Earnest Oversimplification

Plan for states to turn school reform over to nonprofits may
be sincere, but it lacks evidence and ignores the real world

BOULDER, CO – WEBWIRE – Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A recent report suggesting states should turn education reform over to “an ecosystem of nonprofit organizations” lacks substantiation and ignores the realities of school, policy and politics, according to a new review.

The report presumes that “educational justice is a technical problem that can be resolved by tinkering with governance issues,” says Peter W. Cookson Jr., a professor at Georgetown University who reviewed The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar for the Think Twice think tank review project. The review is published today by the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.

At the Helm, Not the Oar was written by Andy Smarick and Juliet Squire and published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The report argues that state education agencies should step back from direct involvement in school reform, handing the task over to nonprofit organizations that would be charged with implementing school improvement. The report offers as its rationale the assertion that state education agencies are hobbled by cumbersome, time-consuming procedural requirements, statewide politics, and “institutional sclerosis.”

Cookson’s review, however, finds the report “sincere and well-written but methodologically and politically unsophisticated.” Its findings and recommendations are unsubstantiated, and it “oversimplifies social complexity,” the reviewer writes. “Privatizing educational reform is an idea whose time has not come, and most likely never will,” because it is premised “on a model of American education disconnected from the democratic ethos that animates public education.” Along with market education reform advocates generally, the report’s authors do not acknowledge that “change does not take place in a sociological vacuum; policymakers and educators live in the real world of structural racism, blocked mobility, and opportunity hoarding by the affluent.”

Contrary to the report’s apparent aim, “There is no way to eliminate politics from educational change—nor should there be,” Cookson writes. “Debate and difference are what make democracy strong and are likely to lead to solutions that reflect the public good.”

To the degree that the report forces people to question the unexamined assumptions that underlie their approaches to the issue of education reform, however, the report could prove useful, Cookson concludes. Its real utility is to focus attention squarely on market and quasi-market educational reform arguments “not as ideology, but as a change model,” he writes. And that, he suggests, is something “that needs to be addressed honestly” by supporters and critics alike of the market model.

Find Peter Cookson’s review on the NEPC website at:

Find The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar, written by Andy Smarick and Juliet Squire and published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, on the web at:

The Think Twice think tank review project (http://thinktankreview.org) of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) provides the public, policymakers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. NEPC is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. The Think Twice think tank review project is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information on the NEPC, please visit http://nepc.colorado.edu/.

This review is also found on the GLC website at http://www.greatlakescenter.org/.


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