching and negatively impacting the desirability of teaching as a profession.

The fact that teachers see themselves as  scapegoats who are being held largely responsible for America’s education woes is a big problem for our education system.  Rightly or wrongly, teachers have reacted badly to the idea that politicians with no educational experience get to tell them how to run their classrooms while adding mandates and helpful reforms to improve outcomes. Rather than engage in the discussion, teachers have withdrawn to the protection of their unions in the spirit of fighting back rather than cooperating.

You can argue about who is right and who is wrong in the reform debates, but it is hard to argue against the fact that all of this discord around education reform — constant change, charter schools, standards, testing, pay-for-performance — is hurting the attractiveness of teaching as a profession.  And as the saying goes “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”

The loss of autonomy and societal respect for teachers is pushing quality individuals out of the profession — a recent study showed 50% of new teachers leave the profession in their first five years.  Who wants to work in a field where there are more and more guidelines and tests on your performance, all of which say to you, we don’t think you are doing your job well enough?  This loss of autonomy in the classroom must also be impacting the quality of new entrants into teaching.

Another GERM outcome is reform fatigue. Politicians come to power with ideas they are in a hurry to implement and then expect to see results within an election cycle. Not only does the pace of change rankle teachers who by nature are more cautious, the changes typically require teachers to do something additional and/or differently, most often both! This makes it hard for teachers to focus on core goals and objectives and to incrementally improve lesson plans year after year.

Meanwhile, there has been an unfortunate cycle where reforms are finally introduced after considerable compromise, which often renders them ineffective.  Reformers conclude the less- than-desired results are due to such compromises and so they press further.

How GERM Impacts Your Child

Business is all about making and measuring widgets and holding individuals accountable for results. When applying these principles to education, your child is the widget, which has a lot of unintended consequences.

Standards Narrow The Curriculum

Measurement requires targets or standards to meet or exceed.  The use of standards, for better of for worse, is now an accepted part of American education.

Under standards, at best, your child will spend many weeks in class focused on curriculum that serves no purpose other than to prepare for a standardized test that helps evaluate the teacher, school or district.  None of this curriculum nurtures a love of learning, curiosity, creativity or develops other positive skills that are essential to lifelong learning.

At worst, if your child happens to be a widget that is already at standard, chances are he or she will not get any attention and will cruise.  In business, and now in education, it’s all about spending resources wisely, and spending time on a widget that is already at standard is not a good use of resources.

The Unintended Consequences of Pay For Performance

Education reformers, most recently Governor Cuomo of New York, hope to influence teachers with monetary incentives.  Your satisfaction, as a parent, with pay for performance incentives should vary depending on where your child sits in the class.

Let’s look at what could happen if teachers do respond to cash incentives.

If your child is just below the standards, then chances are he will indeed get a lot of attention from the teacher.  Of course, he will not be encouraged beyond the standard, as there is no money in that for the teacher or the school.  Alternatively, if your little widget is well below the standards you may also have a problem.  Getting a child up to standard is a long process and not generally a one-year endeavor — a money-driven teacher will recognize the low potential return in the single year of measurement and will allocate time elsewhere.

Finally, pay-per-performance incentives are not tied to things like nurturing a love of learning – it’s too hard to measure — and so teachers who respond to incentives won’t mind if their drive for test-based success turns your child off school and learning.

Teachers are Losing Their Love of Teaching

We outlined above how the teaching profession has reacted to the reforms.  In addition to the enforced “improvements” on how they teach, many go to work frustrated by how they are measured — they feel most student outcomes are the product of the unique story of each child — IQ, home environment, prior education, personality — and the school environment.  Research by Marzano puts the single-year teacher impact at <15%.

How all this plays out in class is highly variable.  Some teachers will rise above the discord and do their best to deliver what your state politicians think is best for your widget.  Others will quietly revolt, emphasizing aspects of learning that may not be measured in a test.  Others will take a middle road.  Where would you want your child’s teacher to prioritize — maximizing test outcomes or nurturing a love of learning?

If the School is Under Stress, Danger!

The story for your young widget is more distressing under GERM if the widget factory (school) is not performing and is in danger of losing funding or closing down if things don’t improve as per No Child Left Behind and various state rules.  As we reported in a recent post on the Dewey grade fixing scandal, the pressures on a school become immense — doing well on high-stakes tests become an overwhelming goal for teachers and administrators.

In these schools, there is no time to nurture love of learning and other learning goals you may value as a parent.  Moreover, it is not a good environment for a child to develop a positive relationship to reading and learning. Instead, he will feel the stress of his teachers and the joylessness that comes from turning schools into exam factories.

If At First Your Child Does Not Succeed,… Get Outside Help

The new Common Core State Standards set a blistering pace in learning development, arguably too hard for too many children.  Hence the scramble by many states to replace the Common Core with their own, mostly lower, standards.

The Common Core requires reading comprehension by 2nd grade and “read to learn” by about 4th grade. If your child is not on this track, they are at risk of being left behind as the required rate of skill acquisition remains steep all the way through 8th grade.

In business, if a widget is poor quality, it is discarded.  If your child is one of those widgets that is falling behind, there is very little room for the school to slow down and give your child a chance to catch up.  Education reform is all about percentage pass rates, and time spent on laggards in a single year will not generally help teacher or school numbers.

Cognitive and fundamental skills interventions were never a school strong suit, but now, they are even less of a possibility given the growing list of other demands being made on schools. Your best option is to seek outside help for reading and/or learning skills.

What to do as a Parent in a GERM World?

Get yourself educated on exactly how much time is spent in your school on curriculum related to tests.  The opt-out movement is tackling only one aspect of the issue here.  Really, it’s not the time and stress around the actual test that matters, it’s the days and weeks prior to tests spent on narrow test-only curriculum and the general stress levels accumulated by teachers and students over that period.

Also find out what other reforms are going on in your school.  Are the teachers paid for performance, for instance?  If they are, and your child is not near a standard, you should have concerns — the ones nearest the standards pass-line are the ones that represent the biggest bang for buck and so will get the most attention.

Understand also that businesses are not always fun places, ditto schools that run on business principles.  The reform movement is gradually squeezing the joy out of schools for students and teachers alike.  The killing off of creativity was eloquently explained in a famous Ken Robinson TED talk.   It is up to parents to reconnect learning with fun or at least with positive emotions — not stress — by being active with them on things other than homework.

And finally, if you care about education reform, one way or another, get involved.  If you are concerned about the GERM ideas, the Diane Ravitch blog is a great starting point.  If you like the GERM initiatives, try the Center for Educational Reform.

  • Deli Marden

    One of the big problems I see is, as you said, education is going through a period of manic change and I’m not sure any side, teacher, students, school, parents, have anytime to adjust to one change before everything changes again. I think the ideas of the different learning styles and reaching each style should be a bigger focus. Teaching and learning is more of an art in my opinion not a business equation. The one size fits all method isn’t working and I’m concerned that with all these business minded people making the decisions, why haven’t more of them caught on that the GERM method isn’t making a difference.

    • One of the challenges with GERM is that the decision makers are looking at school results and district results, not the impact on individuals. Educators, who are no longer the decision makers, are generally against GERM because they see the impact of falling short of standards has on students, particularly as you say on children with learning issues.

  • Robin Gaston

    In my children’s school standardized tests are used as a teaching tool. The teachers are able to see where the class as a whole has a weakness and then work on improving that weakness. The teachers nor students are held accountable for test scores.