Why Bad Reforms Won't Give Us Good Schools

School reform has become a major industry since the Reagan era, when the 1983 report A Nation at Risk judged U.S. schools to be so mediocre as to endanger the economic future of the country. Mayors and presidents, corporate leaders and small-business owners, parents and taxpayers have said again (and again and again): The primary purpose of public schools is to prepare students academically for a workplace that keeps our economy productive and competitive throughout the world.

Responding to scorching and unrelenting criticism, educators established standards-based curricula, monitored test scores, required students to repeat a grade or a subject, and rewarded (or punished) teachers and principals when test scores rose (or fell). These reforms have been compressed into a formula to ensure that urban, suburban, and rural schools produce graduates who are equipped with the knowledge and skills to secure high-paying jobs and help their employers compete in the global economy. Opinion polls find that parents and taxpayers are satisfied with this direction.

In search of the "one best system," corporate leaders, public officials, and parents of students have narrowed Americans' general view of what a "good school" is to a one-size-fits-all version. And that is bad for public education. Why?

Research and documentation to justify the one-size-fits-all good school are lacking. Although few pundits or critics have raised the issue, there is simply no evidence that rigid standards, uniform tests, and strict accountability have any long-term effects on students once they leave high school. Other considerations are also unsettling:

  • The standardized tests that elementary and secondary students take bear little or no relationship to future job performance.

  • The Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and similar instruments predict only how well high school students will do academically in their first year of college. They are useless in predicting whether students will finish college or how well they will do in future jobs.

  • From the standpoint of the student's economic future, what really matters about schooling is the diploma: Employers use these credentials as a signal that an employee will be punctual, persistent, flexible, and well prepared for working in groups.

    Another reason the current version of good schools is bad for public education is that undesirable outcomes are likely. Experience with similar ventures over the last quarter-century indicates that the following consequences will occur (and in many cases, they have already been reported in the media):

  • Curriculum will narrow to match whatever content and skills are tested.

  • Instructional time will be increasingly allocated to test preparation.

  • Political pressure on policy makers will lead them to lower cutoff scores in order to reduce the mounting numbers of students who will fail tests and have to repeat grades.

  • As test scores rise over time (while teachers get better at aligning instruction with what is on tests), policy makers will change the tests and scores will decline.

  • Ethnic and racial gaps in academic achievement will persist.

    All of these facts are well known within the educational research and policy making communities. Yet they are treated as secrets by academics and educational officials or as unnewsworthy by journalists. As a result, only one kind of good school has emerged in the public's mind and among many educators--even though the one-size-fits-all version is just one of many kinds.

    Consider two elementary schools that I know well. School A is a quiet, orderly institution where both students and parents openly honor the teachers' authority. The principal and faculty seek out student and parental advice when making schoolwide decisions. The professional staff set high academic standards, establish school rules that respect differences among students, and demand proper study habits from the culturally diverse population. Drills and practice are parts of each teacher's daily lessons. Report cards with letter grades are sent home every nine weeks. A banner in the school says: "Free Monday through Friday: Knowledge--Bring Your Own Container." Many would call School A a "traditional" school, one that fits tidily the current model of a good school.

    School B prizes freedom for students and teachers to pursue their individual interests. Most classrooms are multi-age (6- to 9-year-olds and 7- to 11-year-olds). Every teacher encourages student-initiated projects and trusts children to make the right choices. In this school, there are no spelling bees, no accelerated reading program, no letter or numerical grades. Instead, there is a year-end narrative in which a teacher describes the personal growth of each student. Students in school take only those standardized tests required by the state. A banner in the classroom reads: "Children need a place to run! Explore! A world to discover." Many would call School B a "progressive" school.

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    Both public schools are in the same state and both have been in existence for 25 years. In each case, parents have chosen to send their children to the school. Both schools have staffs of volunteers who assist the professionals. Teachers endorse their respective schools by staying; turnover has been virtually nil. Finally, both schools enjoy unalloyed support from parents, who offer praise in annual surveys and eagerly add their names to the enrollment waiting lists.

    Moreover, by most student outcome measures, both schools have compiled enviable records. In academic achievement, measured by standardized tests, School A was in the top 10 schools in the entire state. School B was in the upper quartile of the state's schools.

    Despite their similarities, however, these two schools differ dramatically from each other in how teachers organize their classrooms, view learning, and teach the curriculum. Can both of them be good? The answer is yes.

    What makes these schools good? They have stable staffs committed to core beliefs about what is best for students and the community, dedicated parents whose beliefs mirror those of the staffs, competent people who work well together, and time to make it all happen. Whether they are labeled traditional or progressive is irrelevant.

    My descriptions of these two good schools supported by parents, teachers, and students underscore that there is no single best school for all children. One is clearly traditional in its concentration on preparing students for jobs and higher education by passing on to them the best knowledge, skills, and values in society. The other is progressive in its focus on students' individual and social development. Each serves different goals; each honors different values. Yet--and this is the important point--these seemingly different goals are not inconsistent. They derive from deeply embedded but seldom noticed common aspirations and expectations that parents and taxpayers have for public schools.

    Too often we take for granted the role of the public schools in creating the kind of civic life that we want for our children and ourselves. But many of us depend on the schools to pass on desirable social attitudes, values, and behaviors. Among them:

  • Open-mindedness to different opinions and a willingness to consider various points of view.

  • Respect for values that differ from one's own.

  • Treating individuals decently and fairly, regardless of background.

  • A commitment to "talk through" problems and openly discuss, reason, deliberate, and struggle toward compromise when disputes arise.

    Tax-supported public schools in the United States were not established 150 years ago to ensure jobs for graduates or to replace the family or church. They were established to make sure that children would grow into literate adults who respected authority and could make reasoned judgments, accept differences of opinions, and fulfill their civic duty to participate in the political and social life of their communities. As one Milwaukee school board member put it in 1890: "The schools are not established for the purpose of teaching scholars how to make a living but to teach them how to live." The core duty of schools, teachers, and administrators--past and present--has been to turn students into citizens who can independently reason through difficult decisions, defend what they have decided, and honor the rule of law. Traditional and progressive schools each work effectively toward this paramount goal.

    Both schools prize individual freedom and respect for authority, though they define each value differently and reflect their respective interpretation in the way they organize the school, view the curriculum, and engage in teaching. Neither value is ignored. Moreover, each school, in its own way, cultivates the deeper democratic attitudes of open-mindedness, respect for others' values, treating others decently, and making deliberate decisions.

    Because no researcher could ever prove that one way of schooling is better than the other, what matters in judging whether schools are good is whether they are discharging their primary duties to help students become literate and think and act democratically. What we need to talk about openly in debates about schooling is not whether a traditional school is better or worse than a progressive school but whether each cultivates civic virtues. Current talk about standards-based reform, test scores, more technology, and accountability is not about this core goal of schooling. How, then, should we judge whether a school is good? Here are my criteria:

  • Are parents, staff, and students satisfied with what occurs in the school?

  • Is the school achieving the explicit goals that it has set for itself?

  • Finally, is the school turning out graduates who will become good citizens?

    To be sure, creating good schools is hard. But it is not hard because parents and educators lack the will or expertise; both have often created good schools. Making good schools is hard because corporate leaders, public officials, and many parents oversimplify and seek just one vision of a good school. This stubborn preoccupation has kept school reformers narrowly focused on marrying public schooling to the economy through standards, tests, and accountability with hardly any evidence that such a model of a good school makes any difference in workplace performance, in college graduation rates, or even in the benefits to the economy corporate leaders expect. Until business leaders, politicians, and parents shed the notion that there's only one best school for everyone, squabbles will continue. Such a futile war of words not only ignores the fundamental purpose of public schools as the revitalizer of democratic virtues in each generation; it needlessly threatens the many truly good schools that deviate from the narrow, economically driven model of what schools should be. ยค