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 typically support things like school choice 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.

The goals of education reform have often been overshadowed by traditionalist critics, who say we should leave schools alone and instead keep the focus on more funding. They aren’t big fans of charter schools, tax-credit scholarships or vouchers, and they’re becoming increasingly agitated by reform efforts in states like Kentucky.

Just look at Kentucky, where school choice has been cast aside by most teachers as a get-rich-quick-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 it’s no wonder why “reform” isn’t a popular concept.

I think with a better conversation, that could change.

It goes without saying that reformers sometimes miss the mark. There are some individuals who are only in the game to make a name for themselves, and of course, anyone can look around and find bad charter schools or poorly-designed policies. But that doesn’t mean that we should take an approach of outrage and endless criticism when the reform movement has pointed out some serious issues we should be working together to solve instead. 

At a time when nearly a third of Kentucky’s students are graduating unprepared for college and less than 20% of Black students are proficient in reading, we shouldn’t simply settle with the idea that funding is the solution to all of our problems. It’s a difficult truth to stomach, but money alone won’t fix the inequities that continue to hinder our students’ ability to be successful.

For example, 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 continue to view “reform” as a four-letter word, when all it really means is change. That really is the substance of education reform, after all: creating the change we need to help schools better serve all students.

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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