What Instead?: Reframing the Debate about Charter Schools, Teach For America, and High-Stakes Testing

Check out our new chapter in the book Assault on Kids and Teachers: Countering privatization, deficit ideologies and standardization of U.S. schools.

Contemporary efforts to “reform” education increasingly rely on private-sector neoliberal formulas that promote choice, competition, and the deregulation and privatization of public institutions, facilities, and services (Hyra, 2008). Scholars of urban education in cities across the country have noted, however, that such efforts represent abstract neoliberal promises that focus on profit and privatization rather than creating a capacity to repair, and restore hope in, public institutions serving historically marginalized communities of color.

Vasquez Heilig, J,. Brewer, T.J. & White, T. (2018). What Instead?: Reframing the debate about charter schools, Teach For America, and testing. In R. Ahlquist, P. Gorski and T. Montano (Eds.), Assault on Kids and Teachers: Countering privatization, deficit ideologies and standardization of U.S. schools, (pp. 201-217) New York: Peter Lang.

Michael A. Walrond Jr., a community organizer and resident of Harlem, recently noted the implementation of public policies can yield glaring contradictions between the rhetoric of Civil Rights and progress relative to the reality of deepening inequality— and the loss of control over the distribution of economic, cultural, and educational resources.

If you drive through this community, things look well and good on the surface. You’ll see new stores on restaurant row and million dollar homes around us. You’ll see places that are supposed to “restore.” But everyone does not get the promise of help and hope and healing in those spaces. …Culturally, this community was known for its richness and vitality…the incubator of creativity and imagination in the world. We have to recapture that. That means we still have work to do. Michael A. Walrond Jr. (aka “Pastor Mike”) (July 21, 2013)

In light of such trends, critical researchers in education have warned that similar to top-down, private-led restructuring efforts in urban neighborhoods that threaten the viability of local businesses and institutions, private-controlled reform efforts in education can lead (and have led) to closings of public schools and to disenfranchisement of low-income parents and families.

In light of such concerns, this chapter both analyzes and rejects current articulations of top-down, private-controlled school reform in favor of community-based education policies. Indeed, as top-down reform efforts cast working-class and low-income communities of color as individual actors with abstracted “choice,” these reforms minimize the collective experiences of discrimination facing these communities, including systemic inequities found in racially segregated and disparately funded schools, as well the bevy of reforms needed to improve opportunities to learn across schools. In the absence of a broader, community-based reform agenda, top-down education reforms have prioritized narrow goals for test score production at the expense of rectifying institutional forms of discrimination inside schools, such as deficit-oriented approaches to cultural diversity and instruction via inexperienced teachers, punitive treatment of low-performing schools and students, under-enrollment and exclusion of students with special needs, and racial disparities in suspension and expulsion rates.

Most importantly, however, this chapter recognizes that social conditions in urban communities can create ideal environments for community-based change, particularly as educators, parents, students, and citizens become aware of the limitations and contradictions of top-down reforms and are motivated to engage in community organizing initiatives. Social media, moreover, increasingly legitimizes the concerns and demands of communities and provides new opportunities to connect and engage both with nearby stakeholders, as well as with those in similar struggles across different cities.

As community stakeholders engage in struggle and partner with one another to identify institutional power-brokers and decision-makers, the moral and ethical weight of demands grow. This bolsters both the civic capacity of communities and the capacity of urban school systems to redefine, broaden, and improve the goals of student learning and performance. As these processes are neither linear nor disordered, requiring sustained yet circuitous efforts, a community-based reform model can offer insight into the elements necessary to effect change in urban schools through community involvement in education reform.

Hence, in support for “bottom up” approaches to education reform, this chapter will review the important contributions and future possibilities of community-based education policy as an alternative to top-down, private-controlled education reform. In Table 1 we show current top-down reforms and the community-based alternatives to those reforms. In this chapter we will contextualize and focus on community-based alternatives for three of the top-down private control and privatization reforms— the expansion of high-stakes testing, Teach For America, and charter schools.

Table 1. Community-Based Reform Alternatives to Top-Down Reform

Top-down private control and privatization Community-based, democratically controlled
Value-Added Teacher Evaluation Modeling Peer Assistance and Review
Teach For America Collaborative university/community partnerships
Corporate and for-profit charters Community schools
School closure/District takeover schemes Community districts
Privatized high-stakes assessment Community-based assessment
Top-down NCLB-style accountability Community-based accountability

Of particular concern within the current school reform discourse are increased public cacophony in support of high-stakes testing and standardization policies, the expansion of Teach For America in light of attacks on teachers and teachers unions, as well as policies incentivizing the expansion of charter schools. A brief history of the political framing of each of these policies is discussed below, as well as their current implementation, and their limited impact on improving the learning and performance of public schools and on disempowering the role of communities in the current educational context.

Although research and policy discourses analyzing and comparing the effectiveness and drawbacks of the various reforms in this chapter, whether top-down or grassroots, are far from new, the knowledge base concerning how such efforts should take place, by whom, and the degree to which they are sustainable remain underdeveloped. Hence, in light of a detailed review of the emergence and limitation of top-down reforms in education, the purpose of this chapter is to first discuss the reframing of neoliberal discriminatory policies as “Civil Rights.” We will then articulate “what instead?” ought to serve as better approaches to reform. In doing so, we identify and provide a conceptual understanding of bottom-up reforms that are emerging in the field and offer examples of community-based education reforms with the best potential to shift political capital, institutional control, and goals for teaching and learning back to communities.

Discriminatory Policies Reframed as ‘Civil Rights’

Much of the current educational policy landscape is rife with reforms that have at their core a discourse of ‘Civil Rights’ as the motivation for and approach to reforming teachers and schools. Seeking liberal goals of equality in education, many education reformers have aligned themselves with the economic theory of neoliberalism that seeks to marketize and deregulate in the quest for equality. This marketization and deregulation has manifested in a few arenas that we take up briefly here.

Overall, such reforms have sought to reframe how we train teachers, how schools receive students and financial resources, and have sought to increase the amount of standardized testing for the purpose of increased accountability on both teachers and schools. These reforms have been bolstered by a massive increase in private venture philanthropic money that provides the funds necessary for advocacy resulting in policy change and implementation (Reckhow & Snyder, 2014; Saltman, 2010). This partnership has culminated in reinforcing the myth of the ‘failed school’ (Berliner & Biddle, 1995) while championing reforms as integral ‘Civil Rights’ work. In other words, “urban schooling has become the cause célèbre of philanthropics in the United States, or what Arne Duncan has referred to as ‘the Civil Rights issue of our generation’” (Crawford-Garrett, 2013, p. 3).

The partnership between reformers’ Civil Rights rhetoric and venture philanthropic money has reified the belief that our nation’s schools and teachers are broken and that viable alternative solutions must be implemented. Yet, as Crawford-Garrett also pointed out,

The favored remedies, however, have little to do with the deep, reflective and locally driven approach that characterized the Civil Rights movement, emphasizing instead the de-professionalization of teachers, the persistent depiction of students and families as deficient and an overreliance on top-down mechanisms to improve teaching and learning (Crawford-Garrett, 2013, p. 3).

Broadly conceptualized, the teaching profession itself has experienced the most aggressive focus of the neoliberal reform movement. This has resulted in increased hyper-accountability, attempts to tie salaries to student test scores, systemic subversion of unions and tenure protections, and the advent and increase in alternative certification (Goldstein, 2014). The latter of those impacts, alternative certification, represents a unique opportunity to reframe who enters teaching, what they are taught prior to becoming the teacher of record, all of which culminate in an opportunity to reinforce dispositions that support increased testing and school choice.

Additionally, the last two decades have seen a massive increase in the amount of school choice expansion. Charter schools, for example, were originally envisioned as a place to afford educators the opportunity to implement best practices all the while with less bureaucratic burden (Lubienski & Weitzel, 2010). Yet, research has suggested that charter schools have done little more than exacerbate racial segregation and reinforce myopic test-prep pedagogy (Vasquez Heilig, 2015a)— while shifting much needed public resources into the hands of for-profit management companies. Crudely defined, charters allow students to abandon publicly controlled schools in favor of privately controlled schools while shifting public monies into private hands – similar, in many ways, to school vouchers. In an effort to explicate the impacts of each of these reforms we now briefly take each one up in turn.

These reforms systematically suggest that poverty is simply “an excuse” for low academic performance— the often heard mantra is the zip code shouldn’t matter (Carter, 2000; Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 2003). While often taken as a conversation about access, the subtext of this mantra is that poverty does not inform educational opportunities. Nor should poverty be perceived as narrowing educational outcomes as it should be a temporary (rather than structural) condition that can be overcome through nothing more than hard work and high expectations. Reformers suggest that those who point out decades of research that have concluded that schools and teachers cannot, by themselves, eradicate poverty represent an “apology for failure” (Weiner, 2011, p. 310).

Teach For America

Inextricably linked to the neoliberal paradigm of privatization under the guise of Civil Rights and equality is the push for deregulating access to teaching. Traditionally understood as a multi-year process undertaken at a university’s college of education, teacher preparation for the bulk of the last century has included training in pedagogy, methods, theory, child development, and psychology in addition to an extended student teaching period. However, because teachers have become a public scapegoat of the ‘failed school,’ education reformers and venture philanthropists have largely joined forces to support initiatives like Teach For America (TFA), The New Teachers Project (TNTP), and other similarly situated organizations. TFA is the largest and perhaps most prominent provider of alternatively certified teachers – which is a misnomer given that TFA corps members teach without actually being certified or credentialed. TFA’s alternative certification process begins with heavy recruitment at Ivy League schools and with students who hold high-profile campus leadership positions (e.g., student senate, Greek fraternity president, etc.). Prior to embarking on a two-year commitment to teach in underperforming schools, TFA corps members attend TFA’s 5-week Summer Institute where the corps member amasses approximately 125 hours in pedagogical and management coursework and 18 hours of student teaching in small summer school classroom (Brewer, 2014).

TFA has overtly broadcast its work as being on the front lines of the “new Civil Rights movement” (Brewer, 2013). TFA’s organization rhetoric insists that students living in poverty are unable to escape generational poverty because of a “lack of qualified teachers” (Kopp, 1989) that have been thrust onto them. Accordingly, TFA conceptualizes its role in Civil Rights discourse to be that of providing ‘better’ teachers who have college enrollment at the forefront of classroom practices (even at the elementary level) and who consider poverty an obstacle that is overcome simply with hard work (Farr, 2010; Kopp & Farr, 2011; Mathews, 2009). When considering TFA’s role as a top-down reform, the ideology implicit within TFA’s practices is also explicitly anti-community and anti- bottom-up. Specifically, TFA founder Wendy Kopp suggested that, “Education can trump poverty” as long as a teacher accepts her responsibility as the “key variable driving student outcomes.” “We – not parents, not neighborhoods, not school funding or heath care or racism or stable housing – “control our students’ success and failure.” (Goldstein, 2014, p. 203-204).

Ultimately, notwithstanding the organizations attempt to spin the results of evaluations of the program as a net positive, researchers have shown that academic achievement claims by TFA and corps members are exceedingly problematic (Vasquez Heilig, 2013; Vasquez Heilig & Jez, 2014). Results are more mixed than often reported by TFA (Kovacs & Slate-Young, 2013), and that any marginal achievements are likely illusory and the result of teaching-to-the-test pedagogy.

Additionally, When TFA and the like say that they are approaching education reform as a “civil right” what they are really saying is that they think the best solution for inequalities is privatization and an elevation of the individual over the collective good – an ideology that relies on and requires winners and losers.  Rather than the civil rights leaders of the 1960s who fought against literacy tests, for example, TFA insists that the best way to achieve equal rights is to teach Black and Brown children how to be better test-takers, rather than fighting against the punitive and oppressive nature of testing itself.  Embracing the tests of our generation is not revolutionary nor does it engage in or seek liberation, rather, it reinforces the very racial and socioeconomic injustices that it professes to ameliorate thereby subverting any semblance of the Civil Rights movement.

Charter schools

Initially conceived as a place where teachers would not only be free of excessive bureaucratic burden but also a space where teacher-driven best practices could be developed and shared (even with colleagues at traditional public schools), charter schools have become a beloved corporate reform of those seeking to implement market-based changes – often in the name of creating personal income as is the case of many for-profit charter schools. Charter advocates suggest that such forms of schooling result in positive first- and second-level effects of increasing student academic outcomes. Yet, while the predominance of the research on charters tells a different story (Vasquez Heilig, 2015a), the excitement surrounding charter expansion has been hyped in the media by popular films like Waiting for Superman (Guggenheim, 2010) and has resulted in the passing of state laws allowing charters at a faster rate than charters have been established (Lubienski & Weitzel, 2010).

However, charters have come under heavy scrutiny over the past few years, namely that they often have some form of entrance requirement (an essay, requirements of parent volunteer time, etc.), often “council out” students who don’t align with behavior expectations or who perform below academic expectations, and that such practices result in a massive amount of attrition (Welner, 2013). As such, while charter operators and advocates champion the ‘success’ of charters in raising student test scores and high school graduation, what is often left out of the conversation is the churn of students resulting in a more concentrated group that likely fits the ‘desirable’ caricature of a ‘good’ student (Vasquez Heilig, Williams, McNeil, & Lee, 2011). For example, the nation’s largest charter network Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) – founded by two TFA alums – has been documented to have student attrition rates as high as 60 percent (Horn, 2011). Moreover, despite claims that charters represent a viable arm of the education Civil Rights movement with socioeconomic justice as a foundation, the pedagogical culture of charters like KIPP undermine real democratic interpretations of a liberal education. For example, Jim Horn suggests that there is a “separation between culture and socioeconomic class” and that such a separation “exacerbates the kinds of callous cruelty enacted by KIPP personnel who act with little oversight and while under relenting pressure to achieve the unsustainable” (Horn, 2011, p. 91). Additionally, others have shown that despite charter school advocates suggesting that the form of schooling represents a possibility towards equality within the Civil Rights discourse, that charters have actually done more to promote segregation in addition to unequal funding (Frankenberg, 2011). 

High-stakes testing

While the genesis of the standards movement is firmly situated as an offspring of the 1983 release of A Nation at Risk, surely the passage of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 has facilitated the rapid growth in standardized testing across the country. The tests were framed by politicians as being synonymous will ‘Civil Rights’ as NCLB set an impossible goal to close racial “achievement gaps” by 2014. Directly linked to this increase in testing and the ‘Civil Rights’ narrative was an increase in “accountability” for schools and teachers to raise test scores. A school failing to raise scores faced incremental financial punishments and ultimately faced being restructured, closed or repurposed as a charter school. The advent of this increase in testing has resulted in teachers perceiving that they must employ teach-to-the-test tactics, being bluntly told that they ought to teach-to-the-test, and in some cases, cheat during or after the test (Brumback, 2013; Flock, 2011) to improve scores all in the effort to either stave off punitive measures for decreased or stagnant scores or benefit from rising ones.

Additionally, the increase of testing has provided an opportunity for reformers to suggest that teacher salaries be tied to testing outcomes; yet, such a disposition carries with it the possibility of treating teaching as a competitive, not collaborative, venture (Brewer, Myers, & Zhang, 2015). This approach also reinforces the belief that student achievement is an individualized aim where students seek to compete with one another for better results. In this line of reasoning, students in their effort to approach education as a means to an end like employment (Bills, 2004; Labaree, 1988, 1997) clearly embodies a sense of individuality that is not typically associated with the Civil Rights movement.

And while NCLB has been effectively rendered void with the advent of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, the creation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the remnant of a reliance on test scores as an indication of ‘good’ teaching remains. However, despite the increase in testing across the country, we are currently witnessing a national opt-out movement where parents are refusing to allow their students to take the tests (Vasquez Heilig, 2016).

Under guise of Civil Rights, the last decade of education policy in the United States has focused on top-down, private control and privatization reforms such as charter schools, TFA, school vouchers, VAM teacher evaluation, parent trigger, high-stakes testing, district takeovers etc. These approaches have failed to improve student achievement. In fact, our NAEP score growth slowed during the NCLB regime (Reardon, Greenberg, Kalogrides, Shores, & Valentino, 2012) and actually lost ground in the most recent results for the first time in decades (Strauss, 2015). As a result, public education is at a critical turning point. Many states are now in the hands of governors (both Democrat and Republican) who support the privatization agenda and are funding private alternatives to public education. In fact, from 1995-2014 the U.S. federal government spent $3.3 billion dollars to expand charter schools (Persson, 2015). The major education policies of the Obama administration were nearly identical to the two prior Bush administrations (Thomas, 2011). As a result of these top-down, private control and privatization policies, the nation now faces serious teacher shortages, over-use and mis-use of high-stakes standardized testing, crumbling school buildings and lagging student achievement.

The sabotage of public education has now turned to en-masse shuttering of under resourced schools located primarily in low-income neighborhoods (i.e. Chicago) and the hostile takeovers of entire school districts (i.e. New Orleans). The top-down corporate reformers have already begun implementing the New Orleans takeover model in Chicago, Detroit, and Tennessee. Their sites are also set on hostile takeovers in Georgia, Dallas and Los Angeles (Deal, n.d.). Notably, instead of enacting longstanding recommendations focusing on equity and access that have been design by various Civil Rights organizations, education reformers initiatives and policies are often driven by wealthy foundations and/or based on model legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization dedicated to privatization and deregulation favoring corporate interests over public interest and supported by the corporate wings of the Democratic and Republican parties. The genesis and true nature of top-down, private control and privatization education reform is very clear.

What Instead?

For the first time in our history as a nation, the very existence of education as a public responsibility is in question. Under pressure from the federal government, most states now transfer public funds to privately managed charter schools, TFA, and high-stakes testing companies. For the first time in the history of our nation, for-profit corporate high-stakes testing companies and charter chains (typically of dubious quality) are enriching their owners and investors with taxpayers’ money that was intended for support of public schools. Not by happenstance, quite often TFA alums have been the center of these changes in Tennessee, California, New Orleans, D.C. and elsewhere.

Rethinking high-stakes tests

Since NCLB we have been over-testing our students in grades 3-12. These tests should be used only in a low-stakes manner for their very limited diagnostic value in helping teachers understand what children need. We must go in a new direction for assessing our students. NCLB’s codified use of high-stakes testing— for which test results are often used to evaluate teachers, grade schools, award bonuses, fire staff, or close schools— has placed excessive emphasis on bubble tests of questionable educational, statistical value and quality encourages teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum only to what is tested, gaming the system, cheating, and distorts the purpose of education.

The closing of under-resourced public schools based on test scores is also problematic because, by and large, standardized test scores are a measure of family income, rather than the quality of the schools. We must address the issues of poverty at the same time we are improving our schools and help schools that are struggling by providing additional targeted resources not by closing or privatizing them. As discussed above, school closures prompted by top-down, private control and privatization proponents have primarily targeted neighborhood schools in African American and Latino communities, damaging the fabric of those communities and stripping them of democratic control of their schools.

These tests have an even more negative effect on low-income and minority students. The Seattle and California NAACP has said,

Using standardized tests to label Black people and immigrants as lesser—while systematically underfunding their schools—has a long and ugly history. It is true we need accountability measures, but that should start with politicians being accountable to fully funding education and ending the opportunity gap. …The use of high-stakes tests has become part of the problem, rather than a solution. (Vasquez Heilig, 2015b)

We must move to a new paradigm of assessment by limiting tests created by corporations rather than teachers. Tests should be created by the educators closest to the students. Teachers and school leaders know what they have taught and what their students need to learn. Community-based alternative included assessments that measure what was taught, through projects, portfolios, teacher-designed tests and activities in which students can demonstrate what they have learned as demonstrated by the nearly 50 high schools that are involved in the New York Performance Consortium.

Rethinking Teach For America

Poorly trained and under-credentialed teachers are concentrated at high poverty schools. This has been made worse by the Department of Education’s support for alternative credential programs like TFA. The Department of Education should cease this support, and ESSA should be changed to say that Title I schools should only hire certified teachers and students with special needs should have access to fully-certified and trained special education teachers.

Furthermore, we must move beyond debating the merits and pitfalls of TFA for teacher quality and focus on equity in schools. States must provide funding so schools have competitive salary schedules to hire trained and qualified staff they need at the start of school, such as special education teachers, ESL teachers, guidance counselors, nurses, social workers, librarians, and psychologists. Provide funding so schools can have reasonable class sizes (no more than 20 in elementary schools, no more than 25 in high schools), so that teachers will have the time to help students and to give them the individual attention they require to keep them engaged and to help them develop their critical thinking and creative abilities. Resources must be available so that districts can afford experience and trained teachers that are able to offer a full and rich curriculum to all children, including the arts, physical education, history, civics, foreign languages, literature, mathematics, and the sciences.

Teacher professionalism should also be the focus instead of sending teachers who have five weeks of training or less to our most needy classrooms. We must ensure every classroom be led by a teacher who is well educated, well prepared as a professional teacher, certified to teach, and well supported during the first few years of teaching. We should also bring career teachers to the education policy table and treat them as professionals. School leaders and teachers should be making decisions about curriculum, teaching methods, assessments, and selection of teaching materials.

Considering bottom-up approaches, communities need to have access to information about the training and background of the teachers who educate their students. Because the only amendment to NCLB was an update to the definition of a highly-qualified teacher to include teachers who were “teachers in training” has largely prevented parents from knowing that their child’s teacher may be TFA, the abandonment of NCLB regulations may open the door for more transparency. As parents become informed about the training (or lack thereof) that their children’s teachers have, parents can use social media and/or their physical presence at schools to demand that the children in their communities get the best teachers – starting first with teachers who are actually credentialed and trained to teach. Akin to the opt-out movement surrounding standardized tests, parents who are armed with information about the efficacy of trained teachers can, and will, pressure schools to abandon contracts with temporary/emergency certified and untrained teachers like those provided by TFA. We believe that TFA has largely been successful at the local level precisely because most parents do not know that their child has an untrained and unlicensed TFA teacher. As ESSA replaces NCLB, TFA and other alternatively certified teachers can no longer hide behind loose definitions of being “highly qualified” and parents can begin demanding quality teachers for their children.

Rethinking Charter Schools

This attack on public education is radical in nature, intended to supplant public schools with a market-based approach to education. The free market necessarily incurs winners and losers; it does not produce equity of educational opportunity, which is the American ideal. Abandoning that ideal when we are so far from realizing it will not bring it closer but take it farther away. The free-market will do what it always does: it will favor the haves over have-nots; in Chile and other countries it has accelerated segregation class, religion, and income (Vasquez Heilig, 2015a). Increased segregation by race prompted by a market system will be the death knell for equality of educational opportunity and a blow to our nation’s democratic aspirations for the future.

The next ten years of education policy must send a message to the billionaire class that they can not continue to create policy for other people’s children, demanding a cookie cutter approach to schools they would never send their own children to. To send the country in a new direction we must stop the transfer of public funds to and privately managed non-profit charter schools unless those charter schools are dedicated to enrolling children with needs that public schools are unable to meet. It is problematic for corporate charter schools to siphon off public funds to enroll high-performing students or that exclude students with disabilities or students who are English language learners.

Policymakers must stop allowing taxpayer money to fund for-profit private or charter schools. All schools that enroll public school students and receive public dollars should operate not-for-profit and should not outsource their management or instruction to for-profit corporations. Another challenge is that funding in charter schools has in some places trended towards the outsourcing of instruction to online vendors, which entails putting students in front of computers for many hours a day, engaged in rote learning, rather than receiving feedback from highly qualified teachers.

Community-based and in-district charters are an important alternative to to the top-down, corporate charters that are the predominant paradigm. One such example of a community-based charters school was the process used to develop Travis Heigh Elementary School in Austin, Texas – Education Austin, the local teachers’ association, served as a conduit for bringing teachers and parents together to create an in-district charter school. Travis Heights elementary is a community-based charter that is an alternative to the top-down approach (i.e. teacher quality, curriculum, and governance) employed by corporate charter chains. The Austin community created a democratically designed community-based charter by utilizing the extensive expertise of the school’s teachers, administration, and community stakeholders. This approached empowered the community to implemented pedagogical and curricular approaches that were selected by school leaders and community stakeholders to develop critical thinking and collaborative skills. By investing in the community process and building confidence among partners, Education Austin was able to bring an innovative community-based charter school to fruition.


Testing and standardization were designed to remedy long-standing gaps in academic success between White students and Latino/a, African American, and Native American students, yet these policies not only failed to address persist inequalities in opportunities between students attending disparately resourced schools, but represented the antithesis of political conservatives’ focus on local control and progressives’ concern with community empowerment.

In the early years, charter schools consisted of a diverse set of actors with varied ideas about the purposes these schools would serve, including educators and union leaders vying for needed autonomy to develop innovative pedagogy as well as community-based organizations looking for an answer to the inertia of large bureaucratic systems and hopes of a schooling model more responsive to families and the varied needs of their children. But while charter school advocates were a heterogeneous group in the 1990s, the decades that have followed have witnessed the dominance of a market-oriented vision of charter schools as vehicles of choice and competition. Indeed, these schools increasingly represent an industry of franchised and replicated schools subsidized by a small but powerful bloc of largely White venture philanthropists and private foundation leaders (Scott, 2009).

In a similar vein, the expansion of TFA reflects the influence of private investors interested in low-cost reform models predicated on individual novice teachers’ efforts to ‘save’ failing schools in the absence of policies to redress systemic inequalities, a sustainable force highly-qualified, well-paid and experienced teachers, and stable school-community relationships. Hence, the TFA organization and its alumni are not bystanders to the winds of top-down private-led reform, but are part and parcel of the storm pushing for deregulation in teaching preparation and the expansion of privately organized and managed charter schools.

While the lion’s share of the conversation in this chapter has focused on charters, high-stakes testing, and TFA, it is also important to note that there are other areas in which we must drive for equity in reform. Investing in high-quality early childhood education is a gold standard in research literature. Decades of research have demonstrated that the achievement gap begins before the first day of school. The differences in opportunity and learning are especially acute for students of color at the start of school. Another promising approach that has gained moment is community schools that implement support and wraparound services for students, such as health clinics and after-school programs, as well as counselors and school nurses in elementary schools, a full curriculum with art and music teachers.

Extensive peer-reviewed research has demonstrated that students with frequent suspensions are more likely to become involved in gangs, drop out of school and become part of the juvenile justice system. Reform in school discipline is also an important endeavor. Policymakers and district must prioritize funding of restorative justice programs and oppose “zero tolerance” and “no excuses” policies that affect students of color and male students disproportionately. In light of ESSA’s passage, and the new flexibility the law may potentially provide, it’s important to encourage states to include school climate and discipline as the other indicator in accountability dashboards.

In conclusion, we must reframe the education reform debate to protect and strengthen public education by basing education policy on community-based alternatives not the current press for top down policies that are focused on private control and privatization. Our nation needs the leadership to provide the funding and support for democratically controlled education policies (PAR evaluation, in-district community-based magnets and charters, local accountability dashboards, multiple measure student evaluation, wrap-around services such as school nurses and psychologists, after-school programs, art and music teachers) instead of the top-down, private control and privatization policies that have predominated the education reform landscape over the past ten years.

The authors wish to thank the Governing Board members of the Network for Public Education for their contributions to this chapter.

Click for a pdf of the chapter What Instead?: Reframing the debate about charter schools, Teach For America, and testing.

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One comment

  • Thank you for this post!! I am currently preparing to have a similar conversation with some folks on the ground in Milwaukee. What you have shared here offers more support to what I want to say!!


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