Failure of school reforms: Power, Context, Evidence

Diane Ravitch, Joseph Murphy

Let me introduce you to two renowned persons supporting school reform in the USA, Diane Ravitch and Joseph Murphy. Ravitch was U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and later became an academic activist publishing book after book about the wrongs of education in the USA. To me she became (although being about the same age) the new Jonathan Kozol author of books about social justice like: Savage Inequalities.

Diane Ravitch recently published the book: Slaying Goliath; The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools.

Joseph Murphy to me is keyperson in educational leadership development in the USA. He e.g. chaired the teams that produced revisions to the national Standards in 2008 and 2015 (Professional Standards for Educational Leaders).

Joseph Murphy about the same time as Diane Ravitch wrote the article: The Five Essential Reasons for the Failure of School Reforms.

Both publications are about the failure of school reforms. Ravitch about the wrongs of the neoliberal attempts to change education in the last decades. Murphy takes a broader scope. He revisits the major reforms since 1965 (and earlier). Ravitch is hopefully about the growing resistance to major current school reforms that have dramatic effects for students, teachers and schools. Murphy contributes to the knowledge that explains the failure of school reform efforts. Not of some reform, but in his opinion of all major school reforms in the USA. The concepts of evidence and context are leading in his analysis.

Ravitch sketches the attempts to reform education in the USA by what she calls the disrupters (very rich persons/families/philanthropists/businesspeople). These disrupters pretend to be concerned about the seemingly declining quality of public education. A decline that was (wrongly) framed in ‘A Nation at Risk’ (1983) and later was repeated over and over again. Slaying Goliath

The disrupters had very specific ideas what was needed for a dramatic change, a real transformation of American education. Their strategy included frequent high-stakes testing (without opportunities for the students or the teacher to learn from the results of the test), teacher evaluation by using test scores of students, establishing charter schools (being less regulated than public schools in promise for innovation and better results of students) and closing low-scoring public schools. This strategy was said to result in high test scores for all. Ravitch describes the rise of these ideas and the failure to deliver on what was pretended. She identifies the billionaire key players by name as well as the teachers and parents who had the courage to lead the fights against what was imposed on schools and districts. The stories not only are about differences in visions they are also about the sometimes foul ways events evolved. It all started during the Presidency of George Bush jr. For me it was a surprise to read that there were no major changes during the Obama period and with the current government (where the billionaires reign) it is difficult to be optimistic about possible changes. The stories are about diverting public money to business corporations and the corruption that showed up in some of the (charter) schools and districts. The stories are about strictly prescribing behaviour of teachers and students. They are about demonising ‘lazy' teachers while robbing them from decent salaries and pensions or exchanging them for low-trained staff with lower remunerations. They are about intervening in lowest-performing schools by closing or privatising them. The stories are about cracking democracy by ‘buying’ seats in state and local school boards by supporting (outside) candidates who favour charter schools or other elements of the intended reforms. The stories are about about collecting information about many aspects of schools and districts. It was said that this would add to transparency for the public. But the hidden agenda was creating and assembling data needed for selling new products in a promising USA-wide market. Now after two decades of these kind of reforms it becomes clear that in general results of students are not remarkable better (despite the huge extra investments), that working conditions for teachers worsened and communities were disrupted. It became clear that reform that builds on punishment did not deliver. And reform especially could not deliver because the root cause of poor performance in schools is not bad schools or teachers but poverty. Ravitch: ‘Lasting social change requires a new direction in public policy, one that directly reduces economic inequality and poverty’. So it took some time but since two years teachers massively walked out of their schools and protested against these developments. Sometimes they were successful, sometimes not. The vast resources of the billionaires are difficult to compete with. And politicians seem difficult to convince that reforms need to be based on root causes in stead of dealing with the symptoms. But against all odds Ravitch is optimistic. Read her to discover why.

The Five Essential Reasons for the Failure of School Reforms

From the introduction by Murphy: 'What we do know about reform initiatives is that they are almost always constructed on two pillars. First, there is strong language about the failure of schools. Second, criticisms are accompanied by optimistic language and “highly touted” claims about the power of proposed reforms—claims that often are strands of deeply held beliefs and convictions, “seeming unassailable common sense” —ungrounded assumptions, fads, opinions, self-promotion, doubts, anecdotes, overly simplified cause and effect explanations, romanticized and ideological accounts, misapplied beliefs, can-do enthusiasm, heuristics, the non-critical adoption of business ideology, and pocket theories of effectiveness, most of which have been documented to have failed in the past. Such assertions generally sprout from three sources: government agencies, corporations, and universities.’ The five reasons for failure (with some partial quotes, without the many references and leaving out some sentences at ….) according to Murphy are: 1. The Assumption of Implementation Over the last 55 years some well-intended reforms at the federal and state levels have simply not been implemented. More have been weakly implemented. That is, most reforms die because of flawed implementation. 2. Lack of Attention to Internal and External Contexts and Change Processes. The difficulty here is that most federal and state reform efforts rarely start with what is known about the internal and external contexts and the needed change processes of reform. …. The reform literature often presents schools as homogeneous places where any reform effort can be expected to materialize and be expected to produce desired outcomes. ….. The overwhelming cause of problems is laid at the feet of teachers….. From a long history of failed and occasionally mixed efforts in school reform, we know that no “strategy stand[s] out as universally effective or sufficiently robust to overcome the power of local context." 3. Travel Limitations of Scientific Evidence (Meaning most ‘evidence' only holds in a specific context - Jan Arend) Existing evidence is difficult to extend to other schools. ...there is not much evidence that the current reform engine of new “scientific evidence” brought to education is working and some reasons to suggest that it may be even less productive than value and practice-based evidence ...reforms have been known to fail because reformers often maintain an ahistorical outlook 4. Unlinked, Discordant, and Silenced Partners Partners in school reform (teachers and school administrators, business executives, politicians, parents, researchers, children, and corporations) are generally unconnected and often at odds with one another. ...four of the critical partners (researchers, policy makers, educators, and corporate executives and foundational leaders) know little about education and schooling…. Not surprisingly, teachers and school administrators routinely judge solution strategies developed by their partners as discordant and unhelpful, and as such, they are “doomed to failure”. And even when forced to do so, often pay little attention to those strategies. The second damaging insight regularly uncovered and deeply embedded is that the voices of the two most important reform partners in the work, teachers and children, are routinely marginalized. ….. This pattern is of concern for a number of reasons. “To suggest that research about ‘what works’ can replace normative professional judgment is not only to make an unwarranted leap from ‘is’ to ‘ought’; it is also to deny practitioners the right not to act according to the evidence about what works if they judge a line of action would be educationally undesirable”. 5. The De-Educationalization of Turnaround: A Lack of Focus on the DNA of Effective Schools Over the last 50 years, we have learned that productive schools are defined by two elements “academic press” and a “culture of care”. …. Academic press in productive schools is defined in three domains: quality instruction, a significant amount of academic learning time (concentrated time in the zone of student development), and robust curriculum content. The essential elements of care - teachers and managers: expressing a strong interest in children and youngsters as persons. Murphy concludes amongst other things that:...educators (have) to bend reform lessons towards school rather than accepting lessons as they are or bending schools to those lessons. Whether or not the analysis of the failures by Murphy and his suggestions for change are correct it is deeply worrying that almost all large-scale school reforms of many decades in the USA were not successfully implemented.


Ravitch and Murphy both are deeply concerned. Ravitch about the undemocratic and wrong influence of private funders and private business in education, Murphy about the lack of knowledge how to implement well-intended reform on larger scale. Ravitch about the latest reforms, Murphy shows there is a longer history of failing reforms. Both publications are fascinating in offering other, deeper views than current mainstream publications on school reform. Publications that pretend to be neutral and that don't touch issues of power. Publications that postulate that it is rather simple to use existing evidence for successful school reform, neglecting contexts. I assume the authors would agree that teachers should be given the opportunity to be caring professionals working in a trusting environment. That on itself is of course not sufficient to solve the injustices in schools and in the system, but at least it makes schools a much better place to learn and work. For me it is clear that there is a daring need for further work on successful large-scale reform. Especially on power, context and evidence

Blogs on same issues

For more on the influence of business and foundations see my blogs • Verger and The Global Education Industry • Equitable Schools (USA), about the book ‘Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms’ For more on the role of context see • Growing importance of context For more on the difficulty of using existing evidence see • Evidence on Educational Leadership, is that sufficient? • Evidence! Relevant? (Ioannidis, Slavin)


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