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President Barack Obama speaking college affordability and a rating system, University of Buffalo (NY), August 22, 2013. (http://sfgate.com).

President Barack Obama speaking college affordability and a rating system, University of Buffalo (NY), August 22, 2013. (http://sfgate.com).

The shape and direction of education reform in America’s public schools and in US higher education is such that one can only conclude that this is the century in which social mobility will be limited to a precious and lucky few. With high-stakes testing and No Child Left Behind on the K-12 side, and the rise of for-profit online institutions in postsecondary education, we’re well on our way to a two-tiered system of education. One tier for the affluent, who will attend private schools and elite colleges, and a much lower tier for the rest of us, who will increasingly receive a watered down public education and have ever more limited higher education options.

The Problem With Mainstream K-16 Reformers:

The problem is, though, most reformers actually believe that their efforts at reform will result in a fairer and more level playing field for our kids and for first-generation college students of every stripe. They have an unwavering desire to make testing the cornerstone of curriculum revisions and the key determinant in measuring teacher effectiveness, and thus, tying future funds to school performance levels. Or, in the case of for-profit online higher education, they believe that financial aid in the form of student loans, accelerated classes with a curriculum strictly geared for current job market trends and lack of academic support is the shape of their river. Leaving vulnerable millions of first-generation students — particularly low-income adult learners (many of whom are of color) — to dropping out of college with tens of thousands of dollars of student loans to pay off and with few good career prospects.

Mock Time Magazine cover with Michelle Rhee alleging her full knowledge of cheating scandal in DC Public Schools, April 14, 2013.  (By a college student whose mom is a 7th grade teacher -http://www.susanohanian.org/)

Mock Time Magazine cover with Michelle Rhee alleging her full knowledge of cheating scandal in DC Public Schools, April 14, 2013. (By a college student whose mom is a 7th grade teacher -http://www.susanohanian.org/)

These reforms go further in providing an unlevel playing field. One where only a privileged few get to go down Mount Everest in a helicopter. The rest of us, meanwhile, must climb up Everest, ill-equipped for the climate while dodging rock slides, avalanches and other land mines all along the way.

An Unasked Question About K-12 Reform:

That reformers don’t see this is one thing. That they don’t even ask the questions that they should about their reform endgame has been the real problem for years. For example, they don’t ask the simple question, “Will high-stakes testing and teacher effectiveness measures close the achievement gap and make it so that students regardless of race and family income will be well prepared after graduating high school for college or for workforce training?”

The answer to this, of course, is no. High-stakes testing cannot and will not close the achievement gap or lead to students graduating high school better prepared for college and the 21st century working world. Teachers and administrators will continue to devote more of their time and efforts to testing than to other aspects of their jobs, for fear of losing their jobs. Reformers will continue to use the mantra of testing to siphon those precious and limited taxpayer dollars out of state legislatures and school boards to cover the costs of test development and test-based teacher evaluations. And students attending the allegedly worst performing schools will continue to lose good teachers and move from school to school in search of the promise — but not the reality — of a quality K-12 education.

Reformers like Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp and Dr. Steve Perry (not to be confused with Journey’s lead singer) don’t ask this question. They are too busy procuring funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Lumina Foundation for Education, the Wallace Foundation and the US Department of Education to discuss the shape of their reform river. They are much more interested in proving a strong correlation between teacher effectiveness and student achievement via test scores, because they believe this is the way, truth and life for K-12 reform. And pretty soon, we will know that this correlation either doesn’t exist or is a weak one at best, under some rather ideal circumstances.

An Unasked Question About Higher Education Reform:

Futurama poster "A Mindless Worker Is A Happy Worker," August 23, 2013. (http://d3.ru)

Futurama poster “A Mindless Worker Is A Happy Worker,” August 23, 2013. (http://d3.ru)

For-profit institutions involved in online higher education do no better in asking fundamental questions about their endgame. University of Phoenix, Kaplan University and Capella University don’t ask, “Is an accelerated online college format that is highly dependent on underprepared first-generation college students, provides few or no academic support services and is heavily subsidized by federal student loans the best possible postsecondary education for these students?” Of course it isn’t. Over the past 20 years, these institutions have been too busy figuring out ways to increase the enrollment of low-income students to ask this question. They have been more interested in drawing in as much federal student loan aid as possible to cover the costs of student enrollment to ask whether they are providing the best services.

For those not-so-lucky students attending these institutions, they face a great distance between the promises of this new higher education regime and its brutal reality. For-profits promise an online education that is tailor-made for students’ job and career aspirations, one even more alluring because it is an allegedly convenient fit for the demands of any adult lifestyle. For-profits seem to be proud of the fact that fewer than 20 percent of their students complete a degree eight years after they first enroll in one of their courses. For those few students who do manage to complete a degree, many are finding that their narrowly focused degrees don’t match up with their career aspirations.

Irony and Shame:

The irony is that for-profit online higher education has all but moved away from testing at a time when the only thing that matters in K-12 education is testing, from a child’s first week in kindergarten to his or her last day of 12th grade. The ironic shame of it all is that reformers in both K-12 and higher education never ask the question of what we should expect at the end of the reforming rainbow. Their reform efforts are purely about making a profit, for themselves or for others. The rest of us, meanwhile, can’t wait for Superman, with reformers stealing his powers on both ends of the K-16 spectrum, and placing kryptonite for real reform at every turn.


I wrote all this months ago. Now, with President Barack Obama offering a formalized version of accountability for higher education institutions that connects market-relevant degrees and employment to college success, him and his administration are pushing the two-tiered agenda even further. Private elite colleges can easily opt out of this Race to the Top-esque rating system for higher education costs-to-employability ratios, and create their own measures around affordability, degree-attainment and career pathways. Or not, for that matter.

Public institutions — the ones tied most directly to US Department of Education funds — will have little choice but to go down this money-wasting path. One that in the end will do nothing for first-generation students, students of color, older students, heck, any student who comes from a humble background. “It’s a shame and a pitiful,” as my father would say.