The beginning of a new school year offers an opportunity to evaluate the state of American education—where we are now, how we got here and where we need to go. As last month’s release of New York City’s abysmal test scores showed, something is seriously wrong, here and in most of the country.

The bankruptcy of the corporate-style “reform” agenda—which emphasizes high-stakes testing, vilification of teachers and the further stratification of American society under the banner of “choice”—has been obvious for years to those who have cared and dared to look. For the past two decades, contributors to The Nation have consistently challenged these trends and exposed their hidden assumptions, consequences and costs.

In September 1997, the writer Phyllis Vine explored the early stirrings of the for-profit education movement and catalogued the many ways in which it was a bad development for kids, parents and teachers. The only people it would benefit, she argued, were those like the Lehman Brothers director she quotes calling education “a local industry that over time will become a global business.” That’s no way to run schools, Vine concluded:

Creaming students most likely to succeed, poor management, unionbusting, conflicts of interest and discrimination against kids who need special education (and sometimes discrimination against kids of color)—all are on display in the for-profit school system. And so is the effort to eviscerate a core American institution that has been a laboratory for citizenship. While right-wing education guru Chester Finn insists that ‘the market…can rise to the challenge of educating America’s young,’ the record suggests otherwise. ‘The schools belong to us as communities,’ says Barbara Miner, editor of Selling Out Our Schools. So why should we allow some private company to come in and make money off of our kids?

Nation contributors have not only pointed out the shortfalls of the corporate approach; they have also offered a robust counter-vision, laying out specific proposals to fix the American educational system while situating the present problems in a broader socioeconomic and cultural analysis. In “Testing, Testing: The High-Stakes Testing Mania Hurts Poor and Minority Students the Most” (June 5, 2000), Gary Orfield, then a Harvard professor of education (now at UCLA), and Johanna Wald, a researcher, cited study after study showing that high-stakes testing narrows the curriculum, increases drop-out rates, and may actually hurt, not improve, economic productivity.

If, as all these studies suggest, high-stakes tests both discriminate against poor and minority students and are educationally unsound, we are still left with the dilemma of how to achieve the dual goals of equity and excellence. Dozens of studies offer convincing evidence that children in poor schools make academic gains when they have access to quality early-childhood education programs, when they are taught in small classes by skilled and committed teachers, and when they are given assessments linked to appropriate and immediate responses.

The single most important factor in raising academic performance in poor schools appears to be the presence of experienced, competent and caring teachers. Disadvantaged youths currently are taught by the least prepared and most transient instructors in the system. Devising incentives for recruiting and maintaining highly qualified teachers and for retraining existing staff in high-poverty schools should be the top priority of those serious about raising standards.

Eight years of the Bush administration—and a few years of President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative—only accelerated the “reform” movement’s takeover of American education. In June 2010’s “Restoring Our Schools,” former Obama adviser Linda Darling-Hammond argued that real reform would have to be smarter, fairer and more systemic:

We need more than a new set of national goals to mobilize a dramatically more successful educational system. We also need more than pilot projects, demonstrations, innovations and other partial solutions. We need to take the education of poor children as seriously as we take the education of the rich, and we need to create systems that routinely guarantee all the elements of educational investment to all children.

What would this require? As in high and equitably achieving nations, it would require strong investments in children’s welfare—adequate healthcare, housing and food security, so that children can come to school each day ready to learn; high-quality preschool to close achievement gaps that already exist when children enter kindergarten; equitably funded schools that provide quality educators and learning materials, which are the central resources for learning; a system that ensures that teachers and leaders in every community are extremely well-prepared and are supported to be effective on the job; standards, curriculums and assessments focused on twenty-first-century learning goals; and schools organized for an in-depth students and teacher learning and equipped to address children’s social needs, as the community schools movement has done…

To meet twenty-first-century demands, the United States needs to move beyond a collection of disparate and shifting reform initiatives to a thoughtful, well-organized and well-supported set of policies that will enable young people to thrive in the new world they are entering. We must also finally make good on the American promise to make education available to all on equal terms, so that every member of this society can realize a productive life and contribute to the greater welfare.

Then, in January 2011, Pedro Noguera, an NYU professor and Nation editorial board member, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in “Beyond Silver Bullets” that far from boldly asking the difficult questions, as the “reform” movement is often celebrated for doing, it had really shirked responsibility for fixing American schools. Corporate-style reform applied Band-Aids where intensive surgery had been required.

Despite the promises, fads of the day and splashy slogans, we continue to leave millions of children behind. Rewarding a few states for agreeing to adopt measures the administration regards as essential to reform has convinced the public that we have embarked on a race to the top, when we have not. Policy-makers continue to pursue silver-bullet solutions, such as small schools, high-stakes testing and performance pay for teachers—some of which have no evidence of their effectiveness—while ignoring the more substantive issues that have much more influence over the quality of education. What we should be focused on are basic issues: How do we ensure that all teachers are well trained in content and pedagogy, and are able to develop relationships with an increasingly diverse array of students? How do we make sure that school leaders have the skills and resources to keep our schools safe and to maintain conditions for good teaching and learning? What do we do to motivate students not merely to pass tests but to become life-long learners who seek out knowledge and information long after the tests are over? How do we make sure that parents do their part to support their children and reinforce the importance of education at home?

Most tragically, Noguera and Weingarten argued, despite the rhetoric of “choice” and “opportunity,” the latest trends in education left behind precisely those students they were meant to save—the ones most in need of help.

In many of the most disadvantaged schools, the non-academic needs of poor students—for health, housing and a variety of social supports—are often unmet. Invariably, when the basic needs of children are ignored, the task of educating them is much more challenging. Acknowledging that poverty and related social issues can make the job of educating children more difficult does not mean we believe that poor children are incapable of achieving at high levels. There are many examples of excellent schools that serve poor children. There are also a number of poor children who have been able to use education to overcome obstacles related to poverty and who have accomplished great things. But to ignore the fact that the effects of poverty pose formidable obstacles to academic achievement and healthy development is worse than naïve; it shows blatant disregard for the enormous challenges that poor children and their families face.

Just as the proponents of corporatized education use their proposals for privatization and union-busting as a means towards a broad vision of a transformed American society, their critics—the true inheritors of the word “reform”—are increasingly aware that both the problems and the solutions of American public education can be found in an investigation of the structural causes of inequality. Only through that recognition can we reclaim the word “reform.”