“Don’t Believe the Hype”

A young MBA student tells her classmates that “education reform” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Many of my classmates in business school assume that education reform is a good thing.  Accountability! Improvement!  Closing the Achievement gap! Usually they know some Teach for America alums (who are now lawyers), or they’ve watched “Waiting for Superman.” They’ve heard of charter schools (which of course they didn’t attend), and being business-minded, they assume that privately-run schools will somehow be better.  Because many of my classmates will go on to be business leaders, decision makers, employers and parents, I think it’s important that they understand what education reform is really about. Here’s what I tell them:

Data isn’t everything
Did anyone here get really fired up for practicing the GMATs?  Would your 9 year old self have loved school if you practiced 3rd grade GMATs all day, every day? Of course not. Testing is miserable, uncreative and doesn’t inspire us to be lifelong learners.

The education reform movement is driven by a vision of the world that isn’t grounded in the messy (and potentially wonderful) reality of education. Instead, these policies come from a world of numbers, data, and a deep, compulsive desire for statistics.  Which is fine if you are running a business and profit is the only outcome.  But education is not a business.  Test scores are not currency.  And doing well on a test does not serve as proxy measure for “received a high quality education.”

Critically-minded thinking, not something measured easily by standardized tests, is especially important at a time where cubicle-drone-work-hell-places are (thankfully) becoming so last century.  Your parents’ office, with its fluorescent lights, jacket-and-tie homogeneous culture and old-fashioned, hierarchical structure is not really that attractive to the best and brightest anymore.  The baby boomer generation was afraid of aliens and Communism, ours is afraid of cubicles.  Creative minds and passionate thinkers who protect their intellectual freedom and autonomy are the valued workers of this century—not rote-thinking zombies.  To turn public schools into intellectually-vapid, information-transferring mini testing centers is to misunderstand where the world is headed.

Elite education is very different
It’s a huge problem that we effectively have two different educational system now: One for the elites that emphasizes a true modern skill set, and a test-obsessed system for everyone else. One group is trained to lead and think, the other to follow and fill in the right bubble. In their effort to close the “achievement gap,” education reformers will likely make this problem worse.

I was lucky enough to attend an Ivy League school and am now working on my second master’s degree at Oxford. What these kinds of schools have in common is a central philosophy rooted in creative thinking and critical analysis.  Top schools encourage students to find unique ways of thinking and new ways of doing things and support the professionals who teach them. 

A number of top independent schools are abandoning all forms of standardized testing, including Advanced Placement tests. Why is this happening? Schools including Lawrenceville are dropping AP classes in favor of more thought- provoking courses to promote critical thinking in their students. Also, independent school teachers hate having to teach a prescribed curriculum because it limits their creativity and ability to move spontaneously towards a timely topic of interest. And because the opinions of faculty at these schools are highly valued, curricula are changing as a result.  

AP exams are generally regarded as among the least-bad standardized tests, yet still, top-flight elite independent schools are doing away with them in the name of education and teacher autonomy.  Why then are we allowing the proliferation of lower-quality tests across the country?

Independent schools are also going out of their way to minimize the importance of exams and grades.  To Dewey-inspired educators, school is not about outcomes or achievement, but experience and growth.  In several independent schools, notably Exeter, freshman grades have been eliminated in order to facilitate a love for learning rather than an obsession over scores.  At other schools, such as Blair Academy, effort grades are given alongside a numeric value.  But as most parents will testify, the most important component of their child’s report card is not the grade—it’s the high-quality, qualitative feedback that is written by teachers who know them. The result of de-emphasizing scores?  More meaningful experiences for all parties, and a great deal of communication between parents, students and teachers.  Which, by the way, puts teachers in a respected and oft-admired role, something our brethren at public school used to enjoy before the era of relentless and counterproductive teacher bashing.
Finally, there is an emphasis on the importance of balance at these schools.  Independent schools insist that all students engage in extra-curricular activities, often sports, music, art or theatre.  This is a far cry from many of the charters, whose students attend “academic” classes 10-12 hours a day.  What’s ironic of course is that so many education reformers attended private schools themselves or send their own children there.  Which brings me to my last point:
I would never ever want my own child to be educated in the KIPP method.  Would you?

Susan Altman attends Oxford University where she is pursuing a master’s degree in International and Comparative Education and Business Management. She formerly taught at a private boarding school in the US and is the proud product of public schools. Follow her on Twitter at @suealtman.


  1. Thank you for that kind analysis. Many of the people,especially the teachers that were fired in New Orleans I know would concur on your status. We have young white individuals many of them who are not in education attempting to teach in a slave state that know nothing of the people let alone the learning styles of African-American youth. It is essential that we, the Black community, instill values in our community, school, and home. None but ourselves

    1. Hello Jennifer, thanks for the insight!

      I completely agree that the best way to assure quality in a system is to source the talent and leadership (and thus, ideas and values!) from the people who know it best and care about it most.

      An interesting example of this seems to be happening at Malcom X Shabbaz HS in Newark, NJ. This is bona fide school “turnaround” alright– except this time there are no Gates-funded ed reform organizations in sight.

      The improvement is lead by Shabbaz alum and former teacher Gemar Mills and his team of veteran teachers, coaches and community members, including alums and parents. So far, things are going well enough that NJ media has made a documentary about the school. (I think they overkill the football angle a bit): http://www.nj.com/hssports/blog/football/index.ssf/2013/04/star-ledger_documentary_saving_shabazz_the_long-shot_battle_to_transform_a_failing_school.html

      While there is undoubtedly more to the story, it’s exciting that a community-based school turnaround effort has gained traction in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in NJ. The core of Principal Mills’ philosophy seems to hinge on connecting with students and faculty on a personal level, as a role model and mentor. As a lifelong resident himself, much of that credibility comes from his authentic understanding of the daily challenges Newark’s students face.

      It’s hard to imagine the same thing happens as well when it involves imported ed reform organizations, most of whom have few authentic roots in the community and frequently fire large numbers of beloved veteran teachers, like what you mention has happened in New Orleans.

      Anyway, thanks for your ideas, Jennifer.

  2. I always wonder why, if these standardized tests such as the MCAS in Massachusetts are so good, why aren’t private schools adopting them voluntarily?

  3. Really quality stuff here. I would love to hear her thoughts on poverty and parent education levels in terms of how policy and schools should respond to the massive (comparative) deficit in academic (and social) preparation many of our low income students enter kindergarten with. Shoot, I’d love to hear what she thinks is a workable solution to providing all students (including the 45% who together equal the income of the Walton family) an equitable education. Forget the jargon, forget the bright eyed college grads in classrooms- there is a legitimate access and opportunity gap in our nation and our education system currently maintains that gap rather handily.

    NCLB, for all it’s shortcomings (and there are many), did at least manage to shine a light on this gap and bring it to the forefront of the education conversation. Granted, the light was through the lens of standardized testing, and we all know how reliable any one single measure is worth. That said, there’s a gap in achievement between the wealthy and the nonwealthy.

    Based on my comparatively short tenure (8 years) in education, it seems like big districts respond to this gap (as well as the teacher variability I’ve written about in previous comments) by quality controlling the teaching profession through mandated, scripted curriculum and “big” interim assessments. We’re obviously not seeing a lot of great short term results from that approach (although to be fair, it is the approach Finland took for years until it had a strong enough shared understanding of teaching practice), but the type of Dewey-inspired education Ms. Altman speaks of (which I also received and loved) is much more complex to pull off and requires a deep understanding of students and the learning process as well as a commitment to the messiness of failure-as-learning (uh….iterate? no?) (other note- Atul Gawande’s books Complicated and Better are great reads on this process, imo).

    So. Great ideas, and I’d love to hear more from folks about what this looks like in terms of policy and also single-school or district execution. Any low income schools put there doing this work?

  4. The tests are only one of the problems. Teachers are treated so badly and harassed by their administrators for things like going over by 5 mins or teaching something that just came up because a student asked a good question that the creativity and love of learning has been completely lost. Until we give teachers back the permission to make decisions in their classrooms and allow them to have a say in making school wide decisions and treat them as educators and not factory workers will we be able to improve education. Teachers have no complaints being accountable but with that they need to have some freedom to teach to the needs of their students.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. Teachers become teachers because they loved learning themselves; they want to transfer that love to students, and this takes on different forms for different people. Energy, passion and excitement for the content is much more important than the details of the content itself. And teachers can only convey that excitement if they are allowed to do it on their own terms.

      One of the great tragedies of the standardised-testing/teacher bashing trend is that it makes it very hard for a teacher to infuse a classroom with his or her personality, which is the EXACT thing that makes a class great.

      A teacher needs space and trust to work their magic. And a good administrator (like a good boss in a creative company) knows this and gives teachers space while providing constructive, collaborative feedback.

  5. Ditto on the harrassment. As a long time teacher in a “no excuses” school, it is incredible how the longer you’re there the more they search for to complain about you. Their freedom to fire you for nothing related to your job is beyond my comprehension. Truthfully, the only way to prevent these places from destroying public education (yes I still work at one) is to make sure young professionals know the pros and cons of what they’re getting into before they’re in too deep and feel stuck/lost. 🙁

  6. Hate to burst the old test bubble, but the author of this article used so many propaganda buzzwords and pr techniques that it surprised me that the edushyster is not on top of this. This is a perfect example of a spin soaked educrat elitest know it all brainwashed and ready to spread her criticism thinking all over the globe. Clearly the choir she preached to eats it up as evidenced by the comments. From someone not poisoned by pedagogy but studying it from a historical perspective, and watching its tragic unfolding in real time with my children in their schools, finds this author to be a clever propagandist, a jim jonesian believer, a hegelian jujitsu master and Also a psychic all knowing baby boomer expert. Wow! Ivy league college is Awesome!!!

    1. Nothing you wrote here is in the least sullied by contact with mere facts. All you have done is use rhetoric alone to attack the original writer bombastically.

    2. BS Deflector: While certainly one has the right to disagree with Ms. Altman’s blog post, your bizarre attack does nothing to further our understanding of the issues in education. Undoubtedly, the question of why wealthy private schools are heading in a very different direction than their public school counterparts (which is 100% true by the way), is one that should be explored. Why do the wealthy advocate one thing for public schools and then send their kids to private schools? It’s a fair and good point, and I’d love to know the answer. You, however, don’t explain where your disagreement lies, instead spewing nonsensical cliche. I happen to think that the issues presented in this post are the right ones, but I would love to hear a thoughtful critique by one who disagrees.

      1. I could not even ascertain the point for the glaring buzzwords and assumptions. old/communist, young/cubicles.
        they distracted me. The slogans like ” true modern skillset” “passionate thinkers”, “meaningful experiences” had me eyeing my children’s teachers in my minds eye as they regale me of their advanced ED degrees from ivy league schools, after I regale them of their incorrect history lesson and propagandizing my third grader with nonsense developmentally inapproprate assignments meant to frustrate concoccted by perhaps ivy league elites. the arguement is all wrong and politically motivated masked by jargonian presumptive mish mosh.

        your issue, why private k-12 is getting privater whilst public school is being collectivized and dumbed down even further is being blamed on learning how to think, and victimization, and alarmist acheivement gaps and hungry children when in fact it is being orchestrated from elite education itself. Acheivement Gap!!!!! HELP! do something! classic Hegel.
        but do yourself a favor and do not read it, nobody does, just grab the sparks.
        Rather than asking such a bewilderingly naive question to the blogosphere why not look into it as you would a research paper for a PHD. But I will tell you the answer,
        BECAUSE they can!

        better yet, go ask bushbama.

    3. Hmmmm. KIPP’s website boasts of an “extended academic day”, and this Washington Post article states that “the regular school day” is from 7:30 AM to 5:00 PM, with some schools having Saturday classes. Of course, the point of the article is that these longer hours provide superior results, so this is part of the bigger debate going on here.


      Great article Sue! Keep up the incredible work!

  7. Why dismiss the data? The data show that standardized tests have little to no predictive validity beyond predicting parents’ income and other standardized test scores.

    Speaking of data, is there any support for this notion that “business” is somehow efficient and accountable? In “business”, 98% of staff find annual performance reviews unnecessary (http://www.hrmagazine.co.uk/hr/features/1075041/is-performance-appraisals). So what are “we” supposed to learn from “them”?

  8. “Independent schools insist that all students engage in extra-curricular activities, often sports, music, art or theatre. This is a far cry from many of the charters, whose students attend “academic” classes 10-12 hours a day.”

    This is just complete disinformation. There is no such thing as a charter school that has academic classes 12 hours per day. As for KIPP, KIPP has longer school days precisely because it wants to give extra time to math/reading while still retaining plenty of time for extra-curricular activities. If you do the least bit of research on KIPP, you can’t avoid running into dozens if not hundreds of YouTube videos like this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfI8A9t5xBw

  9. Great stuff here. Of course, a major problem in education is that measuring academic achievement is so darn hard. As is evaluating teachers. While Potter Stewart might say that we know good education when we see it, how can we prove that Independent Schools actually “add value”? Do we just trust them? While standardized testing is simplistic and unhelpful in many ways, it at least gives us a measure that can be quantified. There must be a way to show that small, interactive, and vibrant classes create better students. Thanks though Sue for this thoughtful post.



    In a December 2012 speech Duncan clearly stated his micromanagement plot:
    “…We have tried to flip the traditional tight-loose relationship between the federal government and the states, where the federal government had been loose“


    “…We have pursued a cradle-to-career agenda, from early childhood programs through postsecondary graduation… [the] final core element in our strategy is promoting a career-to-cradle agenda.”

    Part of that agenda involves the creation of a school-centered rather than a family-centered nation. Duncan aims to make the schools the community center, to include health care clinics and after school programs and to extend school to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. He insists that America needs to extend learning time and says, “we have to learn to think very, very differently about time. I think our school day is too short. I think our school week is too short. I think our school year is too short.”

    If you do not like this information site just fact check the documentation but I would watch the video. Duncan envisions schools merging with ymca’s, meth clinics, hair salons and loan centers. certainly a “deep understanding of students” would be plausable in this scenario. the human mall.


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