The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority, it is time to reform."...  ...Mark Twain.

Commentary of the Day - May 4, 2010:  The "If Only" Theory of School Reform.

The IP apologizes for the lack of posts recently.  There were a few reasons for this, but no real excuses.  The paucity of high-quality contributions in recent weeks, the recent visit of the grandchildren, and creeping old age all have contributed.  But that's not to say that the IP has been ignoring the education front altogether.  He just finished reading Diane Ravitch's new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education on his Kindle (as you can see the IP really isn't that far behind the times).

This is a remarkable book.  Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University who served as an assistant secretary of education in George H.W. Bush's administration.  She frequently has been critical of liberal education reforms and supportive of education reforms championed by the right even though she has remained a Democrat throughout her career.  Her new book is remarkable because it essentially is a mea culpa in which she explains why so many of the reforms that she once championed have turned out to be abject failures for the most part.  She reserves some of her sharpest barbs for the school choice movement, and for the testing movement epitomized by No Child Left Behind.

Ravitch outlines in some detail the underlying problems with many of the proposed school reforms of the past four decades, though she does not come to grips entirely with the primary reason that so many of these reforms have failed to make much of an impact on the problems present in the American K-12 education system.  Before commenting on the nature of those reforms, it is worth noting that though American public schools have come in for much criticism in the past few decades, they are not uniformly the complete failures that they have been made out to be by some critics.  There are many fine public schools in the country that provide their students with a quality education.  Though most of the better public schools are found in our more affluent communities, some good public schools can be found in even the poorest neighborhoods.  Likewise, there are some problem schools even in wealthy communities.

Nevertheless, many public school fall short of our expectations.  In part that is because they are not doing as good a job in educating students than they once did, and also in part because our expectations have increased.  As our economy gradually lost much of its manufacturing base and shifted instead to one where the majority of jobs either were in relatively low-paying service sectors or in relatively high-paying knowledge-based technological sectors, pressure mounted on the schools to prepare a larger percentage of their students for college study.

School reformers have been attempting to improve the performance of schools and public school students ever since Why Johnny Can't Read was published way back in 1955.  The movement towards school reform was accelerated by the "A Nation at Risk Report" that came out in 1983, which demonstrated that deficiencies in our public school system were a threat to our economy.  Since then scores of reform efforts have been tried, and they -- by and large -- have failed.  The reason they have failed, in the view of the IP, is that almost all of these reforms were of the "If Only" variety.  "If only" reforms attempt to find the silver bullet, the one change that will lead to improved performance by all K-12 students.  "If only" reforms include a host of pedagogical reforms as well as a host of structural and systemic reforms.

Among the pedagogical reforms that have failed to have much impact are those in reading and math instruction.  Examples include if only phonics were used exclusively to teach reading.  Or, if only the whole language method were used exclusively to teach readingIf only direct instruction were used to teach elementary mathematics.  If only a constructivist approach were used to teach elementary mathematicsIf only every student were required to learn algebra, etc., etc.  Other pedagogical reforms were proposed to address the challenges of English language learners.  If only all subjects were taught by bilingual teachers up to a particular grade levelIf only all English language learners were placed in English immersion classes from day one.  Yet other pedagogical reforms were aimed at special education.  If only as many special education students as possible were mainstreamed in regular classesIf only there were separate special education classes taught by teachers who were trained for the task, etc., etc.

Some pedagogical reforms have been aimed at curriculum issues.  Some of these have been genuine attempts to improve the curriculum, while others have been ideologically-driven attempt to force schools to present students with a particular point of view.  In fact while Ravitch decries so many of the reforms she once supported, she ends her book with a call for yet two more reforms: a strong K-12 curriculum based on voluntary national standards and a return to neighborhood public schools.

Structural reforms have included a variety of school choice plans.  If only students were given vouchers to attend private or parochial schoolsIf only students could transfer to a charter schoolIf only our public schools were contracted out to private operators.  If only students could attend any school in their district.  Other structural reforms abound.  If only we would replace our large high schools with small high schoolsIf only we would manage our school systems more like businesses, etc., etc.

Systemic reforms often have asked for greater accountability.  If only we would require all students to pass high-stakes, standardized tests (NCLB).  If only we would pay teachers according to how well their students perform on the standardized testsIf only we would close schools whose students do poorly on standardized tests.  If only we could eliminate teacher tenureIf only we could get rid of teacher unions.  If only we would demand higher standards for teacher training, etc., etc.

The IP is certain that his readers can provide many more examples of "if only" reforms that have been tried, and that have failed.  The vast majority of these reforms have been proposed by well-meaning people who really think that they have discovered the one reform that will do the trick.  Most, but not all, of these reformers are people who have never taught in a K-12 classroom.  Nevertheless, they feel that they know that they have the answer that will improve our schools.

In the IP's view, the primary reason for the failure of these "if only" reforms is that there is no single reason why students and schools perform poorly.  There actually are many reasons for poor performance.  In any given school where the students are underperforming there usually are several factors operating simultaneously that contribute to the situation.  These can include, but certainly are not limited to, inadequate teachers, curriculum that doesn't meet the needs or interests of the students, social promotion, poor discipline, disinterested students, substance abuse problems, peer pressure on students to avoid being "smart", lack of parental interest, poor nutrition, student health issues, etc.  The factors that lead to poor school performance in middle- or upper-income area most often are different from the factors that lead to poor performance in low-income areas.

Because so many different factors contribute to poor results, no single focus reform effort has much chance of making a significant difference.  But that does not preclude progress towards improvement.  Instead, real school reform needs to take place one school at a time as the interested parties try to understand the problems affecting each school, and then try work together to address each of the problems affecting that particular school.  In many cases insight may be gained by comparing successful schools that have similar student populations to the unsuccessful ones.  Identifying both the factors that have helped the students in the successful schools and the factors that have hindered the students in the unsuccessful schools can help teachers and administrators to determine which factors contribute the most to success or failure.

We also should realize that it many not be possible to eliminate all the factors that contribute to poor student performance in a particular school.  Some factors such as the effects of extreme poverty and lack of parental interest may well be beyond the reach of even the most determined school-based reform efforts.  Likewise, there is little that we can do to change the innate characteristics of our students.  Not every student has the capacity for college-level work.  But we should strive to ensure that every student receives an education that allows him or her to develop to the limits of his or her potential.

And we should not dismiss out-of-hand all the "if only" reforms that have been suggested.  For example, while some structural reforms that have been suggested may not do much to improve student performance, they may contribute to more efficient operation of schools.  And, some pedagogical reforms might contribute to improved performance when used as part of a comprehensive reform effort for a particular school.  Though charter schools overall have not improved performance, it may be the case that in a particular situation a charter school might make comprehensive reform easier.  And, of course, a strong curriculum would benefit all students.


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2010 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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