Millionaire-Driven Education Reform Has Failed. Here’s What Works.

By Lynn Parramore, Senior Research Analyst for the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

Economist Peter Temin has noted that when societies like the United States split into separate economies of haves and have-nots, there remains one ticket to a better life: education.

You’ve likely heard that this ticket is getting shredded. What once made America exceptional — robust investment in public education to prepare kids for life in a democracy — has faded, partly thanks to the efforts of a handful of haves whose money and influence foisted market-based makeovers onto American schools.

Over the last few decades, the handiwork of a tiny group of philanthrocapitalists and business tycoons with names like Bill Gates and the Waltons, of Walmart fame, have channeled their vision of corporate-style education reform into a series of deeply flawed programs, from George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” based on a fraudulent testing regime in Texas, to President Obama’s “Race to the Top,” which fused teacher evaluations to test scores and pushed to privatize more schools.

Today, thanks to this incredible shrinking vision of education, the average American student endures over a hundred standardized tests by the time of 12thgrade rolls around. As if that weren’t enough, misguided assessment-and-accountability regimes have burdened public schools with frightened teachers, stressed students, narrowed curricula, and massive cheating scandals. All the while, increasing numbers of both for-profit and non-profit charters — many of them focused on enriching executives — drain students and scarce resources from public schools.

Journalist Andrea Gabor, author of “After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend Business Reform,” is among the growing chorus concluding that the application of outdated, market-based models to a complex process like education has done more to exacerbate social problems than improve the performance of American children. As she sees it, the widespread embrace of approaches obsessed with the production of math and English language test scores “over civics and learning for learning’s sake” even helped spawn an electorate susceptible to the demagoguery of Donald Trump.

So that’s the bad news.

But Gabor has good news, too. While dilettante corporate reformers were making headlines with their quick-and-dirty education schemes, some far-sighted educators, active citizens, and imaginative thinkers across the nation have been swimming against the tide of the top-down, millionaire-driven reform movement with approaches to learning that are not only much more democratic, but remarkably effective and better attuned to the needs of 21st century students.

They’ve enjoyed less attention than their market-oriented counterparts, but they’ve gotten something better: results.

Oases of Innovation

Gabor offers a trip through far-flung regions of country where vastly different public school systems have bucked the market-focused trends, including the state of Massachusetts and the Leander district in Texas, north of Austin.

Instead of prodding teachers and students with sticks and carrots, inflicting them with an endless grind of test preparation, the schools focus on creating a rich setting for learning, exploring, and developing human potential. And they manage to do so with greater efficiency, better outcomes, and certainly more enjoyment for everybody involved than what is often found in corporate reform-modeled schools.

Gabor turns first to Massachusetts, where John Adams presciently decided that an educated populace was critical for preserving a democracy and set down a mandate to adequately fund it in the state constitution. By 1990, however, recessionary conditions and the Reagan-era tax-cutting frenzy had left many public schools with resources nothing close to adequate, including the once-cutting-edge Brockton High, which had become the state’s largest and poorest high school. A poster child of dysfunction, it limped along with decimated budgets, teacher layoffs, and giant classes woefully unequal to the task of educating ever-growing numbers of students, many of them needing special assistance.

Brockton’s turnaround began with a successful lawsuit that lit the spark for the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, a law backed by a broad coalition of leaders from government, the business community, teachers unions and the judiciary that restored funding equity to public schools across the state. These leaders agreed that reforms would need to be collaborative, democratic, and focused on changes that would neither be rushed nor imposed from above. They capped the number of charter schools at 25, making them pretty much irrelevant. (The cap has been raised a couple of times since then, but Massachusetts’s voters remain skeptical of charters, voting down a proposal to expand them in 2016).

Armed with new funding, a committee of teachers and administrators at Brockton launched an ambitious literacy initiative in the late ‘90s to give students a foundation for success in all subjects. In addition to basics like reading and writing, students learned skills not covered by standardized testing, such as speaking, and found themselves urged to pursue fine arts, drama, sports, and activities that foster a personal connection to the school.

Professional development was structured to include both top-down and bottom-up elements, with strong input from teachers. For both staff and students, building a culture of trust was a top priority. These efforts led to a decade-long transformation commended by Harvard researchers, who found that by 2012, even though two-thirds of the tenth-graders at Brockton are black and Hispanic and 64% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, they were outperforming most other students in the state.

Another compelling case of educational innovation is illustrated in Leander, Texas, a large, non-urban school district in the midst of a mostly white Christian and Republican populace, where around 35 years ago, reformers embraced the ideas of quality expert and statistician W. Edwards Deming.

Deming’s notion of continuous improvement in organizations stands in contrast to practices advocated by the better-known management guru Frederick Winslow Taylor; a mechanical engineer devoted to efficiency and standardization whose ideas became gospel to American business schools in the 20th century. The imprint of Taylorism and his anti-union perspective can be found in top-down, one-size-fits-all programs centered on standardized testing like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

Deming, who is especially revered in Japan, where his ideas fueled Toyota’s success, took a different approach, emphasizing the contributions of ordinary employees and advocating managements in which hierarchies were either loosened or abolished. His methods emphasized driving fear out of the workplace and fostering the intrinsic motivation of employees.

In the 1980s, the Leander district suffered from problems so severe it was in danger of losing its accreditation. At that time, a group of educators began to apply Deming’s ideas to education, committing to continuous improvement driven by strong leaders working collaboratively with teachers and other stakeholders; meaningful teacher training and development; long-term thinking; and close attention to how organizational ecosystems work. By nurturing a culture devoted to grassroots-driven quality and experimentation, they turned a once-struggling district into one of the state’s best performing.

Where corporate-style reformers seem to have bequeathed to schools the worst lessons of the business world — that numbers can lie and books can be cooked, the Leander model suggests that education reform can benefit from business lessons more appropriate to the open-source, flexible milieu of the 21st century. Gabor notes that in 2015, at a time when many school districts were plagued with teacher shortages, the Leander district, which is about the size of New Orleans, saw a six-to-one applicant ratio for teaching jobs.

Massachusetts and Leander, as well as other cases Gabor discuses, such as the progressive reform movement in New York City, have distinctly different cultures. Rather than accepting one-size-fits-all solutions mandated from above, each developed its own model, tailored to the needs of the students in a particular community.

However, the schools have several things in common: a respect for democratic processes and participatory improvement, a high regard for teachers, clear strategies with buy-in from all stake-holders, and accountability frameworks that include room to innovate. They also feature robust leadership and strong teacher voice. Their success underscores the importance of equitable funding and suggests that problems like income inequality are far more detrimental to education that the usual suspects, like bad teachers.

A Revolution Grows Louder

Something seems to have shifted on the education battle lines in the last couple of years. First, reports emerged that even once-enthusiastic proponents of corporate-style reform, like former education secretary Arne Duncan, had started to voice second thoughts about things like standardized testing. Parents across the ideological spectrum began to opt out and rebel against testing regimes like Common Core.

Then came the election of Donald Trump, a man of decidedly undemocratic values, whose appointment of Betsy DeVos — the wealthy architect of Detroit’s disastrous charter system — as education secretary galvanized critics of privatization and market-oriented education models.

In 2018, media coverage started to turn from heralding tech millionaires as the intrepid “disrupters” of schools to highlighting the boldness of teachers, especially those in non-union states, engaged in strikes, walkouts, and protests around the country. The American public was supportive of the strikes and resonated with teachers who didn’t make a living wage and yet poured their hearts into doing their best for high-risk children under terrible conditions with few resources.

Critics like Gordon Lafer are now warning that if antidemocmratic forces and deep-pocketed elites continue to set the agenda for what children should learn, American schools will turn into places where inequality is not only exacerbated, but actually inculcated — something quite different from what most of us grew up understanding as their purpose. Instead of being prepared for lives as healthy and productive citizens, most will be groomed for a life of lowered expetations and servitude.

Gabor sees in all this an opportunity to push to restore democratic principles and participative decision-making to education reform and champion a more humane, sustainable model for success. She views what happens under Trump as the catalyst for better approaches and a recognition that preparing young people for a competitive global marketplace and life democratic society do not have to be at odds: schools can and must do both.

Fortunately, as Gabor’s book demonstrates, we don’t have to invent the wheel: there are plenty of great examples and strategies to choose from.

The stakes could not be higher. If America can begin to issue more tickets to prosperity through education, the country will most certainly survive the current turmoil and chart an optimistic path to the future. If not, the U.S. becomes just another oligarchy.

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  1. cuibono

    do we really need to always agree to the need to ” prepare young people for a competitive global marketplace”?

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      This is exactly the right question. I have three kids that have experienced what is probably close to the best of U.S. public education – lots of teachers who care, high standards, surrounded by other smart kids with very attentive parents, etc. I wish many more kids had access to this quality of education. Those people who say U.S. public schools are only training kids to be automatons are not correct about some portion (not nearly large enough) of U.S. public schools.

      Which is not to say these schools don’t have problems. Here in Madison, the public schools do an atrocious job of “educating” poor minority kids and, because so many minority kids here are very poor with very unstable home lives, also a poor job with lots of non-poor minority kids who get stereotyped.

      But the bigger problem is that the whole philosophy of public schooling has become deeply neoliberal, by which I mean competitive and achievement-oriented, where achievement is a ranking rather than a standard. All of the highly committed liberal parents that I know have very liberal politics (though not left) and all know the right things to say. Their kids do volunteer work (which also serve to pad youth resumes). They want everyone to “succeed” or, as Hillary says, to “get ahead” (as if everyone can get ahead). But of course, as normal parents, what really counts is that their own kids get ahead.

      It is simply impossible to talk about education reform without talking about reform of the larger society. And the only metaphor that really counts is Warren Mosler’s dog bone metaphor: if you have 100 dogs and 95 bones, you can reform all you want and you still end up with a social war in which the only point is to make sure you get a bone. Our problem now is two-fold: 1) there is no commitment to providing 100 bones and 2) even successful people (especially successful people – the meritocracy) have internalized the kind of competitive society this metaphor represents, so even if occasionally there are enough bones, the way people think about raising their kids assumes that it is a competitive society where getting ahead involves winning (over others who must necessarily lose).

      So while I am completely supportive of public schools providing all kids with higher quality education, it is by definition impossible for all kids to have better opportunities in a society in which those opportunities are rationed.

      1. GramSci

        I strongly recommend taking a look at J D Alt’s proposed education reform, posted by Yves today.

      2. Which is worse - bankers or terrorists

        I respect your position but my goodness this is misguided. History is littered with the archeological remains of failed civilizations that failed to acknowledge and prepare for global competition. Consider China prior to the Opium Wars.

        I do not think this is at all responsible. Humans are fundamentally predatory and you can’t legislate this away.

        1. BillC

          Meritocratic recognition and selection of leaders, decision makers, and inspired creators by their demonstrated skill, experience, and achievement (what I think you’re implying is essential for survival) does not require that we punish the mass of less-gifted or less-ambitious students and citizens. Nothing except selfishness keeps us from insuring a decent life for all — from kindergarten to the old folks’ home, socially and materially — yet, if our leadership selection systems were functional, we’d still be able to compete and succeed globally.

          1. Which is worse- bankers or terrorists

            Ok, but how does a society determine what makes a leadership selection system functional?

            1. Anon

              That governmental policy follows the stated wishes/sentiment of a majority of the citizenry? It sure wouldn’t include the Electoral College.

        2. Left in Wisconsin

          I think maybe you read something into my post that is not there. “Humans are fundamentally predatory” – what does that mean? Humans are also fundamentally cooperative and it is pretty hard to explain the modern world as the exclusive outcome of a war of all against all.

          Do you really think neoliberalism is making U.S. society stronger and more competitive?

          Also, I’m not sure to what your comment about “legislating this away” refers. See my comment below for what seem to be better ways to organize education. Parents are always going to do what they can to help their children succeed. It would be impossible and stupid not to understand this, account for it, and encourage it. The questions is, to what ends are were driving that success.

    2. ambrit

      Agreed. Accepting that framing inexorably leads to a global “race to the bottom.”
      There are perfectly good reasons for nation states and borders.

    3. Susan the Other

      You nailed the question cuibono. Teaching children something so counterproductive and abstract as “competition strategies for a global marketplace” is nauseating. Because the truth would have to be fudged all over the place – the truth being that successful competition is cutthroat and requires monopoly control. That’s the truth. So this is the equivalent of teaching children to be successful sociopathic monopolists. Not to put too fine a point on it.

    4. Marbles

      We don’t.

      Kids that go to the best public schools go to universities with other kids from the best public schools.
      If they happen to choose the right major, only the best of them go on to the upper middle class employee lifestyle that is envisioned.

      And this creaming process continues in the workforce…to a point. The skill set to do the production oriented job is often very different than the skill set to manage others doing the job and the higher order (and less academic/merit based) “leadership” and ownership roles.

      Even if we could recreate Eton/Exeter for all of the public schools in America, in the World – we don’t have enough jobs for them with the current system.

      With grade inflation, credential inflation, wage stagnation, automation, etc – the system creates far too many of the highly educated people for it to absorb.

      1. Heraclitus

        I completely agree, Marbles.

        Life is a game of musical chairs from beginning to end. I recall the mad dash to find an internship in business school twenty-five years ago. Competition was bad then, and has only gotten worse.

        Schools of all sorts are in the business of promoting their own interest, which is usually to grow larger while maintaining the appearance of exclusivity.

  2. Hayek's Heelbiter

    One aside.

    I believe it was John Lindsay, the liberal mayor of New York from 1966-1973, who actually from the noblest of motives, shut down all the trade/vocational schools, as they “condemned” their students to a blue collar life. If I remember correctly, he believed training kids in clerical capabilities would prepare them for the office jobs of the future.

    Unfortunately, the skills it takes to be a great plumber are not the same as to be a hedge fund manager.

    Along with the realization that charter schools are not fulfilling their promise, are there any movements to resurrect trade/vocational schools?

    1. kurtismayfield

      Trade and Vocational schools in Massachusetts are already so popular that demand has outstripped supply. This has created a situation where they can choose their students, and they choose the most well behaved, least problematic ones. Besides their application process, Vocational schools have a very easy way of getting rid of students they don’t want.. they deny them the Vocational training that they want. If a kid does not play ball their first half of the freshman year, the schools will put them into a vocational training that they did not request.. basically ensuring that the students go back to their original district.

      In part I don’t blame them.. would you want to be training a student in a dangerous profession that you did not trust? But this combined with the application process makes sure that the vocational schools get the best students, not necessarily the ones that need the vocational education.

    2. Adam1

      What should happen is that shop class should be integrated into the academic teachings. Most trade skills are really applied sciences although few realize it. Try building a roof without actually doing trigonometry. Most craftsman do it without even knowing it (sadly).

      My wife used to teach high school art. Her district moved to block scheduling (90 minute classes) in her last couple years there. She and her students loved it. Try 90 minutes in a math class. It’s painful for the students and the teacher. Now you could make it more exciting if you could blend your academic classes with applied classes. I remember hating Shakespeare in English classes. Then when I was in college I got to see some Shakespeare performances and loved it. It’s mean to be performed not read, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be experienced in school it just takes blending of activities to make it work.

      1. readerOfTeaLeaves

        Completely agree, and every single bit of Ed Psych that I’ve ever read confirms this: the brain needs a mix of activities, often in a social context.

        I know some remarkable teachers: every one of them managed to get into schools where drama, music, non-STEM activities were promoted. And students flourish, because there is a wider range of skills and talents to master and more ways to participate.

  3. Marshall Auerback

    ‘Armed with new funding, a committee of teachers and administrators at Brockton launched an ambitious literacy initiative in the late ‘90s to give students a foundation for success in all subjects. In addition to basics like reading and writing, students learned skills not covered by standardized testing, such as speaking,”

    In other words, they are (gasp!) emphasising a curriculum and educational practices that were quite common in schools before many “modern” ideas about education started to take over. What a concept!

    1. Fred Maps

      I agree. It’s like the author of the article discovered a new idea, or something.
      Schools would have plenty of money if they concentrated on basics, instead of top heavy administration that we never needed 100 years ago. Kids used to go to college at much earlier ages and knew the classics in grade school better than high schoolers.

  4. dutch

    The education establishment has historically been susceptible to snake oil salesmen. Every decade or so a new magic bullet is discovered that if only every district adopted all the perceived shortcomings of our schools would be cured. Teachers and administrators have spent their careers being whipsawed by such ever changing educational fads. The fact is that there is no right way to teach and no right way to run a school building. Educating children is an art not a science. As in any artform, trial and error, experimentation and individual inspiration are what make for good teachers and good administrators. If you want good schools hire good teachers and let them teach. Hire good administrators who understand that the faculty ARE the school. Listen to what the teachers recommend and make sure they are provded with the resources they need. There you have it in a nutshell – the real silver bullet! Anyone is welcome to impliment my method and you don’t even have to give me credit.

    1. readerOfTeaLeaves

      IMVHO, it’s far more interesting than you describe.
      Over the past 30 years, due to the evolution of imaging technologies and far more understanding of brain development and kinds of cognition, the science has started (slowly….) driving changes in learning, and teaching. And instructional design.

      I think this post does an absolutely terrific job of explaining how the different approaches to organizations and ‘efficiency’ — ‘Taylorism’ vs Deming — reorganized education: Taylorism ended up as a disaster for many businesses, as well as education. Deming’s work is far more consistent with the ed psych that I’ve read, which seeks to unearth the science of how people actually learn. (Or what impedes learning: trauma, fear, anxiety, lack of sleep, and poor nutrition all impact learning.)

      If you are interested, Howard Gardner’s work on Multiple Intelligences (“Frames of Mind”) is illuminating. Basically, he starts by asking, “how did anyone figure out how to make and sail a dhow?” It’s a complicated question, and leads to identifying all the different kinds of cognitive tasks that must be mastered in order to build a dhow. Following from this examination, we get a much better sense of ‘whole brain’ learning, and the importance of involving different aspects of the mind in developing curriculum and lesson plans. The most remarkable teachers of my acquaintance, without exception, integrate Gardner’s ideas about the ‘whole brain’ and ‘discovery’ into their teaching, and create situations where kids can use ‘multiple intelligences’ in mastering information. Fascinating stuff.

  5. Carla

    In his book “Resisting Illegitimate Authority,” Bruce E. Levine points out that many who have successfully resisted authoritarianism would, in today’s world, have been drugged or otherwise beaten into submission by the educational system. He profiles Ralph Nader, Malcolm X, Edward Snowden, Emma Goldman, Lenny Bruce, and many others. Subtitled “A thinking person’s guide to being an anti-authoritarian–strategies, tools and models,” I recommend it. A very good read.

    Available at your local independent bookstore via

  6. NoBrick

    Deming: “Understanding what a system is, and is not, is central to improving (quality).

    Noel Wilson’s “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” knocks the shit out
    of the “bosses’ propaganda”, aka test scores

  7. bruce wilder

    The rhetoric of this article borders on cheering “mom and Apple pie” while decrying “disaster”.

    There are some serious problems at the core of education as societal reproduction that get in the way of the best intentions of idealists and professionals. Like parental and community involvement in motivating and governing schools: how can that be done without reproducing racism or class? And, how to fight disparities in funding and racial or class segregation without disabling community governance?

    Those issues trickle down into perennial problems like how to teach reading to students who fall behind the “standard” grade progression by more than a year by adolescence. Where are age-appropriate (aka interesting) books and magazines written for 8th graders at a 3rd grade reading level? How are “behavior” problems handled? PE? Expulsion? Family Counseling? Breakfast? How can achievement recognition be made diverse?

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      Exactly right. The only scheme I have ever heard about that I think could work in our context is what I have been variously told is the Danish or Finnish system – and I have no idea if this is really how they do it – where the norm is for every kid to have the same teacher for 9 years, K-8. The teacher gets to really know the kid and the kid’s family, there is no passing on failure to next year’s teacher(s), teaching and learning can be adapted to individual learning styles, etc. Every US teacher I have ever brought this up to, even the very good ones, is horrified by the idea.

      Teaching is both a job and a calling. A good teacher is worth two or three times what they get paid; a lousy teacher is worth nothing. Because we all have a much easier time conceiving of teaching as a job, we don’t do enough to support good teachers and tolerate too much bad teaching. (Although in my opinion the quality of the average K-12 teacher now is substantially higher than it was when I was in school.) But the one way we do “support” good teachers is to allow them to teach the best students. It only makes sense but it reinforces everything you point out. And, as I noted above, the level of commitment of today’s meritocratic parent to their own kid’s educational success is completely insane. (No getting high at lunch time for their kids. Not that we ever did that.)

      If we were really serious about “no child left behind,” we would get to know every single kid, have one or more teachers deeply invested in each kid’s success, and have that level of personal investment as a multi-year commitment.

  8. Wayne Liebman

    The correct subtitle of Gabor’s book is “How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform” not “How Smart Schools Upend Business Reform,” as you have it. Big diff.

  9. Harold

    Although this post dates from yesterday, I second Andrea Gabor’s observation that we already know a lot about education and “what works”.

    Interestingly, when Finland set about to reform its schools, its goal was not to improve academic performance, (still less competitiveness) as such, but rather to try to make its society, more humane and equitable, and in particular to reduce economic inequality. The high international test scores that resulted were an unlooked-for bonus.

  10. Luke

    To fix government schools…

    1) Any holder of any Education college degree and/or (current or past) NEA/AFT union member MUST be barred from setting foot on any school property, along with anything they have ever spoken or written, saving only in the capacity of a parent to their own children. (Tenure and union membership for teachers has to end, obviously; people elsewhere have to keep earning the right to stay in their jobs, so should teachers.)

    2) Require teachers above Elementary grades have bachelor’s degrees where they majored in the subject they teach. (Teachers also need to have Stanford-Binet IQs north of 115, and to have different fields pay differently, i.e., the Chemistry teacher making >2x what the History teacher does.)

    3) As suggested by Chester Finn in the book “We Must Take Charge”, restrict subjects taught in high schools during core hours to Science (NOT “how do you feel about science”), History, Mathematics (same way as Science), Literature, and Writing.

    4) End social promotion — if you’re not at grade level in Math and Reading, you don’t advance. (ESL and lax/different rules, esp. discipline, for varsity athletes and LD/lower-IQs have to go, too.)

    5) Lower the voluntary school leaving age to 14, accelerating what’s taught before then. Rationale: the kids who don’t want to be there learn zip post-14, but waste money and distract the kids who do. REAL vocational/trade schooling (welding, electrician, millwright, etc.) would of course reduce dropout rates.

    6) Instead of what we have now, instead give parents vouchers that are a proportional share of the taxes paid per kid to take their kids to better schools, which may be distant public schools, or private (many religious). If the pub schools die but the kids are getting way better educated, so be it.

    7) Use John Taylor Gatto’s and Jaime Escalante’s subject-revisiting techniques for important subjects (e.g., math, reading, science).

    8) Fire anyone in the school system that has a problem with any of the above.

    Related: how public schools apparently cause over 1,000 suicides per YEAR in the U.S.:

  11. Luke

    Oh, and Common Core and non-phonics reading instruction, along with all its advocates, have to be legally barred from the schools.

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