Sheep in Wolve's Clothing: A Business-as-Usual Group Tries on the Rhetoric of School Reform

Peter Wood

                A group called Strong American Schools has just issued a report with the provocative title Diploma to Nowhere.  The report is a lavishly produced cry of alarm: our high schools are failing. Millions of graduates are tricked into thinking their high school diplomas mean they are “ready for college academics.” But they aren’t. As a result, 1.3 million students end up in college remedial programs that cost between $2.31 to $2.89 billion per year. 

                That’s alarming all right, but who is “Strong American Schools”? The organization’s website declares that it is “a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, [and] a nonpartisan campaign supported by The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation promoting sound education policies for all Americans.”   But the history of the organization and why it was founded are more elusive. The Gates Foundation issued a press release on April 2007 that throws a little more light on the genesis of Strong American Schools. The organization was apparently founded at that point with $60 million and the goal of injecting a particular version of school reform into the 2008 Presidential election. Strong American Schools’ original project was “ED in ‘08” described as “a sweeping public awareness and action campaign that will mobilize the public and presidential candidates around solutions for the country’s education crisis.” 

                Of course a lot depends on what you think the crisis is.   Is it our dependence on a teaching corps that in most states has been through the highly ideological training of schools of education and who bring their confused pedagogy to class? Is it our consumerist culture awash in short-term gratifications against which the schools can barely compete? Is it what Charles Murray calls “educational romanticism” that insists that every child can be “above average” and go to college if provided with the right kind of teaching? Is it perhaps an educational system that is dominated by teachers unions more concerned with their prerogatives than with educating students? Could it be the deterioration of academic standards which the No Child Left Behind initiative singled out as the key factor?

                Well, no. None of those appear to be the crises that Strong American Schools is agitated over. Strong American Schools is a bit cagey about defining “the crisis” since it “does not support or oppose any particular candidate for public office or any political party. Nor does it take positions on legislation.” It professes only to favor “rigorous debate on our schools by making them a top priority in the 2008 presidential election.”

                But we can see a little bit of light around the edges of this cardboard silhouette.  The chairman of Strong American Schools is Roy Romer, the former Democratic governor of Colorado and “most recently superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.”   The steering committee includes Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza. Of course, the Steering Committee and the Board of Trustees are balanced in a nicely non-partisan way. Henry Cismeros and Senator Bob Kerrey are on the Board, but so are Ken Mehlman (former Republican National Committee chairman) and Rod Paige (former Secretary of Education). 

                What one can make of this is that Strong American Schools is a thoroughly establishment endeavor.   The organization’s 11-page Policy Primer holds out three goals:

                Regardless of where they live, all students need to acquire knowledge and skills that prepare them for college, for the workplace, and for life. From New Hampshire to Nevada, every student deserves a strong curriculum in subjects like math and English.

                (We note with sadness that students in Maine and California apparently don’t deserve this strong curriculum.)

                Effective teachers in every classroom. We need to enable teachers to improve their skills, mea­sure teachers’ performance in the classroom,and pay them more if they produce superior results or take on challenging assignments.

                More time and support for learning. We need to provide successful and struggling students alike more time for in-depth learning and greater personal attention.

                And that’s it.  I guess we could wonder about whose version of reality this really is. But it is a deep mystery. Who is it that thinks we can solve our core problems in schools by paying teachers more for superior results? By preparing all students “for college, for the workplace, and for life?” By hiring more teachers so that all students have time for “in-depth learning and greater personal attention?” 

                Strong American Schools, as far as I can tell, is silent on matters like school choice, vouchers, and charter schools.  

                The Strong American Schools’ website offers one more clue as to what this is all about. Strong American Schools and “ED in ‘08” are “successors to the STAND UP campaign launched in 2006.” Stand where? “Stand Up for Public Education” was a project of the American Association of School Administrators—whose motto is “Educating the Total Child.” The Stand Up Fact Sheet suggests rather strongly that this was an effort to combat both the No Child Left Behind emphasis on testing and, more generally, the sinking public confidence in the nation’s public school system. Stand Up was rather more forthright than Strong American Schools in its declaration “first to respond to inaccurate, negative attacks on public education and educators.” 

                But this is not to confuse the old and new campaign. The old one, for example, sought to “promote research showing the critical role of the superintendent in improving student outcomes.”   The new one seems to imply those superintendents are handing out “diplomas to nowhere” by the cart-full.

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