Ed Reform Agonistes

by Robert Pondiscio
April 14th, 2009

“Maybe it’s just as well; school vouchers aren’t that “innovative” anyway. In D.C. at least, they merely help poor kids get access to good schools that have been around for a long time. In today’s education reform world, that’s not enough of a “game-changer.” Never mind the difference it makes for several thousand children.”  — Mike Petrilli,  “Voucher Program Dies” at Flypaper.

“Rather than using symbolism, the modern education reform movement has instead often allowed itself to be defined as a cloistered group of white dilettantes from Ivy League schools-counterproductive symbolism and off the mark.” — Andy Rotherham, “Education Reform Requires Symbols for the Movement to Embrace,” in U.S. News.

“Compare our top-performing schools and our weakest performing schools by looking at test scores, graduation rates, whatever measure you want.  Do you find that most top-performing schools are running many more hours per day, or more days per year? Do you find that the top-performing schools have that much more, or better data?  Do you find that they are more likely to have linked student data to teachers? Do you find that the top-performing schools have a maniacal focus on test preparation?  No, no, no, no.”  — David Cohen, a Palo Alto, CA English Teacher via Teacher in a Strange Land.

“I’m a reformist, not a revolutionary, because revolutions in human habits don’t work. Humans resist discontinuity and unpredictability. We may be “wired” that way? In any case, I’m sympathetic, not hostile, to caution. So I’m betting on exploring what “works” within the context of both shared ends and different ends—honoring both continuity and change at the same time.  They needn’t be poised as enemies.”  — Deborah Meier, “Seeing ‘Reform’ as More Than a Horse Race or Marketplace” at Bridging Differences.

14 Comments »

  1. Speaking as a white, Ivy-League educated diletante (Harvard ’78), I’m not sure that characterization of ed-reformers is as off the mark as Andy Rotherman would like to believe.

    One of the things that struck me when I started following “ed reform” closely was the “you can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much aura.” That, and the complete disconnect from (and in many cases, contempt for) working educators.

    Ed reform doesn’t just need “symbols.” It needs to move past its love affair with charter schools (many founded by the “right” sort of people) and Teach for America (which is a wonderful supplement to career teachers, but not a substitute for them), and build positive connections to the people working in public schools.

    Comment by Rachel — April 14, 2009 @ 10:20 am

  2. I’m with you on the unfortunate tendency of too many in ed reform to view teachers as broken bats. I’m less inclined to agree with you on the “love affair with charters.” I agree that we need a robust effort to improve traditional public education, but I simply can’t get to a point where I value the institution — even institutions I support and believe in — over the the child. Until we have a fully functioning system, I can’t bring myself to deny a child the ability to seek out a good education by whatever means necessary.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 14, 2009 @ 11:15 am

  3. So many reform conversations give short shrift to WHAT gets taught or HOW it gets taught, focusing instead on WHERE it gets taught.

    Comment by Claus — April 14, 2009 @ 11:44 am

  4. David Cohen’s comments illustrate one of the problems in many of these discussions: comparing schools, instead of students. He might have asked,

    Compare our top-performing students and our weakest performing students by looking at test scores, graduation rates, whatever measure you want. Do you find that most top-performing students are scheduled for longer or shorter days/years based on their students’ needs? Do you find that the teachers of top-performing students have that much more, or better data (and knowledge of how to use it)? Do you find that the schools producing mostly lower-performing students are more likely to have linked student data to teachers? Do you find that the teachers at schools providing the most yearly gains in performance for individual students have a maniacal focus on test preparation?

    I think the answers would be different.

    Or at least be more likely to lead to more productive questions.

    Comment by Rich Haglund — April 14, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

  5. It’s not that I want ed reform to give up supporting charters — but I think some reformers use support of charters as a way to avoid thinking about the bigger picture or engaging with school districts in a positive way.

    In some ways my concern related to the point Claus brings up. Many reformers seem to focus primarily on governance and contract issues; the underlying assumption seems to be that it you just put the right people in charge, everything would be fine.

    I chose to put my energy into district schools rather a charter school not because I value the institution over the child (in my case my involvement started as parent activist with very little attachment to the institution) but because I don’t think a future of public education as a network of independent charter schools is either realistic or desirable.

    Yes, there are some very good charter schools which can, and should serve as a model for other schools. But there are also some pretty bad ones, and some mediocre ones, and we’re nowhere near understanding how charters would function if all schools were charters.

    Comment by Rachel — April 14, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

  6. Point taken, Rachel. A couple of add-on thoughts: While I support charters, I have to confess I’ve never spent an anxious minute worrying about whether or not they serve as a model for other schools. Ditto arguments about the effects of competition. Charters and choice provide a safety net for lots of families, and that’s more than enough.

    But I’m in full agreement with your (and Claus’) point. I have long found the silence on curriculum in ed reform circles nothing short of maddening. I simply cannot account for it. There is no such thing as a magic bullet in ed reform, obviously. But to assume that what students actually do and learn all day is not an issue is just wrong-headed.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 14, 2009 @ 6:03 pm

  7. There it is! The issue is indeed “what students actually do and learn all day.” And the downside of charter schools is, as Rachel points out, that they provide an excuse not to ask the essential questions: What is good teaching? What kind of “learning” are you talking about? What are children’s needs and which ones can school provide? What is it that is being measured to show improvement in results? Just exactly what are the results sought? What is the purpose of school education?

    Comment by Susan T. — April 15, 2009 @ 10:52 am

  8. That’s an awfully broad brush you’re slingin’ there, Susan.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 15, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

  9. Robert, would you make the brush narrower, or would you fully eliminate all my questions?

    Please believe, I am definitely interested in how you would modify the perspective I was trying to articulate.

    Comment by Susan T. — April 15, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

  10. There’s nothing wrong with a broad brush, if you’re painting a barn. My objection was not with the questions you raise, all of which are excellent — spot on, as the Brits say — and too many of which are given short shrift by self-described reformers. No, my objection is in your blanket statement that charter school educators somehow don’t concern themselves with these issues. That’s simply not true. If you’re suggesting that charter schools are test-driven, drill-and-kill factories, then I have to disagree. That’s what I meant by my broad brush comment. There are good and bad charters; there are good and bad public, private and parochial schools. I don’t think it’s accurate or fair to assume that any particular kind of school has a monopoly — or even a tendency toward or away from — good educational practice.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 15, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

  11. I don’t know if I’m painting a barn–I’ll have to think about that. I am looking for a dialogue that has a chance of clarifying issues. For example, what is good educational practice?

    And I definitely did not (in my mind) make a statement about charters or charter educators themselves, but rather that the success of (at least some) charters seems to give the impression that the solution is found, so there is no need to do anything else.

    Comment by Susan T. — April 15, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

  12. RP: “I have long found the silence on curriculum in ed reform circles nothing short of maddening. I simply cannot account for it. There is no such thing as a magic bullet in ed reform, obviously. But to assume that what students actually do and learn all day is not an issue is just wrong-headed.”

    Nancy: The purpose of curriculum is selection and organization of what students learn. The purpose of instruction is designing effective ways to teach those things. If we hope for success in reaching all learners, we must have solid, connected ideas about both–and those ideas must be tailored to the students we’re teaching.

    I would (gently and respectfully) disagree that ed reformers are silent on curriculum. What the most prominent ed reformers want is “results”–so they are looking for a curriculum-instruction package that bypasses human and contextual variables in the equation. A great, rich curriculum, on its own, isn’t worth much. Nor is a great teacher with a full tool bag of strategies forced to teach things that don’t have meaning or application for their students.

    What ed reformers misunderstand is the three-way interaction between these. No silver bullets, indeed.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — April 18, 2009 @ 10:30 am

  13. Regarding my quotation, above, and Rich’s reply, I’m fine with comparing students or schools; (however, Rich ends up comparing teachers more than students). In any case, the bottom line for me in this instance was that the DOE and NCLB do not operate with a focus on individuals, but rather schools and school systems. In Rich’s comment above, he suggests other types of comparisons, and I think that’s fine, but I don’t see a scale or context that would help me make much out of those questions. Are these comparisons across classrooms, schools, states, nations?

    I happen to work at a very high performing school, and I’m keenly aware that students everywhere deserve what our students have. Comparing students at our school would be an important step, and we do that, trying to figure out what is working for some but not for others. I don’t think Arne Duncan is thinking about individuals either (and I’m not suggesting he should necessarily). I’m just responding to his proposals for schools and school systems.

    Comment by David Cohen — April 18, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

  14. Nice to have you stop by David. Just wondering (this is not necessarily aimed at you, David, but merely a thought inspired by your post): If one’s focus is on the individual, not schools and school systems, shouldn’t that by definition make you a voucher and charter supporter?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 18, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

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