Views expressed in opinion columns are the author's own.
Like all good Democrats, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) voted against Betsy DeVos's confirmation to run the Education Department. But Booker's opposition to the flagrantly unqualified DeVos reeks of insincerity because, when it comes to education policy, the two are ideological allies. In fact, the charming and ambitious senator twice affirmed his support for charters and school privatization at the DeVos-led American Federation for Children.
Certainly, Booker (a progressive Democrat) and DeVos (a GOP fundraiser) might seem like strange bedfellows. But the American education reform movement is one of those rare corners of national politics in which partisan identity has little consequence. Booker and former President Barack Obama are ed reformers. So are Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Mark Zuckerberg and Oprah. Broadly, these folks want to use test scores to threaten teachers into better performance, direct more funding toward charter schools and use business principles to make school districts more efficient.
Those principles were put to the test in Newark, New Jersey, back when Booker was mayor. Newark's failure exposes a glaring defect in ed reformers' creed. Because, contrary to ed reform orthodoxy, education cannot be reduced to economics.
Before Booker became mayor, Newark Public Schools were an unmitigated disaster. The system boasted a pitiful 54 percent graduation rate, and most school buildings were older than 80 years old. Booker teamed up with Gov. Chris Christie to coax a $100 million investment out of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Booker and his friends assured themselves they could transform Newark into a model for the nation because, as Booker said, "We know what works."
They did not. Ed reform in Newark was a fiasco. Booker and Zuckerberg announced their plan on "Oprah" without informing community members. The technocrats tasked with implementing the reform faced fierce opposition by teachers, parents and students. Today, Zuckerberg's $100 million is spent, Booker has left Newark for Capitol Hill and Christie has assumed his place as the biggest joke in American politics. A 2014 test showed math and reading proficiency had declined since 2011 in every grade and, among non-magnet schools, only 2 to 5 percent of students met the ACT's standard for college readiness.
Newark's ed reformers made two inseparable mistakes. First, as author Dale Russakoff describes in her excellent book, The Prize, they failed to actively engage with the community. For Newark families, the school reform effort seemed like a technocratic takeover orchestrated by shady and omnipotent strangers. They were rightly terrified.
Additionally, ed reformers inside and outside Newark failed because of their devout faith for market-based solutions to reshape public education. Education reformers propose hiring and firing teachers based on test scores and opening up privately-run charter schools. They hope teachers will be so scared of termination they'll magically drive up test scores. And, they say, if charters compete in a market, the best practices will prevail. Turning public education into a purely economic enterprise sounds quite reasonable. But there's little evidence it works.
Harvard economist Roland Fryer tried to test economic incentives in poor school districts across the country. He paid kids to do their homework, parents to get more involved in the school community and teachers to step up their game in the classroom. Fryer tried to boost test scores, course grades and reading time. Altogether, he spent more than $9 million in economic incentives from 2007 to 2009. If the ed reformers are right, educators and students would be transformed into teaching and learning machines. In reality, the incentives failed. "The impact of financial incentives on student achievement is statistically 0," Fryer wrote.
Economic incentives fail because many students walk into the classroom with psychological and emotional baggage that impedes their learning. This is especially true in poor school districts, such as Newark. A metric called the ACE score asks students whether they've experienced 10 different types of childhood trauma. One study of a pediatric clinic in San Francisco showed that only 3 percent of students with an ACE score of zero (no childhood trauma experienced) had behavioral problems. In contrast, 51 percent of students with an ACE score greater than four had behavioral problems. For many students, economic incentives simply aren't enough to break through their tangled and abused psyche. A pedagogy based on psychology would be more powerful.
Economic incentives also fail because cash alone cannot deliver good education. Passionate and committed educators don't wake up in the morning driven by a paycheck. They want to inspire a quest for knowledge and guide young people into adulthood. Any student who's been truly captivated by a subject wants to learn for its own sake, not for some distant economic benefit. Education is different from other goods or services bought on a market. It's not like a massage or a slice of pizza. No price can be assigned to the desire to learn or the vocation to teach.
Unfortunately, education reformers do not see this. Now, one of ed reform's fiercest advocates is the education secretary. The next four years of education policy will likely be dim for parents, teachers and students. But, as the past several weeks have taught us, resistance to President Trump's agenda is not futile. So, if some know-nothing ed reformers swoop down on our local schools, insisting they be turned into businesses, we can rightly tell them to go home and get educated.
Max Foley-Keene is a freshman government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.