Research evidence and the debate on education: Reform vs. Change  by Tim D'Emilio            [ received August 20,2006]      



Beneath the radar of most deliberations on education is a basic debate about what we can expect from schools.  There is an entire set of policies and research that operate with the assumption that the effects of poverty and racism, manifested in the “achievement gap.” can and will be amended by a top-to-bottom restructuring of the education system, now underway with No Child Left Behind, and varieties of reform that focus on student assets.  A different branch of research focuses on evidence that the very best of schooling can overcome the effects of poverty only up to a point, that reformers focus on schools because they refuse to tackle society.  After a sympathetic review of both arguments, the author recommends one of the positions and, on that basis, advocates for support for the teachers in Oaxaca , Mexico as a precursor to our own struggle between reform and change that will soon become more obvious in the U.S.


As the confrontation on the Oaxaca picket line between teachers and federal troops turns to armed violence, educators on this side of the border are debating the basic premise of their profession. 

On the one hand, some research is producing evidence that, given the right organization of school resources, kids from any background “can beat the odds” and close the achievement gap.  On the other hand, other evidence is reinforcing old findings that a single institution of society will not significantly budge the achievement gap because schooling has not fundamentally changed the destructive social factors that create the gap, such as racism and class.  To continue to claim it can change society’s ills simply makes excuses for its failings, and deflects and delays efforts for making broadly required changes.

The reformist position on closing the achievement gap is well represented in Eric Cooper’s paper on the promise of research-based school reform, presented at the Aspen Institute Summer Conference.  “Poverty is not destiny,” he proclaims with supporting data.  His organization “trains teachers to ‘believe in the capacity that every single child in America is capable of graduating from high school and doing well in college.  ‘Those children who are forced to survive in challenged family circumstances are all gifted children in the art of survival.’  Society cannot rely on heroic educators or on charter schools as the proverbial silver bullets for improving education in America.  ‘We need to recognize that public schools are the foundations of our society and we need all working together in all the schools,   whether public or charters.’” 1  Data and analyses on similar reforms that have turned around the prospects of minority students (on the basis of state-standards test scores) are available at Education Week 2, The Education Trust 3 and Morrison Institute for Public Policy4

The title of Diana Jean Schemo’s article in the NY Times summarizes the opposing view:  “It takes more than schools to close the achievement gap.”  When Schemo read a recently released federal Education Department report that children in private schools generally did no better than comparable students at public schools on national tests of math and reading,5 she posed the question, “What if the impediments to learning run so deep that they cannot be addressed by any particular kind of school or any set of in-school reforms?  What if schools are not the answer” to closing the achievement gap?  Schemo then lists a “…growing body of research suggesting that, while schools can make a difference for individual students, the fabric of children’s lives outside of school can either nurture, or choke, what progress poor children do make academically.”  After reviewing the impact of various environmental factors on learning, especially housing, she summarizes the findings with a quote by Richard Rothstein, ”… reforms aimed at education alone are doomed to come up short, unless they are tied to changes in economic and social policies to lessen the gaps children face outside the classroom.” 6

Reformers counter that behind Schemo’s social critique is a subtle disparagement of children’s learning capacity; their premise implies that schools are doing what they can with what they’ve got for students.  In fact, many teachers and administrators treat students as deficits and blame parents for lacking middle-class values.  In contrast, reformers like Cooper’s NAU group propose an approach to teaching that recognizes the talents which children bring to school and provides teaching methods that build on that potential, and on a students’ emerging confidence in their abilities, toward mastery of the curriculum.  The social critics answer Cooper in this way:  As desirable as the student-centered approach is, it is not new, it has never been embraced by the power-brokers, and is not likely to be adopted under the circumstances because it conflicts with the agenda, laid out in Nation At Risk, which defined the role of schools and ushered in our current top-down, standards-based, test-calculated approach to education.  


The crystallization of the Nation At Risk agenda is the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, presently under review for re-authorization.  Congress’ examination of its merits includes a search for evidence that the law is succeeding in reducing the achievement gap.  At one level, the legislators dither with nuances and compromises on granting waivers for meeting testing deadlines and $100 million for private school vouchers.  At another level, advocacy groups are testifying that the grounds for reauthorization are questionable.  States have “…handed in incomplete data, weak strategies for fixing inequities across schools, and goals so vague that they couldn't be measured.”  In addition, “by the end of the 2005-06 school year, states were supposed to make sure that every core class was taught by a highly qualified teacher.  No state made the deadline.”7  At an entirely different level, teachers and parents are experiencing the achievement gap, not as an abstract statistic, but in the form of push-out rates that are rising at much earlier ages, increases in school crime and dilapidated facilities.  Their view of education is one of a human right, not as someone’s agenda to be compromised or tweaked at the edges.  They see the gap as concrete evidence of a promise that keeps getting delayed, and they wonder if something more fundamental has to be changed before we loose another generation of kids.  


This parent/teacher perspective is being played out south of the border.  After having their own debate, teachers in the Mexican state of Oaxaca are in their second month leading a popular movement for broad social, educational and governmental change, including the removal of currently elected representatives.  A teacher educator from the U.S. reports that the Oaxacan teachers are confronting state and federal armed forces who are determined to break the teachers' strike with beatings, kidnapping and the murder of a member of one of the supporting groups.  The governor requested the federal troops when some state police refused to continue battling their neighbors.  Although one of the demands is a raise in teacher salaries, that issue is one part of a larger program for improving the general lives of Oaxaca students and their families. 


Evidence abounds for the two basic positions about U.S. education, but there is little indication that research will be used to actually decide the direction of broad education policy.   Where you stand on the broad issue will probably be determined by the group with whom you stand, and how much you have to loose in confronting policy makers.  In that context, I bring up two factors in recommending both a stance on the question and our involvement in the struggle of the Oaxacan teachers as preparation for our own future struggle here.  


First, the administrators of NCLB understand that the only way for the law to succeed is to establish a top-to-bottom alignment of state standards with testing, curriculum, textbooks and classroom instruction, across all subject areas, from Pre-K to Grade 12, involving parental responsibilities for home reinforcement of classroom lessons and their direct participation in school planning.  This tightly coordinated, horizontal and vertical system, combined with getting kids to perform academics as early as possible in pre-school, and the active involvement of local businesses in school policy, is acknowledgement of the influence of the environment in learning.  By implication, this fully aligned system is only one step away from extending that same logic to include a decent-paying job within the family, systematic health care and good housing, also, as essential conditions for learning. 


Secondly, there is a metaphor in medicine that applies to our discussion on education.  For the many years and billions spent on cancer research, the scientists at NIH will tell you that their research is principally aimed at managing the illness, not necessarily curing it.  To cure it, the policy makers and funding sources would have to acknowledge the fact that cancer is, by and large, an environmental problem before it becomes an individual’s disease.  In education as well as medicine, if we don’t address the environment, we’re not addressing causes.  Intended or not, doesn’t a focus on reforming school end up managing the achievement gap, not ending it? 


The point is that those of us who want to see the best of the reform agenda really succeed for kids, with “system-wide, promising results, beginning with – and building – student belief, hope, determination and confidence,” 8 should recognize that its success will require alignment of structures both within and outside the education system.  The Oaxacan teachers and their program’s supporters understand this.  They are not alone.  As of mid-August, “a network of activist teachers in LA is now planning a press conference in support of the teachers in front of the Mexican consulate.  The LA group is also planning more demonstrations, and they have attempted to conduct live telephone interviews on public radio with Oaxacan teacher leaders.  Both national teachers unions (AFT and NEA) passed resolutions in support of the Oaxacan teachers and promised some resources.” 9 


When we eventually find out that NCLB has fallen short, and Cooper’s student-focused approach never got fully disseminated due to budget restraints, we will face the same question the Oaxaca teacher and parents faced:  Do we give up on our kids or insist on a whole solution for every one of them?  When we decide for our kids, we’ll need to know how to go about it effectively.  In our own interest, then, we need to get involved with the fate of Oaxaca.  Your comments, and suggestions for how you wish to contribute to systemic change in the U.S., can be emailed to the SFtP website. 





[1] Eric Cooper, president, National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, “A New Way Forward for Urban Schools [to close the achievement gap]   The Aspen Ideas Festival, Summer 2006 (by Angie Cannon -- reporter's draft to capture NUA's participation at the Aspen's Family and Economics track);[article no longer posted, but check out Urban Alliance site: ]

[2] Education Week, “The Information Edge; Using Data to Accelerate Achievement.” Vol. 25, No. 35, May 4, 2006.

[4] “Why Some Schools with Latino Children Beat the Odds and Others Don’t.”

[5] Note “Federal Statistics Commissioner Questions NCES Involvement in Private vs. Public School Study in Education Week, Aug. 10, updated Aug. 14, 2006, in  Mark S. Schneider, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said last week that he was not faulting the study’s accuracy or methodology. But he said it was not proper for the research office to have directed a study that went so far in making judgments about how to interpret raw school data  (i.e., interpreting the raw data using SES as a variable).  Otherwise,It is a very high-quality study.

[6] “It Takes More Than Schools to Close Achievement Gap”  By Diana Jean Schemo, NY Times, On Education, August 9, 2006

[7]Poor minority kids may lack better teachers.”   The Associated Press, 8.11.2006


[8] Op Cit: Cooper, 2006.

[9] Open correspondence to the AZBLE Forum list serve, 8/13/06.