Thursday, September 9, 2010

Reform on the Cheap

Alfie Kohn has a pretty angry take on the state of education reform these days. 

The less people know about teaching and learning, the more sympathetic they're likely to be to the kind of "school reform" that's all the rage these days. Look, they say, some teachers (and schools) are lousy, aren't they? And we want kids to receive a better education -- including poor kids, who typically get the short end of the stick, right? So let's rock the boat a little! Clean out the dead wood, close down the places that don't work, slap public ratings on these suckers just like restaurants that have to display the results of their health inspections.

On my sunnier days, I manage to look past the ugliness of the L.A. Times's unconscionable public shaming of teachers who haven't "added value" to their students, the sheer stupidity and arrogance of Newsweek's cover story on the topic last spring, the fact that the editorials and columns about education in every major newspaper in the U.S. seem to have been written by the same person, all reflecting an uncritical acceptance of the Bush-Obama-Gates version of school reform.

But while he emphasizes the degree to which teachers are being unfairly blamed, curriculum is becoming ever-more data-centric, and charter schools are generally being oversold, my main concern is that we are simply missing the target altogether.  I'm largely in agreement with everything he says.  And he is especially brilliant when he draws a textbook example of what a good teacher is supposed to look like, and then leaves it hanging, the question implied being, "Is that all we really want from a teacher?"
 Imagine a teacher who gives students plenty of worksheets to complete in class as well as a substantial amount of homework, who emphasizes the connection between studying hard and getting good grades, who is clearly in control of the class, insisting that students raise their hands and wait patiently to be recognized, who prepares detailed lesson plans well ahead of time, uses the latest textbooks, gives regular quizzes to make sure kids stay on track, and imposes consequences to enforce rules that have been laid out clearly from the beginning. Plenty of parents would move mountains to get their children into that teacher's classroom. I'd do whatever I could to get my children out.

Yet what is lost here is that his children (and mine) are not the children that this approach to learning was designed to reach.  What he likely wants is the classic progressive model - more Summerhill, less data analysis.  But that model is disastrous for low income, disadvantaged communities.  At least not in anything like the same model.  Summerhill was never scalable.  What happened instead was that the same sort of progressive attitude - exploratory, hands-on learning with an emphasis on critical thinking and child-centered growth - was brought into the traditional, 1:30 teacher/student classroom.  What was ignored was the reality of enormous class differences in academic capital children were bringing to class. 

Children like those of college-educated, high SES types, for whom progressivity was even on the radar, could thrive in such an environment rich opportunities for metacognitive development.  These kids could do whole language reading because they had been read to by their mothers and fathers for years before ever entering school.  They could do exploratory math because they had been engaging in spatial reasoning and numeracy their whole lives. 

The brutal truth is that if one is going to fill a school with 20 teachers, give them 30 students each, make do with limited resources, in a depressed community bringing kids to the door with limited cognitive and language abilities, and most of all without the sort of leadership in administration equipped to hire and cultivate teachers with the right kind of spiritual and intellectual presence to pull a progressive education off, well, you've a recipe for disaster. 

I think this is the context within which we need to see NCLB and current attempts at reform.  We also need to recognize the degree to which poverty has come to be seen as a social ill caused not by some mysterious hand of discriminatory oppression.  While that is certainly a founding part of the story, and still in the picture to a degree, what we are really reckoning with is the widespread understanding that education is the one guaranteed key out of generational poverty.  As much progress as we have made as a society in terms of racial and cultural acceptance, the surest, most immediate ticket to success for any child is a proper education.  This is what NCLB has shined a light on so dramatically.  We can now simply look at maps not just of depressed neighborhoods and communities, but we can attach a number to the schoolhouse and make predictions from that number.

Now, that number is complicated.  It doesn't come near to explaining what is really happening behind the school walls.  But what it does do is make a simple statement about class in America, and inequality that is being built into American society town by town, city by city.  That number signifies an underclass with a lack of opportunity, headed for low-paying jobs, drug abuse, crime, prison and more.  Those are the stakes.

But here is where current reform makes its big mistake.  It refuses to recognize reality - that these communities are severely disadvantaged in both the human and social capital they are able to provide for their children.  Bold steps are not being taken to intervene and make up for this deficiency not just in the schoolhouse through smaller classes, extended hours, reading aides and tutors, psychologists and social workers on site, extra field trips and properly maintained facilities, but also in the community through centralized service centers designed to specifically target deficiencies in social capital.  Instead we are getting reform on the cheap, simply using the existing system to solve a problem that is in size and scope entirely beyond its ability to remedy.  National standards, accountability, charter school and merit pay are not going to begin to solve this problem.  It's far from clear if they are even helping much at all.

Just like progressive education was unfairly foisted on impoverished communities by offering a model that wasn't scalable, contemporary reform - while mostly well-intentioned (aside from the tendency toward gratuitous union-bashing) - is not only misguided but distracting from the real social problems it pretends to solve.

 photo: serge

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