Response to a Public Laboratory Dewey Barely Imagined: The Emerging Model of School Governance and Legal Reform


In A Public Laboratory Dewey Barely Imagined. The Emerging Model of School Governance and Legal Reform, Liebman and Sabel argue that the current wave of education reform, which combines a centralization of standards with a devolution of authority to the local level, “can be seen as a legitimate legatee of the movement for desegregation of the schools.”

The authors hold up the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA) (along with similar reform efforts in Texas) as an example of the successful implementation of this new wave of education reform. They claim that “educational reform succeeded in Texas and Kentucky because of explicit alliances that ignored traditional ideological and institutional divisions in favor of an incremental, but cumulatively transformative, exploration of solutions lying between top-down standards and bottom-up school-based reforms.”

While KERA indeed exemplifies the new wave of education reform described by Liebman and Sabel, I believe we must be cautious in interpreting the Kentucky reform experience as a success. In my own research on KERA, I have found that, despite the fanfare surrounding the state’s ambitious effort, the reform has been largely unsuccessful in raising student achievement and in narrowing the gap in student achievement across rich and poor districts. There is some evidence, however, that the reform has had modest positive effects on the test scores of black students. This suggests that perhaps the current wave of education reform, as exemplified by KERA, does show promise for addressing some of the pervasive disparities that motivated the original movement for school desegregation, as Liebman and Sabel propose.

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