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Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and Education Reform

• Mike Thomas

“Strange to have forgotten it for so many years,” observed the Ghost. “Let us go on.” 

And with that introduction from A Christmas Carol, here is my final blog of 2012.

We tend to forget the past when contemplating the present and future of education.

This puts reform at a decided disadvantage in the public arena.

Reform is Scrooge, tight with the purse strings and always demanding more.

Pass the test!


Poor Tiny Tim  retained in third grade.

His school publicly branded a failure.

“Spirit!” said Scrooge, “show me no more!’’ 

How much easier it would be to forego measurement.

To forego sanctions for not measuring up.

To promote everyone.

To graduate everyone.

To end the constant measurement.

Reform is a relentless taskmaster.

For some, this brings nostalgia for the days when teachers and schools set their own standards.

Forgotten is that while this system worked well for the children of affluent parents who lived near the best schools, it failed a growing number of kids not born into such fortunate circumstances.

These kids, who came from poor homes and uneducated parents, were much harder to teach. And so schools dealt with them as might be expected in the absence of standards or accountability. They quietly promoted the students from one grade to the next,  even literacy was considered an optional skill.

That got them to middle and high school, where they then quietly dropped out.

Yet social promotion was regarded as an act of compassion, a little white lie ostensibly told in the interest of preserving self-esteem. But conveniently, it also absolved schools of any responsibility for educating them.

And then came measurement.

In 1994, statistics from the National Assessment of Education Progress revealed that nationally about 70 percent of African American and Hispanic fourth graders were functionally illiterate.

They were about 3½ grade levels behind white kids.

A gap that began at birth because of unequal home environments was only magnified in the classroom. The best teachers often migrated to the best schools, where the work was easier and the pay the same if not better. Rigorous academic classes were practically non-existent in low-income schools because, as part of the curse of low expectations, it was assumed the kids could not handle them.

A kid who most needed a good education was least likely to get one.

“The school is not quite deserted,” said the Ghost. “A solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left there still.” 

Call it a coincidence, but since the dawn of measurement, black and Hispanic fourth graders have advanced almost two grade levels in reading. In Florida, a pioneer in measurement and accountability, the advance is almost three grade levels.

What you see you can no longer hide.

And now here we are in the present.  Once reform was a Democrat vs. Republican issue. But our first African-American president officially made it a bi-partisan issue. He understands the civil rights angle all too well.

President Obama has used federal grants to enact sweeping reforms on issues such as teacher evaluations and rigorous academic standards.

It was Nixon going to China.

As for what is yet to come?

If only there was a spirit who could show us that.

The next two years could be the most eventful in public education since desegregation.

Forty-five states will implement the Common Core State Standards in 2014-15. They set a much higher academic bar for kids from kindergarten through high school. These will come with more in-depth assessments in language arts and math.

Millions of teachers must be trained in these new standards in a very short period of time. The cost of administering the tests could be steep.

Given the greater high expectations, student scores will plunge as they transition from their weaker state standards. This will cause a public backlash, particularly as teacher job reviews now include student achievement, and a growing number of states are grading their schools based on test scores.

Odds are this will not go smoothly at first. And there will be much pressure to lower the stakes of test scores.

Some states also are ratcheting up standards in addition to Common Core.

By 2014-15, Florida will require students pass standardized tests in algebra, geometry and biology to earn a high school diploma.  The state also will require students to take courses in algebra 2 and either physics or chemistry for graduation.

Scrooge the reformer is demanding ever more, even as there is a backlash against standards and testing.

“I wish I had him here. I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it.”

But if Scrooge, the astute businessman that he is, understands what high school graduates must know to be successful, would he be advancing their interests by requiring less when the world is demanding more?

This is the most fascinating time to be involved in the education debate.

Have a wonderful holiday. And with all due apologies to Dickens for taking liberties with his quotes, God Bless Us, Every One!

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at