Why Education Reform Fails

By Jack Rothman and Amy Rothman

American education just received another beating. This one came in a December report from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). While the United States is the top economic and military power globally, once again our 15-year-olds scored below average in math and only middling in science and reading. American students did not make it into the top 20 on any of these tests across the 65 participating nations.

American education has been under constant criticism since the middle of the last century. A galaxy of reforms has been mounted to address the issues, but these have not produced noticeable results. We live in a permanent environment of educational reform and educational failure. The reforms focus on fixing things within the schoolhouse, but the fundamental problem that needs fixing lies outside in the broader society.

Diane Ravitch’s recent book, Reign of Error, gives a thorough and well-researched review of our educational plight and can serve as a field manual on reform issues. In the book she excoriates the privatization movement she once championed, decrying charter schools, vouchers, “race to the top” testing, numeric accountability, and the rest. She believes privatization, under the guise of choice, seeks to neuter teachers’ unions, use test scores to fire teachers, and shut down overwhelmed public schools. To Ravitch, this reform isn’t aimed as much at improving public schools as it is at replacing and Walmartizing them. It is a type of reform that hedge fund investors drool over because it provides an unending pool of potential customers to fill the pockets of corporate executives.

Ravitch favors an alternative approach, growing from her belief that poverty and racial segregation are the “root causes” of our educational woes. She points out that wealthy kids as a group invariably get higher test scores than poor kids do, and her educational proposals are designed to lift up schools for kids who are disadvantaged. Some planks of her program include prenatal care for mothers, universal pre-school, high quality after-school and summer programs, and smaller teacher-student ratios. These sound like familiar liberal reform proposals, but apparently her aim is to make them more real and muscular.

While these are valiant efforts to address our education muddle, they miss truly addressing the root causes that Ravitch herself names. The large and pressing issue we face is the vast socio-economic disparity, including racial inequity, that exists within our society and the effects that this disparity has on the lives of our children.

It is apparent that kids from the middle classes and above grow up in an environment that is vastly more conducive to academic success. These kids live in communities where they have books at home and parents available to read to them. Language and ideas expressed around the kitchen table are an aid to learning. The family presses on kids the value of getting an education. There is a reasonable amount of privacy and a comfortable space to study and do homework. Kids are taken to museums and enrolled in private classes that teach art, music, and even cooking. These children have many models of educated professional and business people around them and the probability if getting a good job after completing school is a visible reality.

The contrast with kids from inner-city communities is stark. These children are often surrounded by drug dealers, they worry about getting shot while walking to school, and they face continuing pressures to join a gang. As a matter of course, they experience teen girls on the block who are unwed mothers and have siblings who are incarcerated. Their streets reek of blight and the buildings are adorned with graffiti. Their families struggle to survive economically each day – rationing their food stamps, working long hours at two menial jobs, or traveling to work at a long distance on public transportation. Unemployment is a constant specter. The inner city is where the injuries of class and race disadvantage intertwine and the greatest educational challenges lie. Of course, strong families and indigenous institutions exist here and some kids come through with flying colors. But at the risk of caricaturing, the consequences of persistent racism ought not be downplayed.

Fine teaching does little good when children are hungry, sick, scared, lacking preparation, or worn down by atrocious life circumstances. Giving disadvantaged kids iPads, attempting to boost their self-esteem, or letting their parents choose a charter school doesn’t overcome the cumulative detriments dished out from living at the poverty level. To add insult to injury, in wealthier districts, parents and residents boost the budgets and augment the programs of schools through taxes, fund-raising, and political influence.

Liberal educational reforms that focus on correcting in-school problems – but avoiding confronting the broader, deeply-rooted reasons for our education failures – are a flimsy effort. Ravitch, at one point in her book says, “We know what works… opportunities that advantaged families provide for their children.” But her prescription does not begin to budge the economic reality and living experiences of disadvantaged families. It comes over as a fantasy.

Reform notions fall short because of an inability to acknowledge that our market-driven economic system generates the inequality that is crippling our children and dampening our schools. Ravitch notes that, “Public education is in a crisis only so far as our society is… Without a vision for a better society… any talk of reform is empty verbiage.” But reformers will not name the deep crisis of our society and, even more, the real economic remedies needed to overcome it.

In his powerful apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis condemned “unfettered capitalism” as the villain in the piece. He asserted, “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved… by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems.” And that includes education.

To “radically resolve” inequality, an economic structure is needed that at core promotes cooperation and parity, rather than one that at core fosters competition and inequality. There are alternatives to consider along these lines — structures that support economic justice, such as worker democracy and control, consumer cooperatives, social democratic policies, and democratic socialism. There are also more immediate incremental policy options, like a living wage for all, widespread affordable housing, cheap or free college education, single payer, and not-for-profit health insurance — things that work against a one percent concentration of wealth and for a better apportionment of our national resources among citizenry.

Most change, whether on a personal or societal level, is unnerving at first because we cling to what we know to avoid facing anxiety about the unknown. But as long as the realities of societal inequality are obscured in the reform discourse, the public loses a chance to understand what is missing in what has been done and what solutions down the road can make a real difference in our educational predicament. Until educational reformers are willing to expand their dialogue to include attacking inequality head-on, we will continue to use narrow and ineffectual strategies that produce frustration and failure.

Jack Rothman is professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Public Affairs
and a member of Los Angeles DSA.


Amy Rothman is a psychotherapist and mediator in Los Angeles. This article first appeared on the Huffington Post.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.