What Is the Goal of School Reform?

Mike Rose
Mike Rose is on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and part of the National Academy of Education. Rose's area of expertise focuses on language, literacy, 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.

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.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.

Michael B. Katz is Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mike Rose is Research Professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

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