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Reformulating Reform Based on Reality

It’s Time to Reform the Reformers
Jim Arnold & Peter Smagorinsky

Jim Arnold recently retired from the superintendent’s position of the Pelham City, GA Schools and blogs at Peter Smagorinsky is Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at The University of Georgia whose public essays are archived at

“The failure of public education” has become a de rigueur assumption in the public forum on public education, particularly among those who claim to possess the silver bullet for “reform.” The definition of reform signals the need to improve something for the better by removing faults, abuses, and evil ways. For there to be a need for reformers, then, those they wish to reform must be found to be as defective as possible. When the target of reform lacks sufficient dereliction, and a reformer still needs to advance his or her agenda, ideally with consulting fees, then the flaws must be manufactured and propagated as if they are real.

Arne Duncan, for instance, often cites such statistics as the need for 40% of college students to require remedial coursework.  Carol Burris has shown, however, this canard has no basis in fact, but is a manufactured statistic coming from a think tank, repeated by other think tanks until it became accepted in public opinion. As part of this process of fabricating a crisis, our Secretary of Education has repeatedly promulgated this bogus claim to advance his reforms, even if the evil of shoddy education in public schools requiring remediation by colleges at the taxpayers’ expense does not exist.

As part of this perceived need for reform, many people hearken back to the good old days, back before schools began circling the drain. For instance, a Rasmussen poll found that 69% of respondents doubted whether today’s public schools provide our kids with the world class education that the rest of the world is getting. As market-based reforms are offered as our only means of salvation, the schools of socialistic Finland are provided as a model of excellence.

Perhaps this irony is not the only one at work in the public debate about our purportedly failing schools.

We went to Southern schools back in those halcyon days. Nostalgia buffs might recall scenes such as this one from those misty times of yore on the occasion of efforts to integrate The Varsity restaurant in Athens, Georgia:

Given that opposition to school integration often was more violent and virulent than were responses to allowing Black people to each a hot dog at The Varsity, perhaps those great old schools from those good old days might benefit from a closer look. Let’s consider the public perception of US public education over time.

In 1996 E. D. Hirsch called for a return to a traditional approach to public education in “The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them.” In 1983 “A Nation at Risk” told us of the apparent failure of our system of public education. The Educational Testing Service discovered in 1976 that college freshmen could correctly answer only half of forty or so multiple choice questions. In 1969 the Chancellor of NY schools, Harvey Scribner, said that for every student schools educated there was another that was “scarred as a result of his school experience.”

Admiral Rickover published “American Education, a National Failure” in 1963, and in 1959 LIFE magazine published “Crisis in Education” that noted the Russians beat us into space with Sputnik because “the standards of education are shockingly low.”  In 1955 Why Johnny Can’t Read became a best seller, and in 1942 the NY Times noted only 6% of college freshmen could name the 13 original colonies and 75% did not know who was President during the Civil War. The US Navy in 1940 tested new pilots on their mastery of 4th grade math and found that 60% of the HS graduates failed. In 1889 the top 3% of US high school students went to college, and 84% of all American colleges reported remedial courses in core subjects were required for incoming freshmen.

And in the years before the American Revolution, “Undereducated, overworked, short-tempered male schoolmasters often presided over the schools. Corporal punishment was a euphemism for outright brutality against children.” Women were not allowed an education until the Industrial Revolution took hold, a century before they could vote.

So much for the good old days.

And so much for the perception that education is perpetually in decline, if actual statistics inform the conversation. The National Center for Educational Statistics reports that educational attainment is continually on the rise. Here’s their table providing decade-by-decade figures for high school graduate rates.

         HS Graduates (total %)         Whites     Blacks
1940          38.1                         41.2         12.3
1950          52.8                         56.3           23.6
1960          60.7                          63.7         38.6
1970          75.4                          77.8         58.4
1980          85.4                          89.2         76.7
1990          85.7                          90.1         81.7
2000          88.1                         94            86.8
2010          88.8                          94.5         89.6
2013          89.9                          94.1         90.3

Georgia lags behind these national averages, as the following table shows, yet still continually graduates increasing numbers of people at the high school and college levels:

            HS grad     Bachelor’s     Advanced degree
    or more       or more      or more
1990    70.9                   19.3                 6.4
2000     78.6                  24.3                  8.3
2006     82.2                  26.6                  9.2
2009     83.9                  27.5                  9.9

Going back a bit farther in time, in 1940 17% of adults in Georgia had completed high school; in 1946 5% of Georgians attended college. We’re doing quite a bit better these days, even as public rhetoric and perception suggest the opposite.

But you can’t frame our current situation as a crisis in need of reform if all trends are positive. So, the Georgia Department of Education claims that state graduation rates are below 70%, in spite of statistical evidence to the contrary. We cannot ascertain their motives, but they do seem to feel that charter schools and Teach for American are the answers, even if the question remains opaque. Like Arne Duncan, they appear to require a manufactured crisis of the sort revealed by David Berliner, Gene Glass and colleagues in order to come to our rescue.

Long ago Darrell Huff exposed how people lie with statistics, helping to explain the sort of smoke-and-mirrors statistical manipulation at work in much of the educational policy world. For example, in determining graduation rates, states are allowed to count only those HS graduates each year who are awarded a diploma within a 4-year course of study. GED’s don’t count, but special education students do, and count against graduation rates, as do students who graduate by persisting through difficulties such that they take more than four years to complete their degrees.

Schools, like any complex social institutions, require continual maintenance and rethinking; we hope that in our careers as teachers and school administrators we contributed to that challenging project. But the current “reform” movement, we believe, is not solving actual problems, and in contrast is manufacturing new ones with each dedication of funds to corporations instead of schools. Reforming the ways of the reformers would make better sense to us.


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