Home > Essays > We Can’t Learn From Failures We Don’t Know About: Report Showing The Test-and-Punish Regimen Beloved by Reformers Cost Billions, Accomplished Nothing.

We Can’t Learn From Failures We Don’t Know About: Report Showing The Test-and-Punish Regimen Beloved by Reformers Cost Billions, Accomplished Nothing.

July 15, 2021

I entered the phrase “Move fast and break things” into Goggle and got this explanation:

Move fast and break things” is a saying common in science and engineering industries. In that context, it means that making mistakes is a natural consequence of innovation in a highly competitive and complex environment.

“Move fast and break things” was one of several mantras thrown in the face of educators in the early 2000s as a wave of disruptive change swept through public education. Charter schools and No Child Left Behind were rooted in the notion that if public schools were subjected to market forces, freed from regulations, and measured with precision using standardized tests they would improve over time. Like corporations in the private sector, they could systematically examine the results of their counterparts, identify the practices and elements of instruction that were “successful” in boosting test scores, and replicate them in their own schools. To help them in this mission, the federal government would offer competitive grants. 

As one who immediately and urgently argued against this idea when it was presented in the form of Race to the Top, I was not surprised to learn of it’s abject failure as a strategy. But as one who believes that it is possible AND necessary to learn from mistakes, I was disappointed to learn of its documented failure from a recent Common Dreams article by Diane Ravitch. Ms. Ravitch’s devastating critique of Race to the Top ends with these paragraphs: 

What NCLB, Race to the Top, and SIG demonstrated was that their theory of action was wrong. They did not address the needs of students, teachers, or schools. They imposed the lessons of the non-existent Texas “miracle” and relied on carrots and sticks to get results. They failed, but they did not prove that money doesn’t matter.

Money matters very much. Equitable and adequate funding matters. Class size matters, especially for children with the highest needs. A refusal to look at evidence and history blinds us to seeing what must change in federal and state policy. It will be an uphill battle but we must persuade our representatives in state legislatures and Congress to open their eyes, acknowledge the failure of the test-and-punish regime, and think anew about the best ways to help students, teachers, families, and communities.

The findings of the report were devastating, not only to the SIG program, but to the punitive strategies imposed by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which together cost many more billions. 

Worse, as future blog posts will indicate, we just came away from a once in a generation opportunity to rethink the way we provde schooling, the way we measure “success” in schools, and the way we pay for schools and, in part because this refusal to look at evidence and history is blinding us to the changes we need to make if we ever hope to improve the ultimate goal of public education: to provide every child with an equitable opportunity to thrive in our democracy. 

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