The "Big Three" of Education Reform

Joanne Barkan, writing in Dissent, argues that three big nonprofit foundations (the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation), working together, exert a “decisive influence” on public-school education. “Whatever nuances differentiate the motivations of the Big Three, their market-based goals for overhauling public education coincide: choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision-making,” she writes. But, Barkan warns, these market-based reforms are hardly a panacea: “[E]vidence is mounting that the reforms are not working. Stanford University’s 2009 study of charter schools-the most comprehensive ever done-concluded that 83 percent of them perform either worse or no better than traditional public schools; a 2010 Vanderbilt University study showed definitively that merit pay for teachers does not produce higher test scores for students; a National Research Council report confirmed multiple studies that show standardized test scores do not measure student learning adequately. Gates and Broad helped to shape and fund two of the nation’s most extensive and aggressive school reform programs-in Chicago and New York City-but neither has produced credible improvement in student performance after years of experimentation.” (HT: Jason Ward) [%comments]

Scott Templeman

I would like to point out that Charter schools have made a drastic impact in New Orleans post Katrina (and are likely a better example of true reform over New York Or Chicago)

James Hoadley

So the joint conclusion of all these studies is to simply give up, because nothing will get any better, no matter what you try?


"...a 2010 Vanderbilt University study showed definitively that merit pay for teachers does not produce higher test scores for students; a National Research Council report confirmed multiple studies that show standardized test scores do not measure student learning adequately."

So, what you're saying is merit pay doesn't produce higher test scores, but that's irrelevant, since test scores are meaningless.

Or are you saying that only the test results that confirm your thesis are relevant and all others are not?

You can't have it both ways.

Annoyed Teacher

The evidence that charter schools made any impact is not clear from your reference, Scott. It's a good headline, but it's not the facts.

The closing lines say that there are "not a plethora of excellent schools." Which, since 75% of the school are charters, is not a resounding endorsement.

That charter schools rebuilt quickly is no shock, there's money to be made if you can move faster than bureaucracy. It's just as likely that these gains were caused by a new seriousness among students after a tragedy as it is that the school ownership had anything to do with it.


As I understand it, Merit Pay is not supposed to instantly increase test scores. Its not that teachers are lazy and need extra prodding. The idea behind merit pay is that it offers good teachers more incentive to stay and less-than-good teachers less incentive. It also attracts more of the young teachers who are looking to work hard and climb the ladder, rather than someone who just wants to go through the motions until they get a pension.
Similarly, the point of Charter Schools is not that Charter Schools are always better. They are experiments. Some will be better, some won't and some will be failures. The idea is that through competition and choice and the market, the successful schools will thrive and be emulated, and the failures will be weeded out.

Neither merit pay or charter schools are intended to be THE WAY to fix education in and of themselves. They are mechanisms for discovering and testing new ways of providing education.


Scott Templeman

Sorry to Annoy you, I was referring to the decreasing number of failing students.

But as mentioned in the article, trying to analyze this problem in strictly quantitative measures is (literally) failing our children. Qualitative Look at New Orleans:

Happy National School Choice Week :o)

Cyril Morong

Carl Bialik, the WSJ numbers guy, had a column about this in Dec. Here is the link

Here are two excerpts

"But a closer look at the study reveals a potential methodological problem. There could be differences between the two pools of students, such as parental involvement or drug use, not accounted for in the study."

"There is some consensus among these studies. Researchers generally have found that charter schools in low-income, urban areas boost test scores, while suburban charter schools in wealthier areas don't.

Sean Reardon, an associate professor of education at Stanford who isn't involved in the studies by his university colleagues, says it is clear not all charters are equally successful."


That is a poor use of a percentage. What if 79% of charter schools studied produced the same results, 4% worse and then 17% better.

It's not that I don't believe the results it's that they are trying to tell a story without enough information which is bad for that study if the conclusions are in fact what the percentages quoted imply.

Eric M. Jones

Here is my expert opinion:

1.) Feynman made the point that all the records exist to see what works and what doesn't...and we simply ignore it.

2.) Don't reward or seek out really amazing teachers or administrators like Geoffrey Canada. What will remain if he gets hit by a bus? The cult of personality is great, but dangerously limiting.

3.) Much of the problem probably involves America's believe that every child needs an education. Maybe they don't. Maybe they need babysitting, then warehousing, then institutions. Don't let them disrupt classrooms for those who really want to learn.

4.) Brick and mortal buildings with pupils in rows never did work for children. The internet will certainly take over teaching as it did banking. Let it.

Eric M. Jones

Oh yeh,

5) If you must have schools, don't build any more schools, just fix the old ones. Ever heard of expansion???


Part of the problem is we're assuming that the keys to test scores lie in the schools.

It's amazing no-one ever collates the data behind economic & family status and compares that to median test scores in PUBLIC schools

What you'll find if you search is that:

1) Higher the median family income of the school - the better its test scores

2) Greater proportion of 2 parent households the better the test scores get again.

Maybe the key missing piece to helping kids learn ISN'T in the school. There are good and bad teachers in the BEST schools AND the WORST. If you took most teachers from an poor under-performing classroom, and stuck them into a wealthy classroom the scores wouldn't go down.

Just maybe parents & society need to step up and take responsibility for a system that's being run by the patients instead of the professionals.

Lets bring responsibility back on the STUDENT and PARENTS who ship kids off to school, have little educational involvement with their child, yet organize witch-hunts when a test score is low.

Education is the most vital resource a country has.

Our system is like walking into a hospital and telling the surgeon how to perform your surgery. Pupil telling the teacher what to do.... bad results.



The biggest and most crucial difference between charter school students and traditional public school students is parental involvement. It takes parental involvement to enroll a student in a charter school. Then when you add that when a child is kicked out of a charter school the traditional school has to take them, charter school have few special education students and fewer ESL students. Many don't have public transportation or lunch programs. Charter schools and traditional public schools do not have the same population of students and don't operate under the same rules.

Brian A. Clamp

I am not convinced about all the education
reforms that have taken place in the
last decade. In my opinion, both the
democrats and republicans need to get out
of the classroom. True reform can only
start at the local level.

We are hitting a brick wall and creating more
problems in the long run by having an all
college-prep curriculum in our high schools.
A vocational curriculum is also needed.
Which brings me to the next question,
why do state prisons in California have
excellent vocational or trade programs
and not our high schools?

Eric M. Jones

Oh, yeh,

6) Textbooks, especially college books, are a GIANT RACKET.

Anyone interested in education should read what Richard Feynman says about education. Feynman was astonishingly brilliant and his views are at least worth hearing, especially his discussion of education in Brazil and his time on the California Curriculum commission. Try the following, but there is more in "Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman". Put his books on your kindle.

Joan A.

.... Teachers generally do the best job they can with what they've got. And we wish administrators would build cases to fire bad teachers. (Yes they can.) I, for one, want better training, more arts everywhere, smaller class sizes*, more planning time, longer year, before/after school programs! ... Why doesn't someone ask teachers, who are there on the front lines doing the job, what's needed to improve education? And keep in mind that teachers can't do much about the anti-intellectual culture, poor home environments, and poverty.
*I suspect research saying class size doesn't matter used similar teaching methods with both groups. like lecture and worksheets ... but methods change and get more intensive, hands on, and personal in smaller classes in the real world.

Parents who desire Charter Schools are willing to support their generally non-disabled & well behaved kids. Public schools must take 'em all.

BTW, Wall St. Journal reported that if my state of Massachusetts were a country we'd be 3rd in the world in math and science. Who's looking at us for some answers?!


I wonder

> neither has produced credible improvement in
> student performance after years of experimentation

And neither has anything else. No matter how good the intervention, it doesn't work 100% ever, and there's always someone whingeing about it not benefiting the particular bit of education they happen to like. If you improve nine year olds' recall of multiplication facts, someone will show up to pound on the desk and yell that you're not improving their artistic talents or moral reasoning.

Gates is at least trying to figure out how to accurately measure success, which is more than the whiners have done so far.


Well, its a shock that Dissent, one of the keystone organs of the progressive left would denounce educational reform efforts, isn't it? These are the specific reforms strongly opposed by teacher's unions, a vital part of the progressive political milieu.

You don't have to be some right-wing tea party nutjob to ascribe political motives to an article in a magazine which was founded to be specifically partisan in outlook - its The Nation's dimmer cousin. This is like getting your meta-analysis on tax policy from the National Review - possibly interesting, but probably suspect due to ideology.

One last note - its not that Charter Schools are any better than public schools. Arguably, they aren't. But you can ITERATE them - easily shutter the ones that stink, and start new ones. You'll end up with a better group of charter schools than public schools. Eventually, public schools get pulled along for the ride, improving all schools. A better question is whether public schools in areas with charter schools have improved at a faster rate than the national average.


Larry G.

Education is primarily the responsibility of the parents, not the school. Academic excellence is the consequence of excellent parenting, more than any other factor.

My parents were both teachers, were highly educated, and placed a high value on academic excellence for their children. Whether in school or at home, I was constantly thinking about the principles of science and math; and I was reading a huge number of books, even before 1st grade.

All I required of a school classroom was a quiet place to sit, so that I could complete the homework problems. I also challenged my teachers when their reasoning was faulty, as it often was.

My point with respect to charter schools is this: We must evaluate these schools on a per-child basis, by asking "is this the best academic environment for this particular child?" Some children (even very bright children) "attach" to their teachers and perform to please the teacher. Other children love dance and the arts. Other children excel when working in a team of peers. Still other children excel when given great independence to pursue educational projects on their own.

The only way to correctly evaluate a charter school is: Conduct intensive case studies of individual students, latitudinal over grades 1 - 12.


Dan G.

These are probably some of the dumbest comments I've seen in a while.

Charters perform worse than public schools on average so (New Orleans aside) by increasing Charters your making schools worse. No, merit pay and standardized testing are not inherently the same thing (merit pay can be based on grades etc.) so the author doesn't contradict herself in any way.

It's worth continuing to read on, In areas in the US with less than 10% poverty, it outperforms international by a large margin, in fact, areas with 10% - 24.9% poverty outperform ever single country with the same rate as well.

The problem isn't public schools, the problem is poverty.

Dr. Kate

I find the article and the comments quite informative and representative of the great American debate on education that has been around for a century or so. Drs. Larry Cuban and David Tyack, two of the foremost thinkers and intellectuals in the history and practice of teaching in the US, have written books that illustrate how our educational system hasn't changed over the past century; that our teaching remains the same. Whether we use standardized tests, merit pay for teachers, or charter schools that utilize smaller class sizes and have selective systems to disqualify students with particular needs, the WAY we teach is the same. Students still come to school, sit in rows, and listen to the teacher lecture particular material to learn the content in a particular way. This has NOT changed, which means that the educational system will still value and provide opportunities to particular students who come to school with particular skills. No so-called experimentation from any of the foundations will produce different results. Ultimately, the problem is poverty. Study after study both nationally and internationally have shown that when poverty is eliminated, students scores rise. So what I say is that instead of focusing all the attention on how to FIX schools, we should focus on communities. How can the foundations help communities that are entrenched in poverty gain the economic security to improve their lives.