The centerpiece of Fisman's recent Slate article, "Clean Out Your Desk," is a deeply flawed analysis proposing that four out of five probationary teachers should be fired, but the problems with the article aren't limited to that one piece of research; they permeate the article, starting with the very first two paragraphs:
In 1983, a presidential commission issued the landmark report "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform." The report warned that despite an increase in spending, the public education system was at risk of failure "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today," the report declared, "we might well have viewed it as an act of war."
New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein often quotes the commission before discussing how U.S. schools have fared since it issued its report. Despite nearly doubling per capita spending on education over the past few decades, American 15-year olds fared dismally in standardized math tests given in 2000, placing 18th out of 27 member countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Six years later, the U.S. had slipped to 25th out of 30. If we've been fighting against mediocrity in education since 1983, it's been a losing battle.
Notice that strange gap of more than a quarter century? Other than mentioning increased spending per capita* and citing a couple of ominous sounding statistics, Fisman doesn't say a word about what happened since. There is no mention of what the response was to "A Nation at Risk." You could easily come away with the impression that there was no response, that educators had simply gone on with business as usual.
This is a common rhetorical trick in the educational reform movement.: to point out various facts suggesting a dangerous decline over the past two or three decades then quickly change the subject (sometimes citing "A Nation at Risk" to add a note of the Cassandra Syndrome). If only we had done something then, we wouldn't be on the precipice now.
The primary flaw in this narrative is that there was a response to the report, it was swift and sweeping, and mostly it consisted of the types of change reformers like Fisman, Klein, and Ben Wildavsky continue to push for to this day: importing techniques and philosophies from the private sector; encouraging privatization and entrepreneurs; basing the evaluation of schools on objective metrics (particularly standardized tests of student performance).
By the late Eighties, when I went into teaching, it was difficult to find a school without a mission statement. Staff development by then consisted almost entirely of the kind of training/motivation seminars that I would encounter a few years later working for Fortune 500 companies. Business jargon was all the rage. My first encounter with the school of education was when the dean gave us a talk on how Tom Peters and In Search of Excellence were going to revolutionize education.
For a while, I taught in a high school where the principal was known to say that he didn't like to base teacher renewal or promotion decisions on standardized test scores. He was careful not to say he wouldn't. That would have been a blatant lie. We knew he would make our lives miserable if we didn't teach to the test. He knew we knew it. But he maintained at least a vaneer of plausible deniability.
One particularly spineless history teacher spent about a month doing nothing but drilling facts that were likely to be on the test. No discussions. No writing assignments. No additional reading. No attempt to put the material into any kind of meaningful context. But his scores were good.
By the early Nineties, within less than a decade of the "Nation at Risk" report, states were starting to pass charter school laws. Pushes for merit pay and weakening tenure intensified. Faith in business as a source of answers for schools continued.
Education reform has proceeded in more or less a straight line for more than a quarter century without much that can be held up as a clear success. This isn't necessarily a damning criticism. Reformers like Fisman and Klein could honestly argue that the current state of education is mixed, not as good as it could be but not as bad as it would have been if steps had not been taken, or they could argue we have a classic case of half measures, that these reforms would solve our problems if fully implemented but in their watered down form they can do no good.
Both of these arguments are honest and defensible.
What they can't honestly do is imply that we are where we are because we didn't listen to them.
*Why per capita and not per student?