Dec 7, 2013
What Is the Goal of School Reform?
Posted on Sep 4, 2013
By Michael B. Katz and Mike Rose
As we think about this teacher we begin to wonder what would happen if the considerable financial and human resources spent on the vast machinery of high-stakes testing were channeled instead into a robust, widely distributed program of professional development. We don’t mean the quick-hit, half-day events that so often pass for professional development, but serious, extended engagement of the kind offered by the National Science Foundation and the National Writing Project—the sort of program that helped Stephanie conjure her rich lesson with the hermit crabs.
These programs typically take place in the summer (the National Writing Project runs for four weeks), though there are other options, including ones that extend through part of the school year. Teachers work with subject matter experts; read, write, and think together; learn new material, hear from others who have successfully integrated it into their classrooms, and try it out themselves. Electronic media would be hugely helpful here, creating a variety of ways for teachers to participate, bringing in people from remote areas, and further enabling everyone to regularly check in as they try new things. Such ongoing participation would be crucial in further building the intellectual community created during the program. All of this already exists, but could be expanded significantly if policy-makers had a different orientation to reform, one that embodied a richer understanding of teaching and the teaching profession.
Although pragmatic lifestyle issues certainly come into play in choosing any profession, the majority of people who enter teaching do so for fairly altruistic reasons. They like working with kids. They like science, or literature, or history and want to spark that appreciation in others. They see inequality and want to make a difference in young people’s lives. The kind of professional development we’re describing would appeal to those motives, revitalize them, and further realize them as one’s career progresses. Enriched, widely available professional development would substitute a human development model for school reform rather than the current test-based technocratic one. And because such professional development would positively affect what teachers teach and how they teach it, there would be a more direct effect on student achievement.
The bottom-line question is whether or not a particular reform will enable or restrict the kind of thing happening in Stephanie Terry’s room. The hermit crab episode is, of course, drawn from a few days in one classroom, but it represents some qualities that you’ll find in good schools, K-12, urban or rural, affluent or poor. We’ll list these qualities, and as you read them, ask yourself to what degree the reforms currently being proposed—from value-added assessment of teachers to the conversion of low-performing schools to charter schools—would advance or impede their realization.
Good classrooms create a sense of safety. There is physical safety, which for some children in some environments is a real consideration. But there is also safety from insult and diminishment. And there is safety to take risks, to push beyond what you can comfortably do at present.
Intimately related to safety is respect. The word means many things, operates on many levels: fair treatment, decency, an absence of intimidation, and, beyond the realm of individual civility, a respect for the language and culture of the people represented in the classroom. Respect also has an intellectual dimension. As one New York principal put it, “It’s not just about being polite—even the curriculum has to convey respect. [It] has to be challenging enough that it’s respectful.”
Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of students’ opportunities to partake in intellectual work, to think through, to make knowledge, to demonstrate ability. Even in classrooms that are run in a relatively traditional manner, students contribute to the flow of events, shape the direction of discussion, become authorities on their own experience and on the work they are doing. Think of Stephanie Terry’s students observing closely, recording what they see, forming hypotheses, and reporting publically on their thinking.
The good classroom, then, is a place of expectation and responsibility. Teachers take students seriously as intellectual and social beings. Young people have to work hard, think things through, come to terms with one another—and there will be times when such effort takes a student to his or her limits. “They looked at us in disbelief,” said another New York principal, “when we told them they were intellectuals.” It is important to note that such assumptions are realized through a range of supports, guides, and structures: from the way teachers organize curriculum and invite and answer questions, to the means of assistance they and their aides provide (tutoring, conferences, written and oral feedback), to the various ways they encourage peer support and assistance, to the atmosphere they create in the room—which takes us back to considerations of safety and respect.
The foregoing characteristics combine to create vital public space. In an important post-revolutionary essay on education, the eighteenth-century journalist Samuel Harrison Smith wrote that the free play of intelligence was central to a democracy, and that individual intellectual growth was intimately connected to broad-scale intellectual development, to the “general diffusion of knowledge” across the republic. As we consider what the reform initiatives might achieve, we should also ask the old, defining question: What is the purpose of education in a democracy? The formation of intellectually safe and respectful space, the distribution of authority and responsibility, the maintenance of high expectations and means to attain them—all this is fundamentally democratic and is preparation for civic life. Students are regarded as capable and participatory beings, rich in both individual and social potential. The realization of that vision of the student is what finally should drive school reform in the United States.
Mike Rose is Research Professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
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