We hear a lot about school reform today: the need for it, and the latest suggestions for bringing it about. But who are these political “school reformers,” and what is their true agenda? Well, the answer to this question (if it is a reasonably accurate one) is sure to be complex– and I am the first to admit I am not entirely sure who all these folks are. But I have a strong suspicion that many of the “conservative” school reformers may not really have the “reform” of public schooling in mind at all: Their objective is to basically destroy public schools through accountability efforts (which largely serve to discredit public schools and public school teachers, painting them both as incompetent and unworthy of further funding and support) as well as privatization / voucher efforts. My post from May 2004, “School refinance, vouchers, generational compact and class warfare?,” reflects some of my early thinking along these lines just a couple of years ago. In his April 2004 article, “Test Today, Privatize Tomorrow,”Alfie Kohn observed:

The point is that the mantle of school reform has been appropriated by those who oppose the whole idea of public schooling. Their aim is to paint themselves as bold challengers to the current system and to claim that defenders of public education lack the vision or courage to endorse meaningful change. This rhetorical assault seemed to come out of nowhere, as though a memo had been circulated one day among those on the right: �Attention. Effective immediately, all of our efforts to privatize the schools will be known as �reform,� and any opposition to those efforts will be known as �anti-reform.� That is all.�

Given these observations let me set the record straight: I AM a proponent of effective school reform, but for me that does NOT include privatizing US public education. I agree with Kohn’s observations that there are many problems with public education, but I would add that the performance gap of US students is vastly overblown when compared to other nations– because (as David Berliner observes) the pundits don’t disaggregate the student population to account for the effects of poverty. Kohn wrote:

An awful lot is wrong with them [US public schools]: the way conformity is valued over curiosity and enforced with rewards and punishments, the way children are compelled to compete against one another, the way curriculum so often privileges skills over meaning, the way students are prevented from designing their own learning, the way instruction and assessment are increasingly standardized, the way different avenues of study are rarely integrated, the way educators are systematically deskilled . . .

Like Kohl, I’m also generally opposed to reactionary educational policies. (Look at a current search for “reactionary” on my blog to see examples.) Kohl correctly observes:

Making schools resemble businesses often results in a kind of pedagogy that�s not merely conservative but reactionary, turning back the clock on the few changes that have managed to infiltrate and improve classrooms.

Unfortunately, most of the policies we see advanced by state legislatures and national leaders fall into this “reactionary” and “counter-productive” category. Kohl quotes an article from 2003 by William Bennett and Chester Finn, “No Standards Without Freedom: Using School Choice, Conservatives Can Win,” that I had not heard of or read previously. The article makes the conservative, school-reform agenda plain: Discredit schools via accountability regimes, rename “vouchers” as “school choice” legislation to make it more palatable for voters, and at the end of the day both elect more conservatives to office while moving the educational privatization movement forward.

How sad. NCLB may have very little to do with improving educational outcomes for students and families. As Kohn writes,

So what is it about NCLB in particular that has led a growing number of people to view it as a stalking horse for privatization? While any test can be, and many tests have been, rigged to create the impression of public school failure, nothing has ever come close to NCLB in this regard. Put aside for a moment the rather important point that higher scores on standardized tests do not necessarily reflect meaningful improvement in teaching or learning — and may even indicate the opposite. Let�s assume for the sake of the argument that better performance on these tests was a good sign. This law�s criteria for being judged successful � how fast the scores must rise, and how high, and for how many subgroups of students — are nothing short of ludicrous. NCLB requires every single student to score at or above the proficient level by 2014, something that has never been done before and that few unmedicated observers believe is possible.

What have been and are the results of the high-stakes accountability movement in the United States? My experience and intuition says, “not much that is good.” Kohn agrees, writing:

What have the results been of high-stakes testing to this point? To the best of my knowledge, no positive effects have ever been demonstrated, unless you count higher scores on these same tests. More low-income and minority students are dropping out, more teachers (often the best ones) are leaving the profession, and more mind-numbing test preparation is displacing genuine instruction. Why should anyone believe that annual do-or-die testing mandated by the federal government will lead to anything different?

So to return to my original question: Who are these reformers, and what is their agenda? The agenda outlined above seems pretty clear:

  1. Discredit public schools and public school teachers via high-stakes accountability.
  2. Ferment popular support for “school reform” in various ways, including fanning the fires of fear that US students perform poorly on tests relative to other nations’ students.
  3. Offer up private and commercial school options as solutions to the largely fabricated crisis in education.

Kohl names many of the conservative think tanks who are supporting this agenda with “research.” These groups include:

What hope do passionate edubloggers have to overcome well-funded opponents like these in the titanic struggle in which we find ourselves engaged in school reform debates? I don’t honestly know. But I’m not going to let that ambiguity stop me from speaking out, or encouraging others to do the same. I resonate with Kohl’s observation that the solution to our high-stakes accountability madness is NOT selling out and just doing all we can to meet standards and take tests better:

But the idea that we should scramble to feed the accountability beast is based on the rather desperate hope that we can satisfy its appetite by providing sufficient evidence of excellence. This is a fool�s errand. It overlooks the fact that the whole movement is rooted in a top-down, ideologically driven contempt for public institutions, not in a grassroots loss of faith in neighborhood schools. The demand for accountability didn�t start in living rooms; it started in places like the Heritage Foundation.

Are we required to take tests, and are our students required to take tests? Yes, of course, and I am not suggesting that we should– on a widespread basis– attempt to conscientiously object to statewide accountability requirements. But I AM suggesting that what we are about, and should be about in schools, is FAR MORE than test preparation. We must find ways to prepare students for success in the real world, and move beyond being political pawns whose test performance advances someone else’s political agenda.

As you might guess from the length and content of this post, I am (as I often do) using my blog as a way to reflect on ideas that I find valuable and worth remembering– in this case, Kohl’s article, “Test Today, Privatize Tomorrow.” There is much here worth reading, thinking about, sharing and reflecting on. Troublingly, Kohl’s article reveals NCLB and the conception of teaching and learning it advances to be diametrically opposed to my own view:

By virtue of its definition of a qualified teacher, NCLB helps to cement the idea that education consists of pouring knowledge into empty receptacles. We don�t need people who know how to help students become proficient learners (a skill that they might be helped to acquire in a school of education); we just need people who know a lot of stuff (a distinction that might simply be certified by a quasi-private entity � using, naturally, a standardized test). Or, as Bennett and Finn explain things to the readers of the Wall Street Journal, �A principal choosing teachers will make better informed decisions if she has access to comparable information about how much history or math or science each candidate knows.� This nicely rounds out the �reform� agenda, by locking into place a model that not only deprofessionalizes teachers but confuses teaching with the transmission of facts.

Ugh. This is just as depressing as news of DOPA’s passage in the US House of Representatives was a couple of weeks ago during Will Richardson’s second MTI 2006 preso. Authentic education is NOT about regurgitating content on cue. Yet that is the vision of learning, instruction and assessment that seems to be most strongly reinforced our our current, US political culture.

Kohl connects a lot of dots for me with this article, and the picture which is emerging is deeply troubling to me. It is one I have glimpsed briefly in the past and heard others hint about, but Kohl’s writing style does not pull any punches. Neither does his conclusion:

We have got to stop prefacing our objections by saying that, while the execution of this legislation is faulty, we agree with its laudable objectives. No. What we agree with is some of the rhetoric used to sell it, invocations of ideals like excellence and fairness. NCLB is not a step in the right direction. It is a deeply damaging, mostly ill-intentioned law, and no one genuinely committed to improving public schools (or to advancing the interests of those who have suffered from decades of neglect and oppression) would want to have anything to do with it.

Ultimately, we must decide whether we will obediently play our assigned role in helping to punish children and teachers. Every in-service session, every article, every memo from the central office that offers what amounts to an instruction manual for capitulation slides us further in the wrong direction until finally we become a nation at risk of abandoning public education altogether. Rather than scrambling to comply with its provisions, our obligation is to figure out how best to resist.

Count me in as a fighter in the struggle against this vision of teaching and learning in the 21st century. What about you?

Thanks to Dean Shareki for bringing my attention to this with his post from June 2006, “Maybe the World isn�t so flat.”

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One Response to Who and What of School Reform

  1. […] I have been doing a lot of reading on DOPA in the past few days from a variety of blogs – see my blog list – almost everyone has written on it. I believe, as most, that it is not well thought out, and is not going to help schools, kids and teachers get on with the real job of learning.  But in my reality of supporting teachers in using technology to foster student learning, DOPA right now has little impact.  Many teachers do not know what a blog or wiki is, therefore DOPA has little meaning to them.  Many are struggling to wrap themselves in the standards and find a way to improve test scores, not necessarily student learning (see Wesley Fryer’s post). I feel I can best help the situation by helping teachers understand these new tools, and to discover the potential they have to provide a positive impact on learning. I can continue to talk to the “powers that be” about the tools and their uses.  To address safety concerns and allay fears. In my work we plan on offering FYI sessions to staff and teachers at all levels on Web 2.0 tools with a focus on personal/professional use.  We hope that as they become more familiar with the tools they will migrate them into the classroom.  We also are making a big push for Moodle as a classroom extension. Though I feel the upset over DOPA that others have expressed and have written my congressmen and senators, I can do little right now except to educate people about the tools and their potential.  It is ignorance that got us into this position and I believe education and understanding will get us out. […]

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