Perpetual cycle of school reforms

September 9, 2010

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

It’s hard to say “school” in America without saying “reform” right after it. For more that a half century we’ve had one magic potion after another.

The list runs to the horizon and beyond. Child-centered education; open schools; discovery learning; compensatory education; team teaching; new math; new physics; new biology; phonics; math facts; more homework; less homework; bigger high schools; smaller classes; merit pay; magnet schools; direct instruction; computer-assisted instruction; testing and exit exams; no social promotion; vouchers; charter schools; KIPP; Success for All; Accelerated Schools; national standards; No Child Left Behind.. Some are long forgotten, some are still very much in fashion.

But it’s not much of a stretch to say that almost everything we knew for sure at some time in the past about how to run schools and teach children has later come to seem at least doubtful if not flat-out wrong.

When will Race to the Top join the list, and in what way, or is it different? At the moment there seems to be consensus among reformers that even in many of the states, California among them, that didn’t get chosen for federal RTTT grants, the competition itself generated major reforms.

Some have enacted laws loosening rigid teacher seniority policies and authorizing the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations. Some have adopted the new Common Core National Standards created under the aegis of the nation’s governors and chief state school officers.

The recent publication by the Los Angeles Times of data on individual teacher performance as measured by student improvement on state tests – so called value-added measures of student learning from one year to the next – has added fuel to the argument.

So will the release later this month of Davis Guggenheim’s film Waiting for Superman, a sweeping condemnation of the nation’s schools, accompanied by prescriptions on how to fix them. The villains, either on stage or just behind the scenes, are the teacher unions and the rigid contracts that many – though hardly all – have imposed on the districts that employ their members.

By now, the difficulty of firing incompetent teachers and rewarding good ones has become axiomatic among a great many politicians, academics and schoolhouse pundits. So has the lack of evidence supporting teacher transfer, promotion and pay scales based largely on seniority and graduate credits and the straitjackets they impose on school administrators in staffing classrooms.

Skepticism warrarnted

Plainly, using test scores, however uncertain they are of student achievement, and, worse, of teacher effectiveness, must be better. But the long, checkered history of bright promises and big solutions in education ought to invite at least a heavy dose of caution.

So should the fact that the people now stridently demanding reforms and talking about the deterioration of American schools were themselves the products of a system that, a generation or two generations ago, was also judged hopelessly inadequate.

In 1957, after the Russians beat us into space with Sputnik, there were dire predictions that if schools weren’t radically improved, the Soviets would beat our brains out and win the Cold War. In 1983, in “A Nation at Risk,” a blue ribbon national commission warned that as American schools were then going we were “in effect, committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” The urge seems to come around every 25 years. The schools, Will Rogers was supposed to have famously declared, were never as good as they used to be.

None of this it to suggest that our schools are doing well: They’re not and there are all sorts of measures indicating that we’ve been losing ground on every sort of measure to other nations. But does the problem begin in the schools, or is it something deeper in our culture and in our political priorities?

Beginning with the Reagan Administration in the early 1980s, when we began to roll back the social programs of the New Deal and the Great Society, we have been persuading ourselves, or been persuaded by others, that many of our most vexing public problems – social and economic inequality, global economic competitiveness, the declining levels of civic engagement – could be traced to the schools.

That’s not new either; it goes back at least to Jefferson and Horace Mann, who thought the schools could be the great equalizer between classes.  We have forever assigned whatever seems to ail us at any moment to the schools: the evils of tobacco, drugs and alcohol; the salvation of capitalism; safe driving, racial tolerance, birth control and sex education; respect for the environment and countless more. The schools are providers of Friday night football for the locals, dances for the students and all manner of other community entertainment. But never have we put so much of the onus on the schools.

In the end, what gets forgotten in debates like those about Race to the Top is the great distance between policy makers, whether in Washington or at the local district and what goes on in the classroom, much less in the minds of the kids.

Most of the nations that are beating our brains out in conventional measures of educational achievement don’t have our history of populist anti-intellectualism, something that seems to be particularly virulent at this moment. Though many spend less on their schools, most invest a lot more than we do on the social conditions that foster learning, from health care and pre-school to welfare and family services. Whenever conservatives make comparisons between American schools and those of, say, Finland, they tend to omit that troublesome fact.

The Administration is trying earnestly to, again, reform the system, and we should all cheer them on; it may be making a difference. But unfortunately it too has bought into the argument, fostered first by conservatives and lately by much of the business community, powerful foundations like Gates and Broad, and most of the media that it can all be done in the schools. In a federal system of 50 states and 15,000 school districts like ours, that’s horrendously difficult. And because, inevitably, so much else influences the educational process, it’s nearly impossible.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report ( and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

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