Why America's Prep Schools Aren't Following Arne Duncan's Public School Education Reforms

If the reforms mandated by Departments of Education were so fantastic, prep schools would be implementing them.

Our public education system, with all of its admitted flaws, manages to nurture the vast majority of young people, many of whom go on to be hugely successful. But the prevailing education reform movement in the United States, premised upon market-based solutions, economics, disruption, and similar sounding corporate buzzwords, seeks to standardize curriculum, teaching, and assessment as a method of control.

Let me be clear: We are in a battle for public education and we are struggling against those who wish it to be extinct. There is no room for negotiation. If current trends continue, our education system will become entirely vocationalized—perpetuating both class-based and racial apartheid, and teachers will eventually become short-term, at-will employees without the protections available to intellectual professions.

This is not an exaggeration. Allow me to explain it further: Education reform proponents, whose backgrounds are primarily from management, finance, technology, government—and not education—are trying very hard—to the tune of billions of dollars—to sell the public a rather interesting bill of goods. You will see, among other things, the championing of common core standards, standardized assessments, data-collection systems, and an expensive technological infrastructure to make this all possible.

We are told repeatedly that this is what America’s children need, especially those in impoverished communities. “Spokes-reformers” market their wares on all major cable news networks and control the message on most mainstream print and online publications. As a teacher educator and former classroom teacher, I’m happy to provide all the proof I need that their messages, every last one of them, are destructive. But for now, I have a simpler demonstration.

Go ahead and do an online search of the country’s top prep schools, or check out this list from Forbes. Peruse some of the school websites and do a search for anything that mainstream education reformers suggest we implement in your neighborhood public school. Try, for example, common core state standards. How about data-driven instruction? Or, what about two weeks worth of mandated high-stakes, standardized state tests, preceded by weeks, if not months, of benchmarks, short-cyles, and pre-assessments?

If you think there's time for all of this, you'd be mistaken. Most social studies and science instruction ends as early as January for a March test, if it's taught at all. In some cases, it isn't. In other cases, art, music, physical education, and recess are also dropped, or at least taken away from students whose scores are lowest. I wonder if any notification of such adjustments to the academic schedule are included in the glossy brochures for the country's top prep schools.

I have another interesting suggestion: Check out the proportion of teachers at those schools who possess advanced degrees. At Horace Mann in the Bronx—where 36 percent of students are accepted at an Ivy League school, Stanford, or MIT—94 percent of the teachers have advanced degrees. Now, who was it that said rewarding teachers with advanced degrees is a waste of money? Ah yes, our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. How far do you think Mr. Duncan’s argument would get with parents who examine a potential school's "Ivy/MIT/Stanford pipeline" percentage score? Not very far.

The problem is the public is force-fed these ideas of standardized curriculum, teaching, and assessment as the best tactics education science has to offer. They tell us that this is how we must educate our children. Wait, whose children are we talking about? Not the kids at Trinity School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side—41 percent are in that Ivy/MIT/Stanford pipeline—or Philips Exeter in New Hampshire, which educated Mark Zuckerberg. As someone with more experience in education than those whose voices are most prominent, I can also assure you that mainstream reform ideologies are not the best anyone has to offer. In fact, they are the cheapest and easiest to control. That's it.

I can already anticipate the devil’s advocate argument: Parents pay a hefty sum to send their children to Roxbury Latin, so they get what they've paid for. And on that point I would agree with you—if we were talking about, say, automobiles. Yes, the financier who pays extra for the package with the mahogany inlays and heated seats certainly deserves his or her mahogany inlays and heated seats. The one who mops the financier’s office floor, well, he or she might manage to eek out a full-sized spare, maybe some nice floor mats or something.

But these aren't cars; they're kids. These are kids who've had the temerity to be born and this is how we’ve resigned ourselves to discuss their education. We give all to those who can afford better and the rest get, well, they get what they get—and no one is supposed to get upset about it.

This is nonsense. If the reforms mandated by Departments of Education and fawned over by upstart think-tankers were as fantastic as advised again and again, then you can bet that every single one of the country's best prep schools would be implementing them as rapidly as possible. They're not, and you shouldn't accept them either.

This entire enterprise operates on one very powerful currency: data. Without the data, the machine ceases to operate. Educators, parents, and students are starting to understand that and are now refusing to fuel the machine. At the time of this writing, entire schools in the Seattle area are lining up to boycott high-stakes tests with overwhelming support from their local communities and are making national headlines.

I suggest that we no longer feed the machine—and that we fight back. From April 4-7, 2013, educators, community activists, parents, and students from across the nation are heading to Washington, D.C. for Occupy 2.0: The Battle for Public Schools. Prominent educators, public school advocates, and activists from around the country will be leading talks and workshops to raise awareness and resist corporate-style education reforms. If you cannot join us in Washington this April, then encourage any colleague or friend who can attend to do so. Connect with us online during our livestream of the event. Or, download our free high-stakes testing toolkit (PDF) to begin a conversation in your community.

Click here to add sharing the Opt Out Toolkit with your community to your GOOD "to-do" list.

Lockers image via Shutterstock

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