The last reform: How to reform schools without really trying

Jose – I have one wish for the future of teaching and learning. It is that we will stop arguing about the purpose of public education. I have been reading David Labaree’s latest book Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling and it has seriously twisted my thoughts.  His even handed, critical, and […]

Jose –

I have one wish for the future of teaching and learning. It is that we will stop arguing about the purpose of public education. I have been reading David Labaree’s latest book Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling and it has seriously twisted my thoughts.  His even handed, critical, and humorous look at the history of school reform is incredibly deep in it’s perspective. He has represented the long view of school with a skeptic’s eye and proposed that there will never be an end to school reform (he is a skeptic) because the system is created in such a way that no-one, on any side, will ever be happy with the course or accomplishments of reforms.

I highly recommend that anyone interested in school reform read this book, especially so-called school “de-formers”.

There would be a lot to cover to describe Labaree’s study of school reform so I will cut to his take away bullet points. With his standard straight-faced irony, Labaree offers his “Unusable Lessons for School Reformers.” His suggestions bring me to the title of this post, The Last Reform: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools, Now and in the Future (sound familiar? \:P ). His points are based on the deep historical and theoretical foundation he has described in the book, so you can’t really understand what he is talking about unless you have read it. So do. But, in the interest of urging you and other fellow educationists out there to read it, here they are:

  • Scale down ambitions: To me this means think local act local. Multi-billion dollar reforms will not do much to change the flavor of schooling for students.
  • Use schooling’s strengths: Here he is talking about what many of teachers who will be marching this month are talking about, the big C – Citizenship. It means build on that democratic foundation that the structure of school creates by making everybody get along in a petri-dish. In a sense, let teachers do what they are good at.
  • Don’t pursue weaknesses: These are the Broader/Bolder sociological goals that schools are not necessarily equipped to meet, at least as they are structured today such as addressing inequality while simultaneously providing newer better ways for students to get ahead.
  • Meet the consumer’s needs: In this suggestion David is highlighting that schools can not be made better in a way that consumers do not need them to be better. Consumers in this situation are not only students, but parents, and taxpayers.
  • Change the form not the content of schooling: This one is really important in that it aligns with what we have described in Teaching 2030. Make schools more flexible for teachers and students and it will be a more robust system. Keep narrowing opportunities and expected outcomes and the reform will not stick.
  • Don’t assume you have the right answer: This is one that all of us who have worked on the Teaching 2030 project can support. One thing that I think makes our group really powerful is that we readily disagree with each other AND acknowledge each others points. We think the emergent realities we have outlined are on target and a good step but we aren’t sure. Which brings me to my favorite suggestion and you will laugh when you read this.
  • Be a pessimist: I know I know, my gmail signature says, Relentlessly positive. What Labaree really seems to be talking about here is the medical tenant, “First, do no harm.” Through our our 2030 discussions I have tried to raise the question, “What are the possible unintended consequences of this idea, if it were to become real.”  I have struggled with this privately and publicly with the idea of teacherpreneurism in which a teacher, connected with a local school or community, is provided the flexibility to apply their expertise in the classroom and spread their expertise out of the classroom.

I have decided that after, as my former assistant teacher would say, “Riding the idea around in the cart at Target”, I really do think providing teachers more flexible opportunities to be change agents outside of the formalized teacher leader role is a good thing. Teacherpreneurism is a reform that meets most or all of Labaree’s suggestions, and still will do good. Teacherpreneurs could create and direct changes at local levels, based on their expertise, with the intention of meeting their “consumers” needs ie. local students, parents, and taxpayers. Teacherpreneurism would change the structure of schools by making the role of teacher more open-ended and enticing to creative professionals. Teacherpreneurism does not claim to be THE answer to creating a profession for the future but one of MANY answers. Finally, I don’t think it will change the reality of schools or schooling except for a small percentage of teachers who can affect their communities outside of the classroom. It will not make teaching the well compensated profession it should be, it is only a step. It will not make schools cut-throat for-profit endeavors, public education is too resilient for that. Finally, it will not make teaching weaker than it already is, where the best and the brightest have many ways out of the classroom and only one way to stay in. Sure some things need to change in schools but lets not try to change the whole thing. I am glad I read Labaree’s book because it convinced me, reformers need to stop trying so hard to fix education and start listening to teachers. If we work together it might even get better.

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