Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Are "Reformers" Really Offering Reform?

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.


Anonymous said...

Compared to vouchers, there are not tons of reforms with a similar amount of random experimental evidence. There are hardly any reforms at all with the evidentiary track record of vouchers, and certainly not class size (which had a dismal record in California). Just so you know.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Vouchers are one of the easiest reforms to analyze in an experimental context. There's only one large-scale experiment of class size. Overall, research on both is mixed.

Unknown said...

Maybe the whole idea of reform is dubious?

Considering the paucity of research on any of the reforms, the entire notion seems forced; it's a reaction to symptom, and not a solution to a problem.

Maybe we should call it an ill defined problem, this "schools are failing, what do we do?" nonsense.

Society is failing, not schools.

CherBearBlue said...

A couple of thoughts....for the most part, I am indifferent or completely agree with what you suggested as far as 'reforms.'

Despite the fact that I NEED THE MENTAL BREAK from school for 2.5 months as a teacher, it is detrimental to the kids. You're right.

I like your suggestion of 'let the kids learn what they want' ala Reggio Emilia, but wonder how effective that would be for disinterested HS kids. For pre-school, great. K-6 even, great. 7-12? No idea. It'd be a fun experiment and one I'd like to try after I finish my doctorate and start my own non-standards based school.

What I really have a problem with though is this one: "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)"

As a teacher, I take great pains to grade fairly and to make sure that my kids know exactly what I'm looking for. What I'm looking for is based on what universities are looking for in, say for example, a formal lab report. When my kids fail, it is despite a ton of initiative taken by me to avoid it.

But what teachers HATE is when people want to bring in evaluators. It is difficult to judge a classroom by its cover w/o being a part of the development of the environment. How the heck would they know ANYTHING about the classroom?

Also, as a student, I HATE the idea of perhaps being held back due to an idiot jerking around in my class. It's not my job to motivate my classmates, only myself. We should not expect our kids to teach for us, though we teachers all know that teaching is the BEST way to learn. This sort of thing would completely mitigate the needs of the gifted, as well as alienate them.

It seems though this situation could be feasible if you tracked the heck out of the kids, which I'm not convinced is the best way to do things either.


Claus von Zastrow said...

Amen to your post, Corey. I've been venting similar frustrations for a long time now. For so many people--and so many pundits--the reforms have by now become their own rewards. Evidence be damned.

Not sure I love every one of the alternative reforms you suggest, but it has become tiresome to hear these narrow, reductive definitions of reform--even if those reforms may have promise down the road.

Many of the reformers--and the reforms they espouse--would benefit from humility.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I wasn't advocating for any of the reforms that I listed, I was simply pointing out that there are a myriad of reforms that might work at least as well as charter schools and merit pay -- including many that would be even more radical.

TFT: While the problems that manifest themselves in schools usually start in society, there are clearly some very bad schools out there where people are failing to do what they should. I think it's fair that society has more to do with low test scores or whatever than do schools, but we should be careful no to absolve all schools of all responsibility.

Roger Sweeny said...

Corey, you are, of course, right and this is hardly limited to schools. In medicine, "reform" means increased federal regulation of insurance and increased federal control of medical decisions. Thus, when the head of Whole Foods proposed something different, he immediately got attacked as an enemy of reform.

I seem to remember that a number of years back, the Wall Street Journal decided to stop using the word "reform" in its news stories, on the ground that the word implied the "reform" would make things better--while that was more likely than not an open question.