The trend can be traced back to a hyperbolic 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk,” issued by President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. Against the backdrop of an ascendant Japanese economy and consistent with President Reagan’s disdain for public education (and teachers’ unions), “A Nation at Risk” blamed America’s ineffectual schools for a “rising tide of mediocrity” that was diminishing America’s global role in a new high-tech world.
Policymakers turned their focus to public education as a matter of national security, one too important (and potentially too profitable) to entrust to educators. The notion that top-down decisions by politicians, not teachers, should determine what children need was a thread running through the bipartisan 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top and state-initiated Common Core standards, and the current charter-driven agenda of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. “Accountability” became synonymous with standardized tests, resulting in a testing juggernaut with large profits going to commercial publishing giants like Pearson.
The education wars have been demoralizing for teachers, over 17 percent of whom drop out within their first five years. No one believes that teaching to the test is good pedagogy, but what are the options when students’ future educational choices, teachers’ salaries and retention and, in some states, the fate of entire schools rest on student test scores?
In meticulous if sometimes too laborious detail, Gabor documents reform’s institutional failings. She describes the sorry turns in New York City’s testing-obsessed policies, the undermining of Michigan’s once fine public schools (spurred in part by constant pressure from the DeVos family) and the heartbreaking failure of New Orleans to remake its schools after Hurricane Katrina. The largely white city establishment bypassed the majority-black community, inviting philanthropists and the federal government to rebuild its public schools as the nation’s first citywide, all-charter system. A dozen years later, more than a third of the city’s charter schools have failed.
These grim realities are not Gabor’s whole story. She takes pains to highlight diverse school districts that have succeeded, mostly by directly or indirectly implementing the “quality management” philosophy of W. Edwards Deming, the subject of one of her previous books. She sees Deming’s bottom-up, collaborative approach in New York’s progressive school movement, in postindustrial Massachusetts and in the large Leander district of central Texas as well as in inspiring, educator-led experiments across the country based on community participation, teacher voice, professional development and student-centered pedagogy.