Over the past year or more we've heard a lot about the "reformers vs. defenders of the status quo" (or "deformers vs. realists," depending on what you read). Indeed, support for what started out as a small set of reforms proposed by conservatives has now come to represent, to many, whether somebody actually wants to improve schools or not.
What "reformers" are talking about are really a very narrow set of reforms: more charter schools, merit pay, and generally weaker unions. Ten years ago these were pushed by conservative think thanks. But now they've gone mainstream. The gospel has spread to liberal op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof ("cowed by teachers’ unions, Democrats have too often resisted reform and stood by as generations of disadvantaged children have been cemented into an underclass by third-rate schools."), and the liberal Washington Post editorial board ("Charter Success: Poor Children Learn. Teachers Unions are not Pleased") and become the backbone of Obama's education policy. Meanwhile, conservative publications lionize "reformers" by, for example, portraying Michelle Rhee as Joan of Arc (rather ironic that conservatives are lionizing reformers when you think about it, but that's another topic for another time).
I have little doubt that all of these reforms have the support of the majority of Americans right now. And I have little doubt that all will continue to spread for at least the next few years. And it's possible that they might even help out our schools and our country. But I find the rhetoric surrounding these reforms incredibly disturbing -- and, really, non-sensical.
I'm disturbed that many who push these reforms often imply that they've been proven to work and that anybody who stands in their way is standing in the way of progress. Meanwhile, as former Bush appointee Russ Whitehurst wrote on Friday, evidence to date shows that a number of other reforms are far more effective.
More troubling, however, is the notion that one is only a "reformer" if they support these particular reforms. It's a somewhat impressive rhetorical sleight of hand, but it makes no sense when critically examined. There are tons of reforms with a similar amount (i.e. very little) of research (or more) behind them. And there are a ton of reforms we could advocate that would be far more radical and "reform-y" than the narrow set that is dominating the current conversation on schools. Here are a few:
-Shrink class sizes. The Tennessee STAR project showed fairly definitively that children in smaller classes learned more.
-Double pay for starting teachers and see if we can't attract more people away from Wall St. and into the classroom.
-Integrate schools. Wake County has has some success with this, while many other districts create charters that are often more segregated than non-charter schools.
-End the 9-10 month school year and divide it up into smaller (e.g. six week) units. Then see if holding kids back that fail a unit doesn't work out a little better and motivate a little more.
-End teacher grading of students. Instead, create classrooms that work more like sports teams: teachers and kids have the same goal and they all fail or succeed together base on an external event (or impartial evaluator).
-Scrap the 8-3 (or 7:30-2:30) school day and start classes at 9am or later for older students, whose body clocks indicate they work better at later hours.
-"Unschool" children. Let them choose what they want to learn, rather than forcing things down their throats.
I could list a thousand more, but I think you get the point. I'm guessing that self-titled "reformers" (and others) would oppose a lot of these reforms. Does that make them defenders of the status quo? Does that mean that only people who support some of these reforms are truly "reformers"?
That supporting or opposing a very narrow set of reforms with very little evidence behind them has come to define one's standing as a "reformer" or an evildoer is preposterous. These particular reforms are far from the most radical out there. Nor are they necessarily the best ones out there. While deriding anybody who opposes this particular set of reforms as a "defender of the status quo" may score political points -- and advance this set of reforms -- it hardly lends itself to a productive debate. Or to bettering our nation's schools. Which should be the ultimate goal.