Education researchers: Current ‘reforms’ will produce few gains in achievement

Indiana University education professors Jonathan Plucker and David Rutkowski offer up some hard truths about current education “reforms” in a recent Education Week column.

While supporters tout the reforms as silver bullets, they say, the “dirty little secret” among researchers is that the changes almost certainly will have little effect on student performance.

“Volumes of nonpartisan research over the past 20 years suggest that most reforms (e.g., vouchers, charters, merit pay) have marginal effects on student achievement,” they write. “Reforms that show benefits usually produce effects that are so small they call into question the enormous resource and opportunity costs of the interventions. Put simply, most education reforms are not effective, and those that show even a sliver of potential are very inefficient.”

The point about resource and opportunity costs is significant. In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett spent political capital pushing through an education agenda that lacked broad public support. The effort polarized Democrats and Republicans and demoralized many teachers. And the cost of implementing the reforms – for example, the infrastructure and personnel needed for the teacher evaluations and merit pay required by Senate Enrolled Act 1 – will arguably divert dollars from the classroom.

Plucker and Rutkowski note that the usual reforms apply the same approach to all schools and all students. Yet the reality is that American schools “work very well for some students and very poorly for others.” On international comparisons, Asian-American and non-Hispanic white students score as well as students from top-performing countries like South Korea, Finland and Singapore; but African-American, Hispanic and poor kids in the U.S. trail far behind.

They suggest focusing reforms on the students who need something different: low-achieving students who are receiving substandard education, and high-achieving students who are ignored and left to compete on their own. At the state policy level, this could mean holding schools accountable for the performance and achievement gains for those groups of students – not simply for average test scores and overall improvement in student performance.

But progress is difficult when we’re bogged down in ideological battles about whether charter schools are good or bad, whether more school choice will save or destroy public education, and whether teachers need more money and support or a shorter leash. “These manufactured debates,” Plucker and Rutkowski write, “result in expensive reforms that work for few students.”

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