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Schools as Reform Incubators

Summary and Keywords

From a comprehensive analysis of the extant educational literature on school change, it is evident that two activities are essential for the successful reform of schools in the United States. While the focus in this article will be on the programmatic shifts implemented in U.S. schools, the danger of exporting these same failed programs to other countries also will be noted. The first requirement is a systematic critique of the major school reform strategies that have been employed since the 1960s (e.g., the Effective Schools model, standardized testing and school accountability, the standards movement, privatization of schools, charter schools, and virtual/cyber schools). The major conclusion of this critique is that each of these reform strategies has done little to alter the connection between schooling and their production of labor for the maintenance of Western capitalism: beginning in the early 1970s an increasingly strong case has been made that the design and goal of U.S. schooling has been driven by the need to produce an endless supply of differentiated workers to sustain the U.S. economy. Moreover, while both equality and equity have entered the conversations about school reform during this period, it becomes evident that the relative position of both poor students and students of color, with respect to their more affluent White peers, has remained at best unchanged.

The second essential requirement is the exploration of an alternative vision for school reform that is grounded in a perspective of equity, both in schools and in the society. Beginning with the question “What would schools look like, and what would be the role of the teacher in a school that was committed to maximizing equity?” such an alternative vision is built on the concept of developing broadly informed students able to play both a thoughtful and active role in shaping the society in which they live, rather than be trained to fit into a society shaped by the interests of capital. From this exploration of the literature emerges a new role for both schools and teachers that repositions schooling as an incubator for social change, with equity as a primary goal. Also addressed is the importance of inequitable economic and public policies that work to systematically inhibit student learning. A key element in forging a successful transition to schools functioning as incubators for reform is the ability of preservice teacher preparation programs to graduate new teachers capable of doing this intellectual work, and for current classroom teachers to engage in professional development to achieve the same end What is clear from a reading of this literature is that without this re-visioning and subsequent reform of schooling, together with a reform of key public policies, we must face the high probability of the rapid implosion of the public school system and the inevitable escalation of class warfare in the United States.

Keywords: U.S. school reform, alternative reform strategies, capitalism and schools, communicative competence, public policy and student achievement, school as incubators for social change

Rethinking Recent Reform Initiatives

Since the inception of schools in the United States at the turn of the 20th century, there has been a continuing concern with improvement through reforms. Much of this early history has concerned reforms such as making schooling available to all children, not just those of the wealthy; expanding the number of years of schooling; providing equal access to girls and boys; developing textbooks; creating the comprehensive high school; and an increasing emphasis on science as a response to the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. In spite of all this activity, however, it is important to understand that schooling continued to bring the greatest rewards to middle- and upper-class White students, at the expense of the working class and students of color. For instance, U.S. schools had been segregated on the basis of race under the “separate but equal” legal provisions that were overturned by the Brown (1954) Supreme Court desegregation decision, but even after that, the change took several more years to implement in practice, especially in the South.

Since this early history has been so well explored (Cremin, 1990; Cubberley, 1919; Curti, 1959; Spring, 2001; Tyack, 1974), the focus here is on contemporary reforms, beginning in the 1960s with the Effective Schools model. The argument that will be developed is that regardless of the reforms adopted by U.S. schools since that time, and mirroring the pattern emerging from the earlier history of reforms, the impact of schooling on students has remained remarkably stable, especially with respect to the academic success and social mobility of students differentiated by race and social class.

The Effective Schools Model

The Effective Schools model grew out of a reaction to the normative thinking in the 1960s that argued that the key reason that working class and Black students didn’t do well academically was some form of individual shortcoming or deficiency. Schools were characterized as the major mechanism for self-improvement, and the Horatio Alger mythology was alive and well at this time, so failure to achieve was perceived as the fault of the individual rather than the school. It was during this decade that the concept of blaming the victim emerged, capped off by the work of Jensen (1969), who presented statistical data to argue that Blacks perform less well than Whites in school because they have lower IQs, which he attributed to their inferior gene pool. A variant of this popular deficit hypothesis argued that the lower measured IQs of Black students are due to inadequate or faulty family socialization: in this thinking, faulty was defined as different from that of the socialization received by middle-class White students (Kerber & Bommarito, 1965). The seminal study of schools by James Coleman and others (1966), known as the Coleman Report, also played a major role in supporting this thinking because one of the conclusions was that since majority Black and White schools received approximately equal funding, student background and socioeconomic status are most important in determining student performance in schools. The report also noted that differences in the measured quality of both types of schools and their teachers had only a small impact on student performance.

The school reform strategy that emerged from such a belief in the inferiority of large groups of students was called compensatory education. In short, it was argued, the genetically and/or socially inferior students require a different kind of education from that offered to their more gifted peers in order to compensate for the former’s deficiencies. Head Start is perhaps the best-known example of a program built on this assumption.

Ogbu (1978) has provided arguably the best counterpoint to this deficit thinking model by using a variety of U.S. and cross-national data. He systematically constructed a counterargument to demonstrate that the different school experiences of Black and White students, fueled by institutional and societal racism, better explain the gap in student achievement. Not addressed at this time was the direct interrelationship between the content of the curriculum and the demands of the corporate world for workers. The focus remained on the prospect of closing the gap in student achievement rather than on re-visioning the curriculum as well.

Again, it was during this period of blaming the victims of poor school performance for their problematics that the Effective Schools model emerged. The two basic assumptions of the researchers who developed this model were that (a) schools can indeed make a difference to student academic performance, and (b) all students are capable of mastering the essential curriculum of the school. These pioneering researchers set out to locate elementary schools that were successful in educating students of all backgrounds, independent of those two key factors noted by Coleman (namely, family background and socioeconomic status). Interestingly, when effective schools were found in a variety of locations, they shared some common policies and practices (Brookover, 1979; Brookover & Lezotte, 1979). Edmonds (1979) first formally identified what subsequently become known as the correlates of effective schools. He argued that all effective schools had the following five characteristics:

  1. 1. The leadership of the principal, notable for paying substantial attention to the quality of instruction

  2. 2. A pervasive and broadly understood instructional focus

  3. 3. An orderly, safe climate conducive to teaching and learning

  4. 4. Teacher behaviors that convey the expectation that all students are expected to obtain at least minimum mastery

  5. 5. Using measures of pupil achievement to evaluate the quality of programs

Reforms were subsequently crafted around enacting each of these characteristics in all schools. One clear problematic that emerged early on, however, was the fact that none of these five correlates was well defined: this gave rise to situations where two schools claimed to be committed to grounding their school reform in the Effective Schools model, but they were doing different things based on their local interpretations of what the five correlates were instructing them to do. Not surprisingly, the impact of this reform initiative has proved to be very uneven. Part of this unevenness is the direct result of growing expectations with respect to student achievement.

Other aspects of the Effective Schools movement have evolved over the years as well. As noted earlier, the initial definition of an effective school rested on the concept of producing equity among students from differing socioeconomic classes and races. Subsequently, as educators became concerned about equity among other key groups in the population, gender, ethnicity, disabilities, and family structure were added to the mix. Such scaling up placed an additional burden on teachers and schools to be effective. Moreover, while the initial focus was the equitable mastery by all students of the essential curriculum (essentially reading and mathematics), other curricular outcomes were added over time—namely, problem-solving ability, higher-order thinking, creativity, and communication skills.

Again, the outcome was a less focused reform strategy, which led to a less-than-satisfactory impact at the student level. As Ogbu (1978) so persuasively argued, much of the blame for the failure of this movement, as well as other reforms detailed later in this article, falls on the lack of commitment of teachers and administrators to achieving correlate number four. He argued, for example, that teachers and administrators hold on to deeply socialized ideas concerning the limited intellectual ability of working-class students and students of color, and such lowered expectations, fueled by the normative assumptions that blame victims for their own poor school performance, inhibit teachers and administrators from doing all that they can to realize equity in achievement in their school.

Research suggests that a number of other key factors are at work in schools, which also function to limit the effectiveness of this initially promising innovation (Cuban, 1990; Elmore, 1996; Fullan, 2007; Pink & Hyde, 1992; Pink & Noblit, 2005; Tyack & Cuban, 1995). These factors were certainly in play with the implementation of the Effective Schools model, and they also function to limit the effectiveness of other reforms, as detailed in subsequent sections. The following eight factors are presented here, in no particular order:

  • There is lack of fidelity to the major components of the reform; that is, teachers were frequently found to be less than faithful to the five correlates shaped by the original research in classrooms. The result was a series of variants of the original model, which in too many cases produced less than the hoped-for gains in student academic performance.

  • Schools are frequently required by their superintendent, central office staff, or principal to implement the latest reforms. Faddism often drives change in schools. Ever eager to show parents positive student achievement in order to continue good public relations in their districts, superintendents and other decision-makers all too frequently champion a new, cutting-edge reform to demonstrate their knowledge of current research. Typically, of course, this means that last year’s reform receives less attention as the new reform is introduced. Consequently, this oft-repeated pattern of short-cycle reforms means that a reform is rarely experienced in its mature form. As noted previously, fidelity is often compromised when teachers anticipate that the current reform initiative is likely to be replaced by another in the next school year.

  • There is a lack of commitment for the reform by teachers, school administrators, or central office staff. Research results make clear that a reform is much more likely to succeed when teachers, administrators, and office staff all endorse it and work to implement it consistently. In this context, commitment includes money, human resources, and long-term support. When one or more of these is missing, a reform is frequently doomed to failure.

  • There is too little investment in the professional development of teachers, both before and during the implementation of the reform. Investment, here, is defined in terms of both time and money. A reform such as the Effective Schools model requires both a fundamental change in the beliefs and practices of classroom teachers and a change in the basic organizational principles of the school. Such changes are difficult to effect, and they certainly cannot be achieved overnight; telling teachers what to do has proved less successful as a change strategy than assisting teachers, over time, to learn new practices. Without extended attention to this difficult intellectual work, studies suggest that the reform is frequently compromised, resulting, in turn, in only limited impact on student academic performance.

  • The teacher role is not adjusted as a reform is implemented in the school. Research shows that too often, the required professional development that accompanies the implementation of a new reform not only is inadequate and too short in duration, but is frequently offered before or after school hours or during the summer prior to the opening of the school year. In this model, professional development is conceptualized as an add-on to the regular load of teachers; a far better strategy is to include this important professional development activity across the academic year and as part of the regular school day of a teacher. By reframing the teacher’s workday to include the twin intellectual tasks of critical reflection on their teaching and designing a curriculum tailored to their students, which will require them to do less classroom teaching, teachers will be empowered to assume the central role in the implementation of the reform initiative. Thus, by raising the importance of professional development in this way, teachers will become progressively more committed to the reform and can receive important feedback about their classroom performance as they try new practices required by the reform initiative.

  • In order to enhance their reputation in a district, some schools will adopt several reforms at the same time. Coined as “Christmas Tree Schools,” these schools tell parents that several reforms are clearly better than one, and this multireform activity will have a positive impact on their students’ academic performance. However, research suggests that the opposite is true: not only are teachers overwhelmed with too many innovations to attend to at the same time (to say nothing of the limitations of the current system of professional development to address several agendas at the same time), but also the requirements of the various reforms compete with each other for attention in many cases. A better strategy would appear to be to focus on fewer and compatible reforms and do them well.

  • Too many reforms are initiated at the district level, thus ignoring the importance of each school’s culture. The error here is in thinking that a one-size-fits-all strategy is appropriate for implementing school-level reforms. Evidence suggests that reforms, especially the Effective Schools model, require a custom fit. Just as you would visit a tailor to cut and fit a suit to your body, we should implement a reform by making it conform to the specific context and the various actors in that particular school. All schools are not the same, so it is important to understand what it will take at the individual school level to maximize the impact of a new reform. This is especially important with respect to the number and variety of students in the school, the parent body, and the specific professional development requirements of the teachers. Thinking that the same level of support and resources must be given to each school in a district, a theory supported by a wrongheaded interpretation of equality or fair play, too frequently leads to an ineffective implementation strategy. In short, seeing all schools in the district as the same limits the effectiveness of the reform, especially in schools that require more support to implement the reform successfully.

  • Viewing school reform as the key lever for raising student achievement is a conceptually flawed strategy. Much research (which will be discussed later in this article) has made the case that no school-level reform can, by itself, improve the academic performance of students, especially for working-class students and students of color. The argument made is that several economic and public policies maintain an inequality in the wider society that school reforms cannot overcome. From this perspective, it is inevitable that school reforms such as the Effective Schools model would have less impact on student academic performance than was hoped for.

Again, then, in retrospect, it becomes clear why the Effective Schools model was adopted by many schools in the United States, as well as why it failed to have a significant impact on closing the gap in student achievement between students differentiated by class and race. While some have argued that this failure to close the achievement gap is a direct function of the limited intellectual ability of those low-achieving students, a position that pathologizes groups of students as deficient compared to their White middle-class peers (Herrnstein, 1996), others have argued that the failure of these same programs to close the gap is a function of poor program implementation and the existence of federal and state polices that sustain inequities in the society (Anyon, 2005; Marsh, 2011; Ogbu, 1978; Pink, 2012). The evidence shows that when one or more of the eight factors listed here was in play, the effectiveness of this reform was limited. As enthusiasm for the Effective Schools model waned and the focus shifted to a concern over greater accountability in schools for student achievement, a new reform, standardized testing, emerged.

Standardized Tests and School Accountability

Standardized testing has its origin in the United States with the development of tests by the military to place men in a variety of roles. The best-known of these were the Alpha and Beta tests in the U.S. army; it is interesting to note that even these early tests differentiated between working- and middle-class men (Gould, 1982). In 1959, a standardized test named the American College Test (ACT) was introduced as a tool to select those most qualified to attend U.S. universities. Later, in the 1970s, states began to use standardized tests, and in the 1980s, the United States began to assess students on a national basis. The argument was made at that time that the federal government needed to make meaningful comparisons across the highly decentralized (i.e., locally controlled) public education system; in the United States, education is the responsibility of each state, which has resulted in significant differences in both educational opportunity and outcomes across the country.

This variability was first addressed by the federal government’s mandate requiring standardized testing that was contained in the groundbreaking Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Later, in 2001, the George W. Bush initiative known as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act coupled public school funding directly to standardized testing. The goals of NCLB were to improve the quality of education provided in each state, to hold both schools and teachers accountable for student achievement, and attempt to close the measured educational gap between minority and nonminority students. Thus, students’ results on standardized tests were used to allocate funds and other resources, such as teachers and administrators, to schools. While the idea of such accountability is sound, the implementation of the program suffered because of a lack of full funding: schools that did not show sufficient annual growth, for example, were in line to receive funds to assist them to reach that goal in subsequent years. Due to underfunding of the act, no such support for local school improvement was manifest. Beyond the continuing debate about the validity and inherent cultural bias built into standardized tests used in U.S. schools (Ravitch, 1985, 2010; Ayers, 1993), the following factors surfaced that showed the limitations of such testing as a reform strategy for improving student achievement (Hamilton, Stecher, Marsh, Sloan McCombs, & Robyn, 2007; Kohn, 2000; Graves, 2002; Peterson & West, 2003; Popham, 1999; Ravitch, 2010; Sorotnik, 2004):

  • Tests covered only the basic subject fields. Not only did other important areas remain untested (e.g., arts, athletics, performance, and public speaking), but over time, they received less attention in the curriculum. In short, what was tested became the primary focus of instruction.

  • The narrowing of the curriculum to focus only on tested material distorted the view of what it meant to be an educated person. The major concern that emerged was the loss of attention to factors such as citizenship and both moral and social development. Along with this concern about a limited curriculum was the view that this curriculum was driven by the needs of business and commerce, rather than the need to develop a broadly educated citizenry. In short, the critique was that economic interests were trumping the educational needs for the reform of schools.

  • Contrary to the pro-testing rhetoric, a standardized test measures more than school learning. It is argued that the test also measures what has been learned by the student outside school, and that this body of knowledge is considerably enhanced by membership in the middle class. By contrast, it is argued, working class students and students of color do not have the same access to the information on the standardized tests as their middle-class peers. Thus, the question is, if these standardized tests measure more than what is learned in school, how can they be used to hold teachers and schools accountable for the learning of their students?

  • The format of the test (e.g., fill-in-the-bubble and short-answer questions) favors memorization rather than learning or learning potential. According to this argument, providing “correct” answers on demand is very different from understanding, interpretation, or using the information in question. Again, such an emphasis distorts the major goal of education, which is to develop the critical-thinking skills of all students.

  • Standardized tests have quickly become vital because they are used to differentiate and rank students, teachers, and schools. Rather than provide useful feedback on what students have learned and in what areas students need additional work or remediation, these test scores are used both to sort students (via ability grouping in K–8 schools and tracking in high schools) and to determine teacher remuneration (by many school districts). Moreover, the development of disseminated League Tables for schools in a district is also based on these test scores; this is seen as a misuse of the initial intent of the tests, and it also is prone to misinterpretation because such a ranking fails to take into account the diversity and stability of students attending each school.

  • The increasing pressures placed on teachers as a result of the emphasis on this high-stakes testing is driving teachers from the profession. Because they feel like they are facing an unrealistic pressure to raise student achievement, without equal attention to other factors affecting student learning that are outside the influence of teachers (e.g., poverty), experienced teachers are leaving the profession. Not only that, but in many urban districts, these veteran teachers are being replaced by inexperienced teachers, many of whom have been recruited through alternative teacher education programs such as Teach For America (TFA). TFA teachers are typically recruited from top-flight universities and are given their own classrooms after they receive a summer orientation to teaching, and they subsequently work on an alternative teaching certificate while teaching full time. This development is seen as problematic because students attending urban schools are the most in need of experienced teachers. The TFA model focuses on putting the so-called best and brightest into urban classrooms with the goal to raise the achievement (as measured by standardized tests) of those students currently underachieving in urban schools. Yet these TFA teachers, while for the most part well meaning and enthusiastic, have little if any prior teaching experience and typically leave the profession after a year or so. As a result of this limitation, the role of teacher becomes further deprofessionalized, as these inexperienced teachers are counseled to rely heavily on prescripted instructional and curriculum guides.

  • The emphasis on high-stakes testing also raises students’ stress levels. Research has demonstrated how raising the stress of students, especially working-class students and students of color, is detrimental to their learning in school. In short, the increasing use of testing in schools appears to be inhibiting rather than enhancing learning for students.

  • Failing standardized tests, attending a school that is labeled as failing, or both work to lower the self-esteem of students, which in turn functions to inhibit the subsequent learning of these students. The evidence is clear that working to raise the self-esteem of urban students by countering the normative “stereotype threat” improves student achievement on tests and in school. It is argued that any test data should be used to assess student learning and plan future instruction, rather than be used to shame teachers and label schools as ineffective.

  • Teaching to the test, via a narrowing of the curriculum and devoting large blocks of instructional time to test practice, has changed the traditional teacher-student relationship. Teachers have turned away from project and group work and higher-order thinking activities to focus on memorization and drills around the so-called correct answers to items on the test. The imposition of standardized testing on U.S. schools, together with the additional standardized tests required by each state, appears to have had a profound negative impact on the school experience of both students and teachers.

  • As a direct result of the increasing importance placed on success on the high-stakes tests by the federal government, states, and school districts, there has been an increasing number of reports of teachers and administrators cheating when managing and reporting their standardized test scores. Cheating practices have ranged from preventing students expected to score poorly from even taking the test, to providing individual test questions to students in advance, to altering students’ responses prior to submitting the tests for scoring. In more than one U.S. city, teachers and administrators have been taken to court as a result of their mismanagement of test papers. This activity shows not only the pressure that teachers and administrators are under to show academic gains in their school, but it also shows how reliance on limited test data provides a distorted view of the learning being achieved by students.

While it is evident that there is merit to using standardized tests to measure what students have learned in school, it is also clear that it is misguided to assume that all students will progress at the same rate given the same instruction. An instructional year often covers less material in an urban school than a more affluent suburban school. The major flaw in the belief that using a standardized test as a single metric for holding schools accountable for student learning is that it ignores the existence of individual school cultures. Again, all schools are not the same, so we cannot assume that all things are equal from one to another. While required standardized testing was the centerpiece of the NCLB legislation, and it can certainly be argued that this strategy changed the way that schooling was done, it is all too clear that it was an ineffective reform initiative for schools, especially for working class students and students of color.

The Standards and Accountability Movement

Beginning in the 1990s, and going somewhat hand in glove with the development of standardized testing, was the birth of what has become known as the standards and accountability movement (Butrymowicz, 2013; Conley, 2014; Hess & McShane, 2013; Kober & Rentner, 2011; Ravitch, 2010, 2013). This reform strategy began in the United States as a state initiative to raise standards in all schools by developing a single set of learning standards that detailed what students were expected to know and to be able to do at each grade level, and also develop a complimentary set of assessment instruments designed to measure whether students were meeting these standards. To spearhead this reform, the nation’s governors and corporate leaders founded Achieve, Inc., in 1996 as a bipartisan organization to raise academic standards and graduation requirements, improve assessments, and strengthen accountability in all 50 states. The standardized testing movement discussed previously was directly connected to this focus on raising standards via the desire for greater accountability in U.S. schools. Much work was done to develop these core learning standards, involving input from both the public and scholars in a variety of disciplines.

The stated goal of this effort was to design a set of standards that was both robust and relevant to the real world. A subtext was to highlight what knowledge and skills students need for subsequent success in college and the world of work, while better positioning the United States to regain a competitive edge in the developing global economy. Since by law, the federal government is prevented from mandating a curriculum for schools throughout the entire country, any curriculum that is developed nationally must be adopted voluntarily at the local level. In 2010, with the endorsement of both the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, standards were released for mathematics and English: somewhat later, standards were released for science and social studies. A majority of states adopted the standards in the subsequent months.

This initiative was given a federal incentive when regulations were issued by the Obama administration for the grants program termed “Race to the Top.” To be eligible to receive an award, states had to adopt internationally benchmarked standards, along with assessments, that prepare students for success in college and the workplace. While it must be noted that states could adopt other college- and career-ready standards and still be eligible, they were awarded extra points in their Race to the Top applications if they adopted the Common Core Standards: 41 states promised to do so in their application.

As with the other reform initiatives detailed earlier in this article, these Common Core State Standards have received both praise and criticism from both educators and politicians. What cannot be overlooked, however, is that these standards only outline what students should know at each grade level and describe the skills that they must acquire in order to achieve college or career readiness. It remains the responsibility of individual school districts to develop the specific curricula based on the standards. As a result of this open-ended nature, there have emerged a number of problematics with the Common Core Standards initiative that have diluted its impact as a reform strategy for U.S. schools:

  • The Common Core Standards and the best way to measure student attainment are two different subjects. Currently, there is much debate about the appropriate strategy for assessing student attainment, with the central concern being that machine-scored, standardized tests are simply inadequate to measure the depth of student understanding of complex ideas that are suggested by the standards. It is evident that without appropriate and strong assessment tools, states will be unable to measure the impact of the new Common Core Standards after implementation. To date, such assessment tools have yet to be adopted by the states.

  • The Common Core Standards are seen by some to be nothing short of an attempt by the federal government to impose a national curriculum. Several states have recently dropped their previous adoption of the Common Core Standards in favor of developing their own. Such defections, of course, reduce the power of the reform initiative to expose all students to the same standards, regardless of the district or state in which they attend school. Without such a universal adoption by the states, the name “Common Core Standards” becomes something of a misnomer.

  • The adoption of the Common Core is seen by some as further deprofessionalizing the lives of teachers. It is argued, for example, that imposing a single standard on teachers reinforces a one-size-fits-all curriculum that disregards the key role that individual teachers play in developing pedagogy and curriculum content that address the different needs of students reflected in the range of cultural differences found in schools across the United States (e.g., culturally responsive pedagogy was developed to address such student differences). There is also the concern that these standards champion rote learning over deep knowledge and creativity; again, this focus on surface learning reduces teaching to simply transmitting facts developed by outside so-called experts and detailed in curriculum guides. Missing in this push to adopt a common core (which some say is by design) is an acknowledgment of the importance of the teacher’s ability to craft experiences that suit the learning styles of their students. In short, the experience, art, and craft of teachers are replaced by teacher-proofed curriculum guides.

  • Prior to their adoption, the Common Core Standards have not been subjected to any field testing. The primary concern here, of course, is that there is no evidence that when they are implemented in schools, they will improve student learning in general or close the achievement gap between different groups. Moreover, little attention has been paid to the costs of implementing the change from the curriculum already in place. Many have suggested, for example, that putting the new standards in place also will require a significant investment in new tests, which will be very difficult to develop in a period of reduced spending for schools. Again, as states respond to these perceived additional costs (in the majority of cases by opting out of the proposed evaluation strategy in order to devise their own tests), this defeats the original intent of the Common Core Standards program, which was to create uniformity and permit cross-state academic comparisons.

  • Following adoption of the Common Core Standards, states have given insufficient consideration to the level of support required to mount the successful implementation of a reform of this magnitude. The two most overlooked factors have been the problem of developing a rich curriculum that can address the expanded scope of the new standards, and the limited number of teachers sufficiently well prepared in the their subject fields to deliver the new curriculum without extensive professional development. In short, there is a disconnect between the conceptual basis of the curriculum demanded by the Common Core Standards and the normative practices of the majority of teachers. It is argued, therefore, that without a significant investment by states in curriculum development and teacher education—an investment that has not been made to date—viewing the Common Core Standards initiative as a major reform strategy for schools is myopic at best.

Clearly, there is merit in crafting a common core that all students should be exposed to wherever they attend school. Those interested in equity for students from different groups, for example, are particularly supportive of such efforts to equalize the schooling experience for all students. Many problems surfaced in the United States, however, because education remains the responsibility of the states, not the federal government. Without the ability to mandate the content of the curriculum, the federal government has limited power in the area of education. As states have exercised their right to shape their own educational policy and practices, this in turn has served to weaken the potential of the Common Core Standards initiative to function as a major reform strategy for the nation’s schools. Again, a reform strategy with the potential to make a real difference in the lives of both students and teachers has failed to live up to the promise suggested in the original conception of the model.

Charter Schools and the Privatization of Schooling

Al Shanker, the longtime activist and leader of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), is credited with first proposing the concept of charter schools, in the late 1980s, under the name of “small schools.” His vision for schools was grounded in the progressive movement, with the goal for the schools to be experimental and free of the bureaucracy that limited public schools at the time. Sometime later, however, he began to argue against the proliferation of charter schools, which he saw as becoming coopted by business interests for profit while promoting an antiunion agenda. Minnesota became the first state to pass a charter school law in 1991, with California following close behind in 1992. As of 2015, 43 states and the District of Columbia have enacted charter school laws: 26 states and the District of Columbia have some type of limits, or caps, on charter schools.

The recent expansion of charter schools, together with the development of privatized interests in schools as profit centers, represents the most significant contemporary reform strategy for education in the United States. Charter schools, designed as an alternative to public schools, are subject to fewer rules, regulations, and statutes than regular state schools and typically receive a fixed amount per pupil, at a level under that of state schools. There are both nonprofit and for-profit charter schools: only nonprofit charters are permitted to receive donations from private sources. It has been estimated that there were around 6,500 charter schools in operation in the 2013–2014 school year, serving 2.5 million students. These alternative charter schools offer a variety of programs. Some provide a specialized curriculum (e.g., arts, health care, or vocational training), while others directly advertise that their primary aim is to deliver a better education than the regular public schools. While parental choice is central to the goal of charter schools, many use a range of selection criteria, and some use an open lottery system to select their students.

Charters have been founded by teachers, parents, and activists (each school needs to be approved by an authorizing agent), as well as both for-profit and not-for-profit groups, and universities. In many cities such as Chicago and New York corporations, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and Success Academy Charter Schools (enjoying support from sponsors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation), have also opened charter schools. It is argued that the problem with this rapid rise of venture philanthropy intervention in the development of alternative schools means that private money and interests are driving both the content and organization of schools. In sum, the needs of corporate America are trumping the needs of students.

The charter school model has come under fire from a number of groups (e.g., parents, local school boards, state educational agencies, unions, and academics) who point out that charter schools are designed to compete with the public schools for students, and in so doing, they undermine both the goals and funding of the public school model of education (Carnoy, Jacobsen, Mishel, & Rothstein, 2005; CREDO, 2013; Davidson, Reback, Rockoff, & Schwartz, 2015; Noblit & Pink, 2016; Pink, 2012; Ravitch, 2010, 2013; Sass, 2006; Rotberg, 2014; Silverman, 2013; Welch, 2011).

While we must acknowledge that there is great variability among charter schools, there is a growing consensus that the current blueprint in use is conceptually flawed and that the proliferation of charter schools is causing real damage to the traditional system of public education in the United States. Again, what follows are a series of problematics with charter schools that function to limit the effectiveness of this reform strategy as an initiative to raise student achievement and to close the achievement gap between different student groups attending those schools.

  • Data from the most recent and comprehensive study of charter schools in the United States (CREDO, 2013) show mixed results and certainly do not support the enthusiasm shown for the model as the reform initiative to raise student achievement or regain the dominance of the United States in the global economy. The study notes that in each subgroup of students’ scores in both reading and mathematics, the two subject areas required in the NCLB legislation, ranged from outstanding to dismal. It is reported that White students fare worse, on average, in charter schools than their matched peers attending the local public schools in both reading and math, while Asian charter school students recorded lower growth in math. The most impressive impact of charter schools was on the achievement gains of poor students and students of color, where charter school students outperformed their peers in the public schools. It must be noted, however, that while the learning gains of poor students and students of color attending charter schools are greater than those recorded by their peers attending the local public schools, these gains still do nothing to close the gap between these students and their White and nonpoor peers who attend either type of school. This is an important finding because in several states, the language of the legislation for charter schools explicitly states that these alternative schools should address social justice goals, especially closing the achievement gap between White students and students of color. Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the relative success of charter schools is best seen by the data displayed in Table 1 (CREDO, 2013, p. 86).

Table 1: Performance of Charter Schools Compared to Their Local Markets in 27 U.S. States


Worse Growth

No Difference

Better Growth









In sum, in approximately 75% of the time on average, charters do no better academically in the areas of reading and mathematics than the local public schools. This finding takes on even more significance when another study finding is added—namely, that there is a large variability in the effectiveness of charter schools in a state-by-state analysis. Charters are built on the premise of increasing accountability and lifting the bureaucratic requirements mandated for public schools. The model argues that consequently, they will outperform public schools. These state-level evaluation data suggest, by contrast, that currently not all charter school students are making achievement gains equal to their state average, which in turn brings into question the efficacy of the charter school model to close the achievement gap between different student groups.

  • Cost-cutting charter school programs (e.g., KIPP and Rocketship) are problematic because they offer a limited educational experience to poor students and students of color. Such programs narrow the curriculum, with an overemphasis on reading and mathematics and a focus on test preparation; they are disproportionally staffed with inexperienced teachers with limited certifications (frequently recruited from nontraditional programs such as TFA and City Year); and they emphasize a zero-tolerance or no-excuses discipline policy, which frequently results in so-called problem students being dismissed from the program and returning to the public schools. Not only are such charters seen as profit centers by their governing boards, but this basic educational focus is promoted in order to demonstrate competitive academic gains vis-à-vis the public school system.

  • Charter schools frequently discourage students considered higher risk from attending, which means that there is a lower proportion of special needs, English as a Second Language (ESL), and lower-performing students than in the regular public schools. Restricting the number of these students, either during the application process or later, by pushing them out of the school (as noted previously), works to elevate the achievement scores that can be reported by each school. It is argued that these manipulative practices call into question the veracity of the achievement data released by the charter schools.

  • There is a reported lack of transparency and accountability for charter schools as well. Most common is an unwillingness to report the salaries of teachers and administrators and account for all the expenditures made by the school (which are required by law for public schools). In several states, legal action has been taken to require charter schools to make this information public. The most frequently voiced defense is that charter schools should be viewed as private entities, not public institutions. It should be noted, however, that in more than one state, charter school operators have been indicted for misappropriation of funds for noneducational use (e.g., purchasing luxury cars, eating at first-class restaurants, and buying top-of-the-line cell phones). Such a lack of transparency takes on a greater significance with respect to the potential for informed parental decision-making. Parents with underperforming students attending urban public schools need more, not less, information on which to base their decision to move their children from the public schools to a charter school.

  • Innovation in learning is not the norm in charter schools. In practice, programs are shaped by the need to show academic progress in a narrowly defined curriculum, and instruction is frequently focused on rote memorization of test items. It is argued that such a focus is not in the best interests of students either academically, socially, or psychologically, especially with poor students and students of color, who typically do not have the home resources to provide supplemental experiences outside school. For example, smaller charter schools, the majority of which serve far fewer than 1,000 students, cannot offer the range of options available at larger schools (e.g., advanced placement courses, theater, band, sports, and other activities).

  • The well-documented limitations of urban public school districts has made them the target for entrepreneurs who see the creation of a charter school as a profit center. As students move from a public school to a charter school, they take with them a large proportion of the dollars allocated by the state for each student, which in turn reduces the monies available to the entire district. The net result is a budget crisis for the public schools at a time when states are trying to find ways to defund education. For instance, in Chicago, where charter schools are fully endorsed by the mayor, this has resulted in a strange situation where charter schools are expanding while more than 50 public schools are slated by the mayor to be closed.

The biggest systemwide shift to charters was undertaken in New Orleans in the aftermath of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Here, the legislature turned over 80% of the 126 schools in the district to the newly formed Louisiana Recovery School District, which immediately set about opening charter schools. The initial evaluation of these schools surfaced a number of problem practices involving aggressive selection and dismissal criteria, which raised serious concerns about the effectiveness of these schools compared to matched public schools. As a result of these findings, there is a strong case to be made that charter schools, whether by design or not, wind up undermining both the founding ideals and the effectiveness of the public school model.

  • Charter schools appear to be contributing to a resegregation of students. Recent evidence suggests that only one-quarter of the schools can be considered integrated, while the remaining 75% are segregated as predominantly White, Black, or Hispanic. This outcome is especially troublesome because again, much of the legislative language authorizing charter schools emphasizes the importance of addressing social justice issues. Research is clear that segregating students by factors such as their social class, race, ethnicity, and prior academic achievement cannot create learning settings that are optimal for maximizing their learning and social development.

  • Charter schools, especially those that are franchised and for-profit operations, are frequently managed by education management organizations (EMOs) that have corporate headquarters out of state. This means that educational decisions are often made out of state, and from a one-size-fits-all corporate perspective that views schools as cost centers. These schools have nonelected boards, and teachers are employed by the EMOs rather than the state (which typically results in teacher hires who are less experienced and lower paid than teachers in public schools). It is estimated that by the 2015–2016 school year, more than half of all students enrolled in charter schools will attend privately operated institutions.

  • The charter school model is based on the concept of “choice,” but at the present time, this choice is extremely limited. Evidence suggests that charter schools are not the reform model to raise student achievement generally and close the achievement gaps among groups of students (as previously noted). Creativity is lacking in these schools because the emphasis is on showing gains on standardized tests. In addition, especially in urban schools where the need is highest, there is a lack of a teaching cadre that has both strong preparation and experience, as there is in charter schools. Since charters are exempt from many state regulations and their teachers are not members of a union, they can pay teachers less than their peers in the public school system. This typically results in the recruitment of less experienced and more transient teachers, but this fact is usually downplayed when parents are encouraged to choose a charter over a public school. Typically, the focus is on the promise to raise achievement rather than providing better instruction.

  • Charter school advocates note that in many states, the cost per student received from the state is less than that received by the public schools, which they argue demonstrates that charters are a more cost-effective schooling option. Evidence suggests, by contrast, that while the average payment per student from the state may be lower than the payment to public schools, many charters supplement these payments with corporate and/or donated funds and pay their teachers less than their peers in public schools. The net result is that the actual cost per student is frequently higher in these charter schools than in the public schools.

While it began as a promising reform strategy, it is evident that the charter school model has proved to be unsuccessful in raising school achievement in general, and closing the achievement gap between student groups in particular. From the original conception detailed by Al Shanker of an alternative progressive school created by teachers interested in new and innovative pedagogical practices, the current model focuses on a limited, often prescribed curriculum with an emphasis on test scores. Moreover, rather than teachers taking the initiative for instruction and governance, both have been taken over by corporate interests, which in turn have functioned to deprofessionalize teachers. In sum, given the range of problematics detailed here, it is clear that the charter school model is not the school reform strategy that many were touting it to be.

Virtual/Cyber Schools

The most recent reform model to be developed in the United States is virtual or cyber schools. These are publically funded schools of choice, are not “brick and mortar” like public schools, and use telecommunications to deliver instruction to students via the Internet. Students work independently wherever they chose to log on and work at their own pace. Currently, there are approximately 200 online charter schools that enroll more than 200,000 students from elementary up through high school. These virtual schools are modeled after the long-standing concept of the correspondence school, which used the U.S. mail service to connect students and teachers and sometime supplemented this instruction with specially designed television broadcasts.

The case is frequently made that virtual schools are designed to serve those who, for a variety of reasons, cannot attend regular schools. However, evidence suggests that the majority of students enrolled in them reflect a high proportion of students who have failed or dropped out of regular public schools. Contributing to this rise in online alternatives to the public school system has been the growing homeschool movement, in which parents opt out of the public schools to educate their own children, while preparing them to progress through the state approved K–12 curriculum and take high school equivalency examinations. While virtual schools are relatively new, most of the growth has taken place in the last 10 years. Detractors note the high start-up costs associated with the schools, and the differential access both to computers and the Internet between poor students and students of color and their more affluent peers (Cavanaugh, 2004; CREDO, 2015; Miron & Urschel, 2012; Visser, 2012).

Another concern has been the difficulties with these schools obtaining accreditation. This is a very important concern for students wishing to obtain a high school diploma and to get higher education. In addition to these concerns, a recent study of virtual schools in the 17 states and the District of Columbia in which they currently operate reported some serious shortcomings compared to matched public schools (CREDO, 2015). Among their findings were the following:

  • More than two-thirds of virtual schools had poorer student achievement growth in reading and mathematics compared with matched students attending public schools. This difference was more significant in mathematics, where fully 88% of the virtual school students performed more poorly than their peers in the public schools.

  • Students attending virtual schools achieved, on average, the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in mathematics and 72 fewer days of learning in reading than their peers attending the public schools. This translates into the loss of a year in mathematics and approximately half a year in reading over the time that they are enrolled in the program.

  • Virtual schools were described as having high student-to-teacher ratios (on average, more than twice the ratio in public schools), low student engagement (students appear to be easily distractible when working from home or in public spaces such as libraries), and high student mobility (students frequently failed to keep going to the school over time). The concern here, of course, is that students who require an alternative learning environment to the public schools often need more intensive contact with a teacher, rather than less. The current virtual school model in place appears to be conceptually unable to deliver this greater teacher contact with students.

  • Virtual schools were found to offer very limited live contact with teachers (students enrolled in virtual schools had on average less contact with teachers in a week than their peers in public schools received in a day), and to rely on the students’ families to provide assistance and support for learning. This is seen as problematic because not all families have the ability and resources to provide such instructional support. Virtual schools were also found wanting because they did not provide families with any instruction or support to provide the needed assistance for students, despite projecting high expectations for such family support.

  • Virtual schools were found to be less sensitive to the problematics emerging with respect to the required oversight for factors such as funding, enrollment, student-teacher contact, evaluation, and statewide policy development. The CREDO study, for example, notes how the administration of these various programs have been slow to address these shortcomings, which are important factors that limit program effectiveness. A good example is K12 Inc., a for-profit corporation associated with William Bennett, who was U.S. Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan. This corporation sells schooling and curriculum both in the United States and internationally; it also manages state-funded virtual schools in 29 states and sells curricula for elementary, middle, and high schools. A New York Times investigation suggests that the corporation is driven by the profit motive, which is characterized by a focus on raising enrollments, increasing teacher workloads, and lowering academic standards (Saul, 2011).

It is evident that virtual schools cannot be considered a viable reform for improving student achievement in general, and that of students of color in particular. It was reported that White students were overrepresented in virtual schools, comprising 71% of the enrollment, while Hispanic students (12% of the enrollment) and ESL students (just 0.4%) were underrepresented. Moreover, in 13 of the 17 states with virtual schools, students recorded poorer achievement gains in reading than their matched peers. In only two states, Georgia and Wisconsin, students recorded better scores than their peers in reading. By contrast, no students from any state recorded better scores in mathematics.

So, which, if any, of these major school reform initiatives mounted over the last 50 or so years should be considered the reform model for improving the achievement of all students and for closing the achievement gap between groups of students? The only conclusion supported by the data is “None of them.” Again, while each of the reform initiatives detailed here (the Effective Schools model, standardized testing and school accountability, the Standards movement, charter schools and the privatization of schooling, and virtual/cyber schools) has had an impact on schooling in the United States, none of them has successfully resolved the long-lasting problem with improving student achievement or addressed the need to decouple schooling from the demands of the U.S. economic system. Rather, the evidence shows that there remains a gap in student achievement based on factors such as social class and race, and that in recent years, the average achievement of U.S. students has been falling further behind that of their international peers. Given the disappointing track record for each of these reform models, it is difficult to understand their appeal to other countries interested in reforming their own schooling systems. Moreover, given the serial failure of these reforms in the United States, we need to look elsewhere for a reform strategy that can reestablish the importance of schools in the lives of students, raise student achievement, and develop active, civic-minded individuals committed to and capable of playing a significant role in shaping the world in which they live. In short, we need to conceptualize schools as incubators for reform and to turn to a different literature to inform this alternative model.

The School as an Incubator for Reform

The focus on the persistent underperformance of students in U.S. schools has recently been shifted away from arguments grounded in perceiving students as responsible for their own poor performance, a perspective noted earlier as blaming the victim and pathologizing difference, to a broader systemic perspective that notes (a) how schools themselves create and sustain winners and losers (based on factors such as class and race), and (b) how a range of social factors outside of schools work to systematically inhibit student learning in school (Anyon, 2005; Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Fabricant & Fine, 2013; Marsh, 2011; Noblit & Pink, 2016; Pink & Noblit, 2005; Ravitch, 2010; Reich, 2015; Willis, 1977). In successfully linking student achievement to poverty, two important implications can be drawn. First, and contrary to assumptions that schools are a route out of poverty, data demonstrate that schooling does not promote social mobility, especially for those located on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. This finding is fully consistent with the conclusion illustrated previously that no school reform intervention mounted in the last 50 or so years has functioned to enhance the ability of schools to promote greater social mobility. In sum, schools are not the hoped-for policy lever for reducing or eliminating poverty. The second important implication is that until poverty can be greatly reduced or eliminated we cannot expect higher rates of student achievement. This is an important insight because it reverses the conventional wisdom of thinking that school reform is simply a matter of reforming schools, arguing rather that poverty must be addressed by altering macroeconomic and public policies that currently are in place in the United States.

Marsh (2011) demonstrated the actual intergenerational movement of individuals from the quintile designating their family income. He reported that 42% of students with parents located in the bottom quintile remain there, and only 6% find their way into the top quintile. While the optimist would focus on the 6%, arguing that this shows that the U.S. system supports social mobility, the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of the 58% who moved out of the bottom quintile didn’t move further than the next two quintiles. The picture from the top quintile is much the same. While 9% drop down to the bottom quintile, fully 62% remain in the top two quintiles. These data suggest that it is inaccurate to argue that poverty is the direct result of individual limitations. Rather, it is more accurate to see poverty as an accident of birth with respect to the economic quintile that each individual is born into. Reich (2015) picks up on this theme of income inequality by noting that the achievement gap between student groups is currently widening because of the difference in the quality of education received by poor and wealthy families. As housing segregation has grown based on income, the property taxes supporting schools have become more disproportionate. The estimate currently is that the per-student funding in wealthy districts is approximately twice that of poorer districts. It should come as no surprise that the wealthy districts can employ the most experienced teachers, occupy the most up-to-date facilities, have lower student-teacher ratios, and enjoy the most current instructional materials including technology, which in turn translates into higher achievement scores. He argues that as a direct result of such diverse educational experiences, together with the general advantages that come with a higher position on the economic ladder, the general lack of social mobility outlined here is maintained in the U.S. society.

The reality of growing income inequality in the United States, coupled with the consistent inability of school reforms to produce school improvement, has been ignored in the recent focus by those on the right politically, who have supported the privatization of schooling, while also endorsing the idea that schools can address both poverty and lackluster student achievement. The evidence, however, simply doesn’t support such a position. Again, the rapid growth of charter schools under the recent privatization movement has yet to show any significant difference compared to matched public schools, while the growing income disparity between the wealthy and the poor is evidence enough that this privatization movement has not only failed to close this gap, but may well have contributed to making it wider. We cannot miss the implication here that this outcome is the result of a conceptual flaw in the current functioning of Western capitalism (e.g., the neoliberal thinking that champions the concept of an economic free market model has created more rather than less income and social inequality in the U.S. society).

Given this mounting evidence that the prevailing popular ideas about how to improve schooling appear to be misguided at best and dangerous at worst, it is critical that we look to alternative models. The model outlined next comprises two equally important elements: (a) the recrafting of schools as places where all students are provided opportunities to learn and become critical thinkers, capable of understanding themselves and their place in the world; and (b) the simultaneous reform of economic and public policies that function to maintain poverty and thwart the aspirations for social mobility of those trapped on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Again, both of these are important elements for enacting meaningful change; as has been argued so far in this article, it is clear that education alone cannot affect poverty and achievement, while new policies that address inequities in the society cannot improve schools by themselves. Working together, however, hand in glove, provides the most promising strategy to bring about real reform for schools.

Rethinking Schools as Incubators for Change

Employing a sociology-of-knowledge perspective provides a powerful tool for thinking critically about how schools work to shape the thinking and behavior of both students and teachers. Bowers (1984), drawing on the work of Berger and Luckmann (1967) and others, has detailed the way in which teachers, as key significant others in the lives of students, shape both the students’ construction of reality and their own position in that socially constructed world. Teachers do this through their power to define the appropriate (normative) functional and symbolic knowledge. Functional knowledge refers to the rules or codes for normative behavior in the society (e.g., learning how to fit in and get along), while symbolic knowledge means the rules or codes for normative thinking in the disciplinary fields (e.g., learning how to think like a scientist or a mathematician). In sum, what the teacher thinks and does in the classroom, driven in large part by their own socialization and the curriculum in place in the school, is a major socializing agent (along with the organizational structure of the school) in shaping the way that students will think and act (both inside and outside school). Some have reported on this practice as training up students to fit into the prevailing occupational demands of Western capitalism (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Willis, 1977; Valenzuela, 2001).

The downside of this systematic process of socialization is that the student is rarely, if ever, invited to interrogate these rules or codes that drive both their thinking and actions. Consequently, students are largely unaware or unconscious of the impact that these factors have on their lives. The same case can be made for teachers, especially when they are mandated to teach in prescribed ways and to use prepackaged curriculum materials. Bowers (1984) develops the need for teachers to enhance the communicative competence of students, defined as the ability to interrogate, via problematizing, the normative values, beliefs, and taken-for-granted items that permeate schooling and society. Such a change in focus for students, from simply ingesting knowledge in order to pass tests to understanding how such knowledge is socially constructed, is designed to enable them to think critically and to move to social action (praxis) against elements that they discover to be distorted or dysfunctional. An example might be that as students come to understand that tracking in their school discriminates against poor students and students of color (Oakes, 1985; Rist, 1970; Valenzuela, 2001), they can mount some kind of social protest to eliminate this practice. Another example might be that as students discover that their urban community constitutes an “urban desert” with respect to the availability of fresh produce, they can work with others in their community to petition grocery chains to rectify the situation.

Clearly, in order for teachers to be able to lead students in this new intellectual task of interrogating normative values, beliefs, and taken-for-granted items, they must have first attained communicative competence themselves. This suggests that we need to recast teacher preparation programs, together with ongoing professional development for current teachers, to develop and subsequently support teachers who are fully capable of making this shift in their intellectual lives. The key requirement of enhancing the communicative competence of others is not to tell them how their current thinking is wrongheaded, and provide another view to replace it. Rather, it requires the teacher to work alongside students to facilitate, not direct, their interrogation of the normative values, beliefs, and taken-for-granted items; clearly, not everything interrogated will be found to be distorted or dysfunctional and consequently need to be changed. The power of this alternative model of education is that it builds on the institutionalized role of the teacher to socialize students, but it does so in a way that conceptualizes the school as an incubator for creative ideas about how to reform both the school and the wider society. Now, rather than the school functioning as an institution that molds students to fit into the status quo, it becomes an institution central to intellectual inquiry and change.

Elsewhere, Pink (2004) has used the idea of a backstage experience to illustrate how providing preservice teachers with a different perspective or vantage point from which to engage in this interrogation work can facilitate a meaningful dialogue that can problematize their normative values, beliefs, and taken-for-granted items, and that in turn can lead to key changes in their thinking about school organization, instructional strategies, and the learning potential of all students. He uses this theater metaphor to argue that we spend most of our lives sitting in our seats, passively watching the play (life), and thus become thoroughly conditioned to construct reality from what we see on the stage. The power of this socialization process is that we unconsciously accept the construction of reality that is given to us by significant others (in this case, the setting of the play and the actors on the stage). It should be noted that students are at their most vulnerable when confronted by the power and status of the teacher to define what is real and how to act.

The backstage experience takes on great importance because it enables the preservice teacher to view the action being presented to them from a different perspective and to note, where appropriate, how they were deceived into thinking that “A” is “B” (e.g., from the seats, the audience believes that a magician has made a large helicopter disappear, when from the vantage point of the wings, it becomes all too apparent that the “disappearance” is really a combination of lighting, mirrors, and curtains). Thus, Pink argues, once invited backstage to interrogate normative values, beliefs, and taken-for-granted items—to literally see how much of life is really artifice constructed by others—these preservice teachers are now well positioned to problematize their own future roles in teaching both functional and symbolic knowledge to their students.

In sum, it becomes clear that in order to reform schooling, we must first enhance the communicative competence of teachers. Without such a reconceptualization of the role of teacher, they will continue to transmit uninterrogated, normative values, beliefs, and taken-for-granted items to their students as a direct function of the power of their own socialization, which they received from their seats in the theater. From here, it a short step to argue that teachers who have achieved communicative competence can then assist their students, as well as their students’ parents (and other adults in the community), to gain these same interrogational skills. This broadening of the instructional scope of teachers is important because it creates a sufficiently large coalition of community actors that can put significant pressure on educators and policymakers to bring about meaningful change to schools and inequitable social policies (Anyon, 2005; Fabricant & Fine, 2013; Noblit & Pink, 2016). Schools in this model, then, take on a new central and exciting role as incubators for thinking and the subsequent crafting of social action.

Rethinking Economic and Public Policies

A number of researchers have connected the outcome of schooling in the United States to both the economic system under capitalism and the impact of a number of local and federal policies that were seen as having especially negative consequences for poor students and students of color (Anyon, 2005; Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Marsh, 2011; Fabricant & Fine, 2013; Noblit & Pink, 2016; Reich, 2015). Again, as long ago as 1976, Bowles and Gintis argued that the schools were organized primarily as a mechanism to provide a steady stream of workers to fit into a range of jobs required by the current system of capitalism, viewed as essentially designed to maintain inequities in both opportunity and rewards. In short, their analysis demonstrated how social class differences dominate both the schooling experience and the subsequent opportunities in the world of work. Their conclusion (still considered radical today) is that we cannot change schools until we change the basic economic system. Both Marsh (2011) and Reich (2015) picked up on this theme, arguing that things have gone from bad to worse since the 1980s. They noted that as the earning power of the working and middle classes has steadily declined, the wealth of the top 20% (especially the top 1%), by contrast, has grown disproportionately. For example, while the differential between the average worker’s compensation and that of the chief executive officer was around 20 times in the 1980s, it is now around 200 times. (Reich also reports that the six Walmart heirs had more combined wealth than the bottom 42% of Americans, and that this had risen from 30% in 2007—a staggering figure in itself.) Marsh (2011) makes much of the decline in union membership, brought about by corporations seeking cheaper labor costs both at home and abroad, to account for this progressive loss in earning power.

Both Anyon (2005) and Reich (2015) have developed the argument that poverty (and consequently the low achievement of poor students) is the direct result of an economic system, together with specific local and federal policies, that systematically work against social mobility and serve to lock individuals into a life of poverty. Both came to the same conclusion: the United States must come into line with the majority of other advanced nations and consider alternative schemes of income redistribution. Reich (2015), for example, noted that the United States is only one of three nations that spend more per student in higher-income than in lower-income schools (the others are Turkey and Israel), and where local taxes for schools are more than twice that of other nations. He also reported that while the majority of these advanced nations invest equally in each student, or even disproportionately in the most disadvantaged, the U.S. educational investment follows the opposite pattern. Clearly, we need to redress this income inequity because if the present trend continues, we will risk the implosion of the middle class in the United States.

Marsh (2011) addressed this income inequity by suggesting three alternative strategies. One of these would be to bring back into the labor market the unemployed and underemployed. Given the existing evidence, however, this is probably out of the question because short of a massive public works program, the present U.S. economy simply cannot develop a sufficient number of jobs to absorb every person in these two categories. A second strategy is to increase the earnings of those currently working but who remain in poverty. Debated for years, and known as the “minimum wage,” this strategy is seen as politically dangerous because those on the right see it as a threat to the free market system, which they argue is essential to maintain capitalism. A third strategy, also suggested by Reich (2015), is to provide a basic minimum “income” to all citizens over the age of 18; this could be achieved either through a mechanism of changed taxation rates or through the availability of increased services such as free health care and child care. While ideas about income redistribution always run into opposition, especially from those who currently benefit from the status quo and those who cling to ideas that are grounded in blaming victims for their own limitations, it is clear that without significant changes to the present system, we will be unable to craft any meaningful change to the outcome of schooling.

In addition to noting the importance of changes to the way that the current economic system operates, Anyon (2005) has built a very persuasive case for extending a school reform strategy to include a range of public policies. She argued that a failure to attend to these policies trumps any attempt to improve the outcome of schooling by continuing to define school reform as simply the result of reforming schools. In particular, she analyzed a number of factors that have a negative impact on the lives of the poor people and people of color who live in urban areas; her major point is that these factors work both singly and together to constrain the lives of these individuals, holding them in poverty and inhibiting the learning of their children in the local schools. Citing Wilson (1997), she also found that jobs had disappeared from the central city, where the urban poor live, and been relocated to the suburbs. The trouble with this development, she reported, was that transportation to the suburbs is often difficult to nonexistent. Individuals seeking work in the suburbs must spend a lot of time and money getting to and from these (frequently low-paying) jobs. Such a pattern, she argued, places additional strain on urban families, which can frequently show up as poor diets and high health risks: Anyon (2005) cited data that indicate that for families earning between $12,000 and $23,000 a year, 27 cents of each dollar earned is spent on transportation, while this figure rises to 36 cents per dollar for families earning less than $12,000 per year. Together with the difficulty of getting to where the jobs are located, Anyon also noted the problems confronted by the urban poor with respect to discrimination at hiring. She pointed out that in too many situations, the federal laws concerning fair hiring practices are not enforced, which creates barriers for the urban poor trying to raise themselves out of poverty.

A second critical factor noted by Anyon (2005) was housing segregation, which she argued translates into educational segregation, especially for Black and Latino students. The problem that she targeted was federal housing policies that concentrate low-income residents into urban neighborhoods. Her solution, the integration of poor families into working- and middle-class residential areas, was built on data suggesting that when students from poor families attend schools with more affluent students, they do significantly better than when they attend schools with high concentrations of poor students.

A third critical factor explored by Anyon (2005) was the financial inequities existing between cities and their surrounding suburbs. The problem was that the available federal funds going to cities are used primarily for “income support,” while in the suburbs it went to wealth creation. Since the federal support for schools is approximately 10%, this means, for example, that city schools will always be underfunded compared to suburban schools. This, for Anyon, was a first-rate example of the way in which federal policy works to maintain the rather impoverished state of urban schooling when compared to suburban schooling.

A fourth factor addressed by Anyon (2005) was the failure of the federal government to expand jobs for those currently in poverty, together with a job-training program that would give these individuals marketable skills. She noted, as have many others (Marsh, 2011; Noblit & Pink, 2016; Reich, 2015), that because education is no longer serving as the primary route out of poverty, we need the federal government to help correct the inequities maintained by the current policies and economic system. Reich (2015), for example, argued that without corrections to the way that capitalism is currently working (what he calls the intervention of countervailing power), we will see a future where income and wealth distribution become even more inequitable. His solution, which is consistent with the ideas of Anyon, was to change the rules of the market to ensure that all individuals, rather than only those at the top of the ladder, gain a share in the future expansion of the economy.

The message emerging from this work is that the outcome of key public policies, together with the current form of Western capitalism, is the maintenance of poverty and growing income inequities, which in turn is undermining attempts at school reform. Thus, the educational policy implication is that we must reform dysfunctional social policies and implement course corrections in the way that the economy is managed even as we mount school reform. To do only one or the other sets us on a path to continued frustration and inevitable failure.


The argument that has been made here is both simple and straightforward. As a consequence of the serial failure of several of the major school reform strategies over the last 50 or so years in the United States, we must turn to a different conception of change in order to reform schools. Evidence details that key reform models (i.e., the Effective Schools model, standardized tests and school accountability, the standards movement, charter schools and the privatization of schooling, and virtual/cyber schools) have all failed to significantly raise student achievement or close the gap between student groups. It has been argued that a reliance on discredited theory concerning the intellectual, sociocultural, and psychological limitations of poor students and students of color, termed “blaming the victim,” has been a driving factor behind much of these school reform initiatives.

The alternative reform perspective that has been detailed, by contrast, focuses on re-visioning the school as an incubator for creative thinking and subsequent social action. Using the sociology-of-knowledge framework (Bowers, 1984; Berger & Luckmann, 1967), the intellectual role of the teacher in the socialization process of students was explored to illustrate the importance of enhancing their own and their students communicative competence; this process involves the interrogation of normative values, beliefs, and taken-for-granted items, with the goal of understanding how socialization works to create a constructed reality and subsequently engaging in social action to remediate factors found to be distorted or dysfunctional.

As important as this alternative conception of schooling is, it has also been argued that such a school reform strategy cannot succeed unless simultaneous reforms are made in the areas of public policy and the working economy. In particular, it was noted that reforms are needed to reverse the current pattern of income inequality, as well as in the job, housing, and transportation sectors. The primary focus here, of course, is on eliminating both local and federal practices that function to maintain individuals in poverty.

The key idea presented here is that school reform is not simply a matter of reforming schools. School reform must also pay attention to these other factors at work in the wider society that systematically undermine it. Perhaps the biggest barrier to enacting the alternative model for school reform detailed here is the deep-seated vested interests of those currently benefiting from the status quo. As Reich (2015) so elegantly states, however, allowing the present trends to continue will make fundamental changes that will destroy the ideals on which the United States was founded. To prevent such an implosion, it is emerging that the best strategy is large-scale community mobilization and action. Perhaps the best way to grow such a social movement is through the enhancement of communicative competence. The better informed that students, teachers, parents, community members, and others become about the ways in which their interests are not served by the status quo, and the more backstage experiences they take advantage of, the greater the opportunity for the development of a broad-based coalition that can campaign for greater equity and social justice. In this alternative reform model, the school, and teachers in particular, are front and center, functioning as an incubator for critical thinking and social action.

Currently, two potentially important developments have occurred in the United States. First, Congress has just passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to replace the widely unpopular NCLB. This act grants states the ability to eliminate some tests and to substitute project-based tests for some standardized tests. Also, the ESSA recognizes the need for additional funding for the student groups most in need (e.g., providing funds for early childhood programs and reducing class size). Again, while this is an encouraging sign, from the perspective detailed in this article, it is far from sufficient to reform schools successfully. The two biggest problems with this approach are (a) an overreliance on the educational leaders in each state to be able to move from a deficit or “blaming the victim” perspective to one that embraces a focus on communicative competence; and (b) a disregard of the importance of including economic and public policy reforms at the same time as school reforms are enacted.

The second development is the recent publication of several books focusing on income inequality in the United States (Drennan, 2015; Faricy, 2015; Fatovic, 2015; Frankfurt, 2015; Watson, 2015). The hope, of course, is that in bringing attention to a major problematic with the current form of Western capitalism, we might see a coalition of social action groups demanding change to this dysfunctional system. While these discussions range from Frankfurt’s philosophical focus to Watson’s economic defense of market capitalism, none of them marry these ideas with the centrality of schooling to bring about significant reforms to schools and the economic system. As previously stated, while these developments have the potential to refocus broad-based discussions about the intersection of schooling with the economy, it is clear that much work remains to be done to enhance communicative competence across a range of groups so that they can play a leadership role in shaping the future.


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