This commentary of mine appeared in Valerie Strauss's blog The Answer Sheet, a part of washingtonpost.com.
Here’s an all-too-familiar storyline about reform, from education to agricultural development: The reform has run its course, has not achieved its goals, and the reformers and other analysts speculate in policy briefs or opinion pages about what went wrong. The interesting thing is that the reform’s flaws were usually evident from the beginning. As someone who has lived through several periods of educational reform and has studied schools and taught for a long time, I see characteristics of the current reform movement, as powerful as it is, that could lead to unintended and undesirable consequences. But when reform is going strong it can become a closed ideological system, deaf to the cautionary tale.
I have six areas of concern.
Tone Down the Rhetoric. In the manifesto “How to Fix Our Schools” published on October 10 in this newspaper, New York City’s chancellor, Joel Klein and 15 colleagues wrote: “It’s time for all the adults – superintendants, educators, elected officials, labor unions, and parents alike – to start acting like we are responsible for the future of our children.” The collective “we” is used here, but it’s pretty clear rhetorically that the signatories believe that they are already on the side of the angels. Anyone who is not on board with their reforms is acting out of self interest.
This is not the way to foster the unified effort called for in the sentence.
Reformers have been masterful at characterizing anyone who differs from their approach as “traditionalists” who want to maintain the status quo, putting their own retrograde professional interests ahead of the good of children. Teachers unions are the arch-villain in this Manichean tale of good and evil, and schools of education are right behind. I’m reminded of the toxic rhetoric of patriotism that characterized the 2008 presidential campaign. So, if I may, in the interest of the children, I suggest a less adversarial language. Many of the people on the receiving end of it have spent a lifetime working for the same goals voiced by the reformers, and the reformers need their expertise.
There is another language issue, and that’s the unrelenting characterization of public schools as failures. To be sure, this crisis rhetoric predates the current reformers, going back to the 1983 document “A Nation at Risk.” Since then, the language of crisis and failure has intensified. Crisis talk can give rise to action, but heard consistently enough and long enough, such rhetoric can also lead to despair and paralysis.
There is a crisis in American education, and it involves mostly poor children, and thus it is a moral as well as educational outrage. But it is just not accurate to characterize public education itself as being in a thirty-year crisis.
I can’t tell you how many professional people I meet who, upon finding out what I do, erupt with damning statements about public schools: they are a catastrophe, we are doomed, the situation is hopeless. What is telling is that they are not speaking from experience; they don’t have kids, or their kids are in private school, or are grown. They are voicing the new common sense. Unless you’re in the free market camp of the reform movement, this reaction is not good news, for it suggests hopelessness and withdrawal from support for public education.
The Problem with “Cleaning House.” Some districts are so dysfunctional that clearing them out seems the best option. But the history of reform in education – and other domains as well – reveals the shortsightedness of such action. In even the most beleaguered school district there are good teachers and administrators, and their skills and local wisdom are tossed out in the clean sweep. And in most communities there are grass roots movements to improve the schools, and they are typically ignored. Finally, this approach predictably is going to piss people off, not only those who are part of the problem, but many others in the community as well. No one likes to be pushed around – as the voters in Washington D.C. just demonstrated. Clean sweep reform shakes things up and attracts the media, which might be useful. But these tactics can generate more heat than light. Though it is tedious and calls for great skill, a more targeted and discriminating approach that builds on what is good has a better chance of long-term success.
Careful of the Big Idea. Reformers are often driven by a big idea, a grand process or structure that will transform the status quo. Not too long ago, the big idea in education reform was turning large schools into small ones. For NCLB it was a system of high-stakes tests that would drive achievement. One appealing big idea today is charter schools. The problem with the big idea approach to school reform is that large-scale educational problems have more than one cause and thus require more than one solution.
The mother of big ideas in contemporary school reform is the belief that we can capture dynamic phenomena like learning or teaching with a few numerical measures. This is the logical fallacy of reification, and the last century of psychological science is filled with unfortunate examples, as Stephen J. Gould trenchantly observed in The Mismeasure of Man.
Though most reformers acknowledge the problems with NCLB, they continue to try to build a better technocratic mousetrap, not questioning the assumptions behind their use of testing and accountability systems. We’re seeing all this play out with currently popular “value-added” methods of evaluating teachers as reformers ignore the concerns raised by statisticians and measurement experts.
One more manifestation of this way of thinking is the attempt to develop quantitative models of teacher effectiveness. In a nutshell, the approach attempts to pinpoint specific teaching behaviors and qualities and correlate them with a numerical measure of student achievement. There’s another logical problem here, the reductive fallacy –the attempt to explain a complex phenomenon by reducing it to its basic components. Even if researchers are able to specify a wide range of behaviors and qualities, the further problem is that it’s likely, given the history of such attempts, that the result will be a small number of significant correlations with the measure of achievement – which itself might be flawed. We’ll end up with a thin composite of good teaching. We just witnessed with NCLB the way high-stakes testing can narrow what gets taught; a reductive model of teacher effectiveness could lead to a corresponding narrowing of teaching itself.
Focus on Instruction. It is characteristic of contemporary school reform to focus on organizational structure and broad testing and accountability systems, but change at that level is a necessary but not sufficient condition for reform. As Debbie Meier, the maven of the original small schools movement, once said: You can have crappy small schools too. What goes on in the classroom makes all the difference.
It could be argued that standardized tests give us a window onto learning, but it is a pretty narrow window, distant from the cognitive give and take of instruction. And it could also be said that aforementioned measures of teacher effectiveness will bring characteristics of good teachers to the fore. Even if they work, these methods won’t help us think about curriculum, the organization of the classroom, what we want students to do intellectually, how we address academic underpreperation, and so on. Instruction is the gigantic missing element in reform, and without it, all the structural changes in the world won’t get us very far.
Privileging Youth Over Experience. Reformers have a tendency to downplay the value of experience and to celebrate the new. You will rarely see a career public school teacher featured in reform media, but will see young teachers in KIPP schools or Teach for America volunteers.
Furthermore, ask yourself, when in a reform document have you found reference to the rich Western tradition of educational thought, from Plato through Horace Mann and W.E.B. DuBois to the twentieth century treasure trove of research on learning. It seems that the reform movement’s managerial-technocratic orientation has an anti-intellectual streak to it.
I greatly admire the young people who sign up for Teach for America or work diligently in schools like KIPP. I began my career in education via an earlier alternative program, Teacher Corps, so I know the exhilaration and challenge. But I also know how green I was, and how the wisdom of veteran teachers saved me from big blunders.
What I’m concerned about is the way young teachers are used in reform publicity, what they symbolize. The message is not simply the accurate one that we need to attract bright and committed young people to teaching, but that the new and the alternative will save our schools.
In what other profession would such an appeal be made? Can you imagine proposals to staff hospitals with biology majors or the courts with pre-law graduates?
Merit pay could be related to experience, though many merit pay schemes link pay to test scores. The original Race to the Top proposal did mention professional development and career trajectories, though I haven’t read much more since. This cult of the new is interwoven with the reformers’ attempts to remove seniority and to not consider teachers’ academic credentials. However these issues play out in management-union negotiations, reformers are going to have to develop ways to draw on experience and expertise, not with add-on rewards but as central to the reform enterprise.
Don’t Downplay Poverty. Low socioeconomic status does not condemn a child to low achievement. This fact has led some reformers to downplay – and in some cases dismiss – the harmful effect poverty can have on the lives of children in school. To raise the issue of poverty is to risk being accused of making excuses or of harboring “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
I grew up poor and have worked a fair amount of my life with low-income students. To be poor affects everything from health to housing – which weighs mightily on children. There is also the extraordinary gap in educational resources. While a poor kid is trying to work through an outdated textbook at the kitchen table, his affluent peer across town is being tutored in algebra in her own room. Only someone who hasn’t been poor could say that all this can be overcome by school. It is telling that The Harlem Children’s Zone, a rightfully celebrated crown jewel of reform, incorporates health and social services with schooling.
Reformers slip into either/or thinking here. They are right to insist that schools provide poor kids with a top-flight education, but to insist on excellence does not require negating the brutal realities of being poor in America.
If education involves children’s psychological and social as well as cognitive well-being, then we have to address poverty, and the reformers have an unprecedented bully pulpit from which to do it. Wealth and income gaps are widening in the U.S., and no less a figure than Warren Buffet observed that we’re in the middle of class warfare, and the rich are winning.
Which is all the more reason to get school reform right this time.
About the Blog
•teaching and learning;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.
If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.
My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.
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Monday, October 25, 2010
This commentary of mine appeared in Valerie Strauss's blog The Answer Sheet, a part of washingtonpost.com.