Why School Reform has Consistently Failed


Sixteen years ago, No Child Left Behind increased the role of the federal government in public education to boost student achievement. Eight Years ago, Race to the Top began to offer competitive grants to states that adopted the Common Core State Standards to prepare students for college. And two years ago, Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law, which replaced and reversed NCLB by returning power back to states in an attempt to improve student outcomes. Contrary to popular opinion, schools have received significant funding and resources and yet, not much has changed.

In Charles Payne’s So Much Reform, So Little Change, he notes a striking paradox within low performing schools: “when resources are made available, social and political barriers often inhibit their being brought to bear.”  The dysfunction of our schools is deeper than we let on—money, resources and even expertise cannot change schools until the underlying barrier is addressed: demoralized professional culture.

In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg gave a $100 million donation to reform the Newark public school system. His contribution was matched by other donors, awarding Newark with a total gift of $200 million. Despite the sizable funding, Newark schools were left little changed. In 2015, Dale Russakoff published The Prize, a behind the scenes account of the city’s attempt to fix its failing schools. In her book, Russakoff revealed the spending breakdown of the $200 million budget, $21 million of which were spent on high profile consultants experienced in creating data systems, developing evaluation methods and restructuring bureaucratic hierarchies, but who lacked the ability to apply these skills in schools generally and in the Newark district specifically. Russakoff noted that the largely poor, black and latino community of Newark viewed these consultants as outsiders and thus, resisted and mistrusted their efforts. When relationships between reformers and a school community is poor, little progress can be made. Successful reform relies on the willingness and ability of teachers and school leaders to adopt the recommended policies, practices or programs. However, if those responsible for enacting reform do not trust the recommendations that come from their “higher-ups,” little change will take place. In order to build greater trust, "higher ups" must be representative of the communities that they serve—they must have proven success in the classroom and experience working within and supporting the community. At the school level, district level and at the system level, students are left vulnerable because they are surrounded by adults who do not trust, and therefore cannot cooperate with, one another.

When adults lack trust and respect for one another, the results become painfully clear in schools—teachers form factions, the leadership is undermined, low expectations run rampant and staff communications dwindle. For those longtime failing schools, many teachers and leaders have come to accept and expect the continued failure of their students. It is not uncommon for a new teacher to join a school eager to make changes and take initiative, but be met with suspicion and animosity because she is  disrupting the status quo of low expectations. The resulting tension either drives the new teacher away or beats her down to the pessimism of the rest of the staff. Demoralized professional culture makes it impossible for schools to improve because staff members are unable to give or receive constructive feedback from those they do not trust or respect. Consequently, the dysfunction among adults trickles down into the student body.

School reform must begin by transforming the way in which adults communicate and work together in schools. Without a strong social infrastructure, schools cannot make optimal use of funding, resources and expert staff. The teacher certification process must prepare educators and school leaders to work across difference, communicate effectively and build a strong sense of self. Though these skills may seem somewhat tangential to the work of education, they are core to the foundation of creating a positive school culture, and thus, productive and meaningful teaching and learning.