Education Reform Isn’t A 4-Letter Word

If you didn’t know any better, you might think there’s a civil war brewing right now in school systems across the country. It’s called education reform.

Education reformers support school choice initiatives and accountability for public schools. Reformers are passionate about closing achievement gaps and building better public schools, but don’t necessarily believe that the conventional methods of education are the best way to achieve those goals.

On the other side are the traditionalists, who support their traditional neighborhood schools and teachers unions. They aren’t big fans of charter schools, tax-credit scholarships or vouchers, and they want the world to know it.

The goals of education reform have often been overshadowed by these traditionalist critics, whose campaigns to leave schools exactly the way they’ve always been have relied upon misinformation and willful ignorance of reformers’ intentions.

Just look at Kentucky, where school choice has been deemed a money-making scheme and charter school fearmongering is widespread. Toss in an unpopular governor who’s been painted as “anti-public education” and the removal of a long-standing certification requirement, and the rest is history.

I’ll be the first to admit that education reform sometimes misses the mark. There are certainly bad charter schools out there. There are ed reformers and thought leaders who are only in it to make a name for themselves; that’s not exclusive to education. But as a public school teacher myself, I can’t help but question those who endlessly critique the flaws of ed reform and its supporters without applying the same standards of judgment for traditional school systems.

How can critics point to bad charter schools and failed policies as “proof” that the ed reform movement has somehow failed when nearly a third of Kentucky’s students are graduating unprepared for college or a career? Why do anti-choice and anti-reform activists remain so tribal about schools that are clearly failing?

Be honest. How can we look at a system where less than 20% of Black students are proficient in reading and convince ourselves that everything is fine?

Perhaps it’s a difficult truth to stomach, but the shortcomings of traditional school systems have been a stern reality for thousands of students and families across the country. In just the past few years, we’ve seen evidence that Black students are three times more likely to be suspended than White students. We know that Black and Brown students are subject to the Belief Gap, and that they are less likely to enroll in gifted and talented programs or apply to top colleges even if they do earn excellent grades. We are also finally beginning to acknowledge that rural families want the same school choice freedoms that their urban counterparts enjoy. None of these issues can be resolved if we simply continue doing what we’ve always done in public schools.

A one-size-fits-all model of education is simply not viable for every student and family, and especially those who are among the most vulnerable. This is the substance of the education reform movement: to make schools better for those who need better schools the most.

We can have disagreements about how to best accomplish that goal. That’s fine. But to argue tooth and nail against the very idea of reform itself isn’t just counterproductive — it’s regressive. Our students deserve more than that, and it’s on us to lead the way.

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