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What Is the Goal of School Reform?

Posted on Sep 4, 2013

By Michael B. Katz and Mike Rose

(Page 2)

In the midst of all the heat of school reform, it would be good to step back and remind ourselves what we are ultimately trying to achieve. What is the end goal of school reform? Most would probably agree that the goal is to create vital classrooms and schools, better than we have now in scope and equitable distribution.

Here are the basic questions that should be our touchstone for reform. What is the purpose of education in a democracy? What kind of person do we want to emerge from American schools? What is the experience of education when it is done well?

Let us bring these questions to life with a vignette from a first-grade classroom in inner-city Baltimore. This is drawn from a book one of us wrote called “Possible Lives.” There are 30 children in the class, all from modest to low-income households—the kind of children at the center of school reform.

As we enter the classroom, teacher Stephanie Terry is reading to her students a book called “A House for Hermit Crab.” Hermit crabs inhabit empty mollusk shells, and, as they grow, they leave old shells to find bigger ones; in this story a cheery hermit crab is searching for a more spacious home. The class has a glass case with five hermit crabs, supplied by Stephanie. As Stephanie reads the book, she pauses and raises broader questions about where the creatures live, and this leads to an eager query from Kenneth about where in nature you’d find hermit crabs. “Well,” says Stephanie, “let’s see if we can figure that out.”

She gets up and brings the case with the hermit crabs to the center of the room, takes them out, and places them on the rug. Then she takes two plastic tubs from the cupboard above the sink and fills one with cold water from the tap. “Watch the hermit crabs closely,” she says, “while I go to the kitchen. Be ready to tell me what you see.” She runs down the hall to get warm water from the women who prepare the children’s lunches. Then she places both tubs side by side and asks five students, one by one, to put each of the crabs in the cold water. “What happens?” she asks. “They don’t move,” says Kenneth. “They stay inside,” adds Miko.

Stephanie then asks five other students to transfer the crabs to the second tub. They do, and within seconds the crabs start to stir. Before long, the crabs are moving like crazy. “Okay,” says Stephanie. “What happens in the water?” An excited chorus: “They’re moving.” “They’re walking all over.” “They like it.” “They’re happy like the crab in the book.” “Well,” says Mrs. Terry, “What does this suggest about where they like to live?”

That night the students write about the experiment. Many are just learning to write, but Stephanie told them to write their observations as best as they could and she would help them develop what they write. The next day they take turns standing before the class and reading their reports.

Miko goes first: “I saw the hermit crab walking when it was in the warm water, but when it was in the cold water it was not walking. It likes to live in warm water.” Then Romarise takes the floor, holding his paper way out in his right hand, his left hand in the pocket of his overalls: “(1) I observed two legs in the back of the shell. (2) I observed that some of the crabs changes its shell. (3) When the hermit crabs went into the cold water, they walked slow. (4) When the hermit crabs went into the warm water, they walked faster.” One by one, the rest of the students read their observations, halting at times as they try to figure out what they wrote, sometimes losing track and repeating themselves. But, in soft voice or loud, with a quiet sense of assurance or an unsteady eagerness, these young people read their reports on the behavior of hermit crabs.

There’s a lot to say about Stephanie Terry’s modest but richly-stocked classroom and the skillful way she interacts with the children in it. We want to focus on two things: what Terry demonstrates about the craft and art of teaching, and the experience of learning that she generates for her class.

Everyone in the current reform environment acknowledges the importance of good teaching. But most characterizations of teaching miss the richness and complexity of the work. When you watch Terry, you see that she is knowledgeable and resourceful across multiple subject areas—and is skillful at integrating them. She is spontaneous, alert for the teachable moment, and is able to play out the fruits of that spontaneity, plan next steps incrementally as the activity unfolds. She apparently believes that her students can handle a sophisticated assignment, and she asks questions and gives directions to guide them. It also seems that her students feel comfortable in taking up the intellectual challenge.

What is interesting is that none of the current high-profile reform ideas would explain or significantly enhance her expertise. It is not merit pay that inspires her inventiveness: it didn’t exist in her district. (Though she would be happy to have the extra money, given that some of her classroom was furnished from her own pocket.) And it is not a standardized test that motivates her. In fact, some of the intellectual display we witness would not be captured by the typical test. What motivates her is a complex mix of personal values and a drive for competence. These lead her to treat her students in certain ways and to continue to improve her skill. Several years before this event, she participated in a National Science Foundation workshop aimed at integrating science into the elementary school classroom.

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