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What Is the Goal of School Reform?

Posted on Sep 4, 2013

By Michael B. Katz and Mike Rose

The following is adapted from “Public Education Under Siege,” a collection of essays on the wider range of educational, social and economic issues that should be addressed in contemporary school reform.

No reform movement in any domain—the law, agricultural development, education—can do everything, and it is an unreasonable demand that it try. Reform movements need to be selective, and need to be clear and focused. In some ways the current mainstream education reforms are just that: Standardized test scores are used as a measure of achievement; a teacher’s effectiveness is determined by improvement in those scores; funds are awarded by competition, and so on. Yet, though it is unreasonable to demand everything, it is legitimate to scrutinize what is left out—for something left out might be crucial to the success of what is left in—and it is legitimate to question whether the reforms themselves contain within them elements that could unintentionally subvert the very goals of reform.

One of the problems with current reform is that there does not seem to be an elaborated philosophy of education or theory of learning underlying the current reform movement. There is an implied philosophy and it is a basic economic/human capital one: Education is necessary for individual economic advantage and for national economic stability. This focus is legitimate but incomplete, for it narrows the purpose of education in a democracy, which should also include intellectual, social, civic, and ethical development. The theory of learning embedded in an accountability system based on standardized testing is a simplified behaviorist one. Learning is pretty much the acquisition of discrete bits of information measured quantitatively by a standardized test. Teaching is likewise reduced to a knowledge delivery system based on the mastery of a set of teaching techniques.

This characterization of the reformers’ theories of learning and teaching might not be true to their beliefs, but it’s hard to know what they believe since learning and teaching are rarely discussed in more robust terms. What they advocate suggests the behaviorist theory sketched above—a theory long since discredited in fields ranging from anthropology to cognitive science.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the current reform movement is its focus on inequality, on the poor performance of low-income and minority students. This is definitely a point of agreement for people along the ideological spectrum. Because reformers want to keep focus with “no excuses” on the unacceptable performance of poor children, they insist on addressing outcomes (in the form of test scores) rather than on inequality of resources and social conditions. This is an understandable strategy, but its narrow focus has a potent liability. Poverty itself tends to be pushed out of the picture.

Poverty is mentioned, but, in a variety of ways, is downplayed. So all the damage poverty does to communities and to households, to schools and to other local institutions is rarely addressed. Low achievement then, by default, has to be attributed to teachers and administrators, whose work seems pretty straightforward, given the aforementioned theory of learning that underlies reform. If kids aren’t learning, it’s because teachers lack the techniques or motivation to deliver information to them.

Although the reformers rightly focus on low-performing children, there is not much treatment of sub-populations within the overall group of low-performers. There is little mention of special needs children, English Language Learners, immigrant students, migrant students, undocumented students. In some schools, these sub-populations form a significant percentage of the student body.

Finally, current reformers display no knowledge of—or apparent interest in—the history of school reform, or, for that matter, the history of education in the United States. The result is an ahistorical hubris that, at the least, prevents one from learning from past mistakes.

Without a rich conceptualization of teaching and learning, without an understanding of the origins and maintenance of inequality, without an appreciation of cultural and linguistic diversity, and without a knowledge of history, school reform limits itself to technology and management systems—necessary but hardly sufficient to achieve its grand aims, and certainly insufficient to address the educational inequality that is at the center of its efforts.

* * *

Current reform-oriented education policy makes improvement in standardized test scores in reading and mathematics the gold standard of educational success for students, their teachers, and their schools. To be sure, reading and math are core academic skills, but the tests measure them in one relatively restricted way. Furthermore, when one kind of test dominates and when the stakes are high, the tests can drive and compress the curriculum. What is tested gains in importance and other subjects fade. Math is hit hard; social studies, history, and even science are weakened; and art and debate are pushed to the margin—if they survive at all. Research is showing that especially in schools populated by poor children, there is a narrowing of curriculum, a trend toward prepackaged, scripted lessons, and a strong focus on test preparation. You can do all this, get a bump in test scores, yet not provide a very good education.

Though we hear a lot about test scores and proficiency levels, we hear hardly anything about intellectual engagement, curiosity, creativity, or aesthetics—or about taking a chance, pursuing an idea, being reflective. There’s pitifully little about ethical deliberation or thinking things through with others. For that fact, we don’t hear much about public education as the core of a free society.

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