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Pop! Goes the Bubble

How and when the school reform bubble popped—and what happens next.

Sometime over this past summer, the school reform "bubble" popped--seemingly unable to withstand the combined weight of unrealistic claims, weak results, poor policy choices, and resistance from career educators, along with the inertia of a $600 billion a year K-12 school system.

What happens next could be a new, more balanced effort to improve public education-or a return to trench warfare and the status quo.

The current school reform movement has been around since the publication of the report A Nation at Risk in 1983, some would argue, or the creation of Teach for America in 1991, or the passage of NCLB in 2001. It has generally featured a mix of approaches that includes raising academic standards, increasing accountability, and expanding choice. Public and private funding for school improvement efforts have increased enormously since reform began.

When did reform turn into a bubble? No one can say, exactly. Reform efforts seemed to accelerate toward the end of the second Bush administration. Michelle Rhee was appointed head of the D.C. public school system in 2007, at least partly at the suggestion of her mentor, then NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein. A Democratic charter school supporter named Barack Obama was elected to the White House in 2008 and created an ambitious-sounding initiative dubbed "Race to the Top," which required states to remove charter caps and agree to evaluate teachers using student achievement results. The 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman touted national reformers and their ideas. A handful of states-notably Florida, Indiana, Colorado, and Illinois-passed changes to teacher tenure and evaluation rules in 2010 and 2011.

As the pace of these efforts intensified, however, cracks began to emerge. Reformers became increasingly over-ambitious, narrow-minded, and sloppy. The Obama administration claimed that relatively small initiatives like Race to the Top would single-handedly transform public education. The Gates Foundation and others declared that rating teachers based on their impact on student learning was some sort of silver bullet. Reformers adopted pet issues such as ending seniority-based layoffs.

Then in the summer of 2011, the bubble popped. Cheating scandals rocked Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., raising questions about the legitimacy of test results and the pressures being put on teachers and administrators. Early reports from Race to the Top and its sister School Improvement Grants program revealed mixed results at best. Diane Ravitch emerged as an unlikely but powerful opponent of reform.

The most optimistic possibility for what happens next is that reformers and their critics come to terms on a balanced agenda of some kind, perhaps in the area of early elementary education.

It's also possible that educators and parents will gain enough momentum and power to start proposing and winning support for their ideas rather than merely blocking those of the reformers. These initiatives would likely focus on providing better social supports for at-risk students and improving the quality of training and support for classroom teachers.

Most likely is some sort of stalemate in which reformers sprinkle in some new ideas (blended learning seems incredibly popular right now) and critics continue to poke holes in their arguments from the sidelines. The only thing that might force the two sides to work together is if conservative Republicans win control over both houses of Congress or the White House in 2012. At that point, reformers and their opponents will be forced to realize they can't get much done on their own, and that they actually need each other.   

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