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News Flash: Failed Education Policies Will ALWAYS Fail Our Children

Why do we continue to rely on approaches to education that have been soundly discredited by research?

Photo Credit: TanyaRu via


What do third-grade retention policies based on reading tests, charter schools, tracking, and parental choice have in common?

First, across the U.S., they all have a great deal of public and political support.

Second, the research base on all of these policies ( among many other popular policies) has shown repeatedly that they do more to fail students than to achieve any of the lofty goals advocates claim.

My home state of South Carolina is a typical example of how education policy not grounded in the evidence continues to fail students again and again. For example, charter schools advocacy remains robust and deeply misleading, as the following statement from Mary Carmichael, executive director of Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina, makes clear:

We know that choice in education changes lives. We must work together to develop a culture in South Carolina that values education — from our families to funding at the State House. All students deserve access to a high-quality education regardless of their ZIP code, and excellent public charter schools are part of the solution in transforming South Carolina’s future.

This sort of incomplete and distorted advocacy is commonplace in South Carolina, regretfully, even as charter schools here continue to reinforce patterns found across the U.S. that are contradictory to the advocacy:

  • Charter schools contribute significantly to the re-segregation of schools, and thus to the exact inequity that plagues schools in high-poverty states such as South Carolina.
  • Students in charter schools have measurable outcomes that are about the same or worse than comparable public schools. I have documented this in South Carolina, but national studies of charter schools have shown that nothing about “charterness” offers advantage to students.
  • Charter schools are the newest version of the school choice movement that depends on emotional appeals to sloganism, the idea that “parents deserve more choices,” and anecdote. Ultimately, however, parental choice has been idealized (many parents can and do make poor choices for children), and school choice remains a neutral to negative influence on educational quality. Charter schools as a mechanism for competition are a distraction from the public good and harm all students, even those who claim they are thriving in selected charter schools. [1]

Charter schools and parental choice—like grade retention and tracking—are politically compelling, but neither effective nor appropriate for addressing the essential problems facing public education.

Similar to the state’s commitment to charter schools, South Carolina is also seeking to follow Florida’s third-grade retention and reading policies—which have been discredited when reviewed. However, a possible pinpoint of light may be at the end of this accountability-based education reform movement tunnel, and it shines from the state of Oklahoma. As John Thompson recently detailed:

Oklahoma’s Republican Legislature overrode the veto of Republican Governor Mary Fallin, and overwhelmingly rejected another cornerstone of Jeb Bush’s corporate reform agenda [third-grade retention legislation]. The overall vote was 124 to 21….

Oklahoma’s victory over the test and punish approach to 3rd grade reading is a win-win team effort of national importance. The override was due to an unexpected, grassroots uprising started by parents, joined by superintendents and teachers, organized on social media, and assisted by anti- corporate reform educators and our opposite, Stand for Children, as well as Tea Party supporters, and social service providers who are increasingly coming to the rescue of the state’s grossly underfunded schools.

The rise of grade-retention policy shares with the rise of charter schools the powerful and flawed combination of popularity and a solid research base discrediting those policies. The reasons to reject grade-retention policy should guide similar movements against charter schools, tracking, and parental choice: