Some thoughts on school reform

Let’s talk little bit about the problematic nature of school reform. On the one hand there really are problems with public education. Speaking from my own experience working in a high poverty school in Oakland California I can say for certain that far too many of the freshman special order school will not be walking the stage at graduation four years later.

Starting in the ninth grade, students begin to be assessed and segregated. The highest performing students to identify and cocooned into Advanced Placement and Honors courses. The rest of the children are relegated to so-called normal classes, where the expectations of success, the levels of rigor, and the quality of instruction are haphazard at best. It is sad but not surprising that this ability based segregation has distressingly close ties to race and class. Advanced Placement and Honors courses are predominately white and Asian, professional and upper-class students. So-called normal and remedial classes are dominated by African-American and Latino children who are typically grown up in impoverished neighborhoods.

All the rest of the data points that reformers typically look at to determine if the school is high functioning or not are also organized around race and class. Graduation rates are strikingly different for white and Asian children than for African-American and Latino children. At the same time discipline problems, suspensions, expulsions are predominantly of African-American and Latino children, particularly boys.

Since I arrived at this high school five years ago, the school has been on probation designated as in need of “program improvement”-based on scores on state mandated high-stakes exam. The administration and the teachers at the school while disagreeing about the importance of scores on exams all recognize that our school is in need of some real reform.

Unfortunately, in order to qualify for grant monies and other resources are school has to accept as one of our goals and one of our indicators of success to be the raising of our scores on the state-mandated test. So while our reform ideas, like reorganizing the school and the smaller learning communities, are meant to address issues such as student absenteeism, tardiness, inappropriate behavior that disrupts the learning environment, student apathy and improved engagement and connectedness to the school, our success or failure is judged by the scores on next year’s exam.

I was just reading an essay by Richard Elmore entitled Institutions, Improvement, and Practice in the book Change Wars. In the essay, Elmore describes alleys moved from doing research about school reform to help in schools achieve the reform. He notices that in high poverty schools, despite being well grounded in the research and despite having improvement plans that are strongly aligned with the best practices that research has identified, actual improvement is still elusive.

Perhaps the most interesting concept in the essay is Elmore’s unpacking of the “nested” nature of and school systems and especially the nested nature of school reform. He argues that if one were to look at the current model of school reform (the model that is largely defined by the triumvirate of high-stakes testing, accountability, and market-based school choice) not the point of view of actually changing schools but from the point of view of serving the interest of the organization that is involved at that level of the system, then the reforms make sense in a distressing way. He writes:

“It is important to understand that this set of relationships is dysfunctional only if you believe that the system is designed to improve schools. In its manifest functions, however, the system is primarily designed to serve the interest of the actors in agencies that make it up. The federal and state governments have discharged the responsibility for oversight by labeling schools and shifting the responsibility for fixing them off to the districts. The districts have discharge their responsibility by creating a system in which schools are accountable for their performance, but the people who work in the system have little or no capacity to actually support the lowest performing schools in the kind of work that will actually improve their performance. And the schools have essentially chosen not to organize themselves for collective action in order to preserve the culture of teacher economy and atomization of practice. Everyone’s interest is served in these transactions, with the possible exception of the students. Once you’ve reached a student, there is nowhere else for the responsibility to go.

In a sense, I was arguing that we are all passing the buck. Elected leaders are not so much interested in reforming schools as they are in making sure that they are reelected. If they were to engage in the real work of school reform, they risk failure and a risk being held accountable for that failure. It’s much easier than to sit back at arms length, assess and label the school, and demanded the districts, “do something about this.”

District superintendents and school boards, in their turn, are especially seeking the same thing. Rather than risk their careers on being held accountable for actual school reform, they shift the blame any accountability downward onto the shoulders of the principal. Whether or not the principal has the capacity, or the staff to achieve scratch that, to achieve actual school reform is not the point. Rather district officials have done their part and believe that their jobs and positions of power are safe.

Thus the burden of real reform shifted the individual school. At this level, both real reform and passing the buck are problematic. On one hand, principals are sorely tempted to push responsibility downward onto the shoulders teachers. At the same time, teachers want to hold their administrations responsible for the school level support that enables high-quality learning. These are supports such as enforcing the discipline code, reducing absenteeism and tardiness, and allocating resources.

The teacher level, the problematic nature of reform and buckpassing become even more complex. Some teachers would genuinely like to push responsibility and blame downward onto the shoulders of their students and their students’ parents. On the other hand, most teachers got into this profession with a sense of calling more similar to that of the priesthood than of other professions. Teachers except careers with low pay and diminishing respect because they have a deep sense of mission and a deep desire to see the light on a child’s face when the epiphany strikes and the child, “gets it.”

So what is the way forward? First of all, we have to stop passing the buck. All of us, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, board members, state and national legislators need to decide once and for all that we are all on the same side. Teachers unions and philanthropic corporations need to decide if they’re on the same side. Grassroots organizations and elected officials to try to pressure need to realize they’re on the same side.

We have to start behaving in ways that make Dr. Elmore wrong.  Right now, the administration, teachers, union, grassroots and parent organizations are behaving just like he describes.  We are all much more interesed in preserving our own positions and avoiding responsibility and blame.  It’s time we start acting in acordance to our values and beliefs.  Despite the accuracy of Dr. Elmore’s description to the agents and agencies in my district, I still belive:

We all want children to learn.

Let me say that again, we all want children to learn.

We have deep divisions about what learning means. Some of us believe that learning needs a score on a test. Others of us believe that learning is a project, or an essay, or even the corrections from a first to a second draft. These are important divisions and important conversations for us to have. In conversation we need to decide as a nation what learning means. We need to decide how children invent to show us that they had learned. We need to decide how each of us in our different roles can do all that we can to ensure that children learn.

It’s time to stop pointing fingers. It’s time to stop ascribing blame. It’s time to stop asking, “are you doing enough?” It’s time to start asking the question, “am I doing enough?” It’s time to start asking the question, “what can we do together?”


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