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Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms

reviewed by Michael Cohen - January 11, 2019

coverTitle: Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms
Author(s): William J. Mathis & Tina M. Trujillo (Eds.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 168123503X, Pages: 720, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

William J. Mathis and Tina M. Trujillo’s edited volume, Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms: Lessons for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), provides a sobering review of what I would call the United States’ addiction to market-based reforms in education over the last four decades. Indeed, if addiction can be defined as persistent behavior despite negative outcomes, then the metaphor provides an appropriate description of this nation’s reliance on outcomes-based accountability, test-based sanctions, consumer choice, competition among schools, and various forms of privatization to solve its education problems.

Not all edited volumes hold well together, but this one does. Mathis and Trujillo have done an excellent job of gathering contributions that build upon, without merely duplicating, one another’s claims. Across its 28 chapters, this collection of research findings and evidence-based commentary includes contributions from some of the most notable scholars in education policy studies, some written specifically for the volume and others previously published in academic journals and policy reports. It is noteworthy, however, that for the previously published pieces, little update was needed to reflect current circumstances. In Chapter Twenty, for example, David Berliner makes the following point about his paper investigating the role of poverty in education reform, published in this journal a decade earlier: “The 2005 data I report is only slightly different from the data I would use today, but only slightly. More important is that the relationships I describe and the arguments I make would be exactly the same!” (p. 437; emphasis in original).

One wonders when the evidence of failure will catch up with policymakers who persistently see market-based reforms such as charter schools as a panacea when, on the whole, they have delivered virtually none of their promises of higher student achievement and have led to increased racial and socioeconomic segregation, as several contributors to this volume point out. Indeed, subjecting such reforms to rigorous evidence is precisely the purpose of Mathis and Trujillo’s book. One might say that Mathis and Trujillo have turned the tables of accountability on the very people—policymakers, venture philanthropists, authors of ideologically-driven research, and other policy actors—who have been pushing for test- and market-based accountability for public schools and teachers over the last four decades.

Importantly, the volume begins with four chapters that explore the question of how market-based reforms became the new normal of our policy discourse. This section, “The Foundations of Market-Based Reform,” provides a helpful primer in the political and historical construction of the assumptions undergirding today’s education policy. In Chapter Two, for example, Janelle Scott explains the role of neoliberal ideology and policy advocacy networks, including venture philanthropists and conservative think tanks, in creating a new common sense of education reform, one that assumes that the only way to improve schooling for low-income children of color is to expand school choice programs. Crucially, Scott documents not only the powerful interests that have supported market-based reforms, but also several grassroots coalitions of teachers, parents, students, and community organizations that have been pushing against the expansion of charter schools and other forms of privatization in their cities and at a national level.

The four chapters of Section Two, “Test Based-Sanctions: What the Evidence Says,” demonstrate that the practice of punishing schools for low scores on standardized tests hasn’t lived up to its stated goal of providing better schooling for children in marginalized communities. In fact, as these chapters report, some evidence suggests that student performance actually worsens under various sanctions. The contributing authors make the critical point that subjecting schools to turnaround sanctions without ensuring that they have the resources necessary for success (e.g., a pool of highly competent teachers to staff reconstituted schools or the nearby availability of high-performing schools for students displaced by their school’s closure) is a recipe for the continued inequitable schooling of economically disadvantaged children. And yet the problems of test-based sanctions are deeper than the lack of empirical evidence in their favor. As Kirshner, Van Steenis, Pozzoboni, and Gaertner write in their chapter on the risks of closing low-performing schools, “The argument against school closures has always been about more than its effect on test scores; it is driven by a normative claim that families and students have a right to participate in decisions that affect their schools and communities” (p. 210). This is a point that the rest of the volume bears out. If we are going to provide equal educational opportunity in this country, multiple stakeholders need to be involved in the design of the reforms.  

The chapters that make up Sections Three and Four, “False Promises” and “Effective and Equitable Reforms,” continue to document the failure of market-based reforms to deliver on their promises while also amplifying what I take to be a major theme of the volume; namely, that it is impossible to address inequitable schooling without also addressing the outside-of-school factors that affect children in marginalized communities. After all, factors such as housing policies that support racial segregation and poverty concentration, lack of access to vision and dental care, the persistence of inequitable school funding formulas, and many more, should hardly be categorized as “outside-of-school.” These factors accompany children as they enter their classrooms every day. The recent movement toward community schooling and wraparound services, which are addressed by Valli, Stefanski, and Jacobson in Chapter Twenty-Six, is essentially an acknowledgment that schools serving economically disadvantaged children, if they are to be successful, need to support much more than cognitive development.

Moreover, as Mark Warren contends in Chapter Twenty-Seven, the reform of such schools needs to be based on a community organizing paradigm, an approach that is decidedly different from today’s top-down, expert-driven emphasis on so-called “evidence-based” programs that can be “scaled up” and “imposed on schools, their teachers, and their families” (p. 607). Indeed, as Warren points out, a community organizing approach is nothing short of a new philosophy, one that “appreciate[s] that institutional change is always a collective process” (p. 607). In their concluding section, Mathis and Trujillo incorporate this collective ethos as they provide a series of recommendations for education reform in the context of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal government’s latest iteration of accountability and market-based policy. Their recommendations for state policy, assessment and accountability, and instructional improvement are specific, actionable, and based on the rigorously-argued chapters of the volume.

While the recommendations are too lengthy to delineate here (there are 19 of them), suffice it to say that they neither expect schools to fix the nation’s growing economic inequality on their own, nor propose that teachers and school leaders wait until policymakers magically recognize the need for a robust welfare state. Mathis and Trujillo’s recommendations suggest that we must work on schools and society at the same time. We can, for example, address racial disparities in school discipline, dismantle tracking programs that segregate students within schools and deprive many of a challenging and engaging curriculum, and create meaningful assessment and accountability systems that balance inputs with outputs and eschew one-size-fits-all sanctions based on a few test scores; all this while we also advocate for livable wages, robust supports from social service agencies, and adequate public investment in high-quality pre-kindergarten.

None of this will be possible without political will, as this volume so convincingly argues. After all, as Harvey Kantor and Robert Lowe demonstrate early in the book, in the decades since President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, it has been political will that has taught us to accept the clearly fallacious idea that public schools can, on their own and in the absence of redistributive economic policies, solve the nation’s social and economic problems. Political will can also expect more from society even as it expects more from schools. Mathis and Trujillo have given us a book that gathers some of the best available evidence to support such expectations.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 11, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22621, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 12:02:39 PM

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About the Author
  • Michael Cohen
    University of Northern Colorado
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL IAN COHEN is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado. He is co-author, with Gary L. Anderson, of The New Democratic Professional in Education: Confronting Markets, Metrics, and Managerialism (2018, Teachers College Press). He has served as a high school English teacher and in various administration positions at the school and district levels in New Jersey and Colorado. His scholarship focuses on market-based reforms, New Public Management, educator professionalism, and critical policy studies.
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