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Putting Common Sense Back Into School Reform

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The budget for chart paper and markers had been used up entirely. The yarn had been tossed around and all the ice had been broken. Post-it notes adorned all walls, and members of every possible team had achieved true consensus and been included. Vision and mission posters hung in every room. High-priced consultants had visited and talked about the meaning of "real reform."

And yet ... the school was still a mess. Students weren't achieving at higher levels. Most of the families, staff members, and local community felt that this time spent in the so-called Debatable Outcomes Guaranteed to Maximize Achievement process, also known as DOGMA, had been wasted. It hadn't changed one thing for the kids of their school.

And they were right. They were right because in our nation the "school-reform movement" is fortressed in its own self-serving, overcomplicated dogma that makes clear from the very beginning that common sense is not welcome.

No matter where you are in the country, the current reform dogma runs like this: "Your school-reform journey will be a long, complicated process that will require significant amounts of intensive retraining for your entire school community around wholly new concepts and difficult-to-master ideas. Only after several years of this complicated work will you actually be able to see real changes at your school." The common reaction to the dogma is, "Wow, sounds complicated, we better get some well-known school-reform organization to help us figure this all out." That is where we fall down.

Parents, schoolpeople, and local citizens cannot allow school-reform dogma to rob them of their common sense. Their common sense that says, "Darn it, you know we are smart enough to figure out a way to do better by our kids if we just sit down and put our heads together." It sounds simple because it is. We all know it in our heads, we just need to follow our instincts.

Here are five common-sense ideas we have learned over time about how, working together, all of us can make schools better for kids and their families:

  • Teaching and learning are the most important work a school does. This simple truism is marginalized in the world inhabited by school-reform gurus. Common sense tells us that the work of teaching and learning is why the school exists. As a school works to improve, it must work to improve teaching and learning. All the energies and resources of school improvement must be focused around teaching and learning. Too often, though, school reform is about practically everything but teaching and learning. It's about governance, technology, empowerment, diversity, and the right to decide who has full voice about the purchase of the new copier. It's about assertiveness training, self-esteem, alternative assessment, portfolios, holistic student outcomes, and multicultural education. It's about student health centers, condom distribution, site councils, quality circles, total quality management, and the development of a tobacco-abatement program.

    We could go on. The point is that any of these activities could have genuine worth, but only if the school has asked the essential question: Will this make teaching and learning better for every kid at the school? If the answer to that question is not an unqualified yes, the school should think twice about wasting its energies and resources.

    The analogy to keep in mind is the farmer. His job is to improve the corn he grows. He is pressured to do and buy all sorts of things to become a "21st-century farmer." The only question he asks himself is whether or not this will help him grow a better crop. Pure and simple. If the answer is no, he gets back to the work at hand. Schools must do the same; if it is not about making teaching and learning better for every kid, get back to the work at hand.

  • Schools must guarantee for all kids safety, order, and challenging schoolwork that doesn't ignore the basics. Why? Because this is what kids and their families deserve and demand. Kids need to go to a school where safety and order is the norm. They need to go to a school that challenges them at the highest academic levels and ensures their mastery of basic skills. This basic, common-sense desire of kids and families is the one most often denigrated or ignored by the school-reform movement. The gurus get all whacked out on a high of multiple intelligences, group think, and the pedagogy of "feelings." Often, untested, untried curricular and social "innovations" that people don't understand, don't want, and don't need are force-fed to a skeptical community. When the public expresses its common-sense desire, the gurus shake their heads and mutter about the need for more community education, training, and exposure to fully comprehend the "deep rethinking that must take place for the innovations to make sense." Baloney.
  • Families, schoolpeople, and the community know what is best for their local school, not a bureaucracy or the reform establishment. There, we said it. We've spoken the unspeakable. Are we honestly saying that a bunch of local families, schoolpeople, and community members know more about what's best for their local school than the district office, the county department of education, the mayor's education task force, the state department of education, the state reform task force, the governor's ad hoc committee on school reform, the federal Department of Education, the national commission on self-esteem, the president's executive committee on a bias-free curriculum, and the national network of school-reform institutes, centers, colloquia, and relearning conferences for a more 21st-century future? Yes. And why shouldn't they? The people closest to the school know what is best for the school. It is common sense, yet schools often feel at the mercy of directives, dispatches, and demands from one faceless bureaucrat or another. Usually, it is the district office that commands compliance to midlevel functionaries rather than fostering innovation and excellence at each school. Multiple layers of government end up strangling new ideas in a sea of regulations and requisite red tape.

    When a school first gets involved with a reform movement, everyone is buoyed by the typical part of the dogma that grudgingly nods to the locals as being "key players." Yet the rub is that the players need a lot of "training" in the "way" of school reform to be effective. Soon, the school finds itself at the mercy of gurus and consultants.

    The answer? School communities must stick to the belief in their own common sense and say, "In our community, this is what our school is about. This is how we are going to make it better for all our kids. Bureaucrats and reformers, you are welcome to either help us accomplish our common-sense goals or get out of our way. There is no stopping us."

  • Every school can do better than it is with what it has. As schoolpeople, this simple thought has kept the burden on us to work harder and smarter with the resources we had. Even the best of schools can do a better job. Are all the kids achieving at the highest levels? Are all the kids mastering the core academic work? What kind of support does the school give to each and every child to ensure academic success? These are the kinds of questions all schools have to ask. And sometimes that's hard to do. It was for the two of us. We worked at a pretty good school. Wasn't that good enough? Luckily, we had families who pushed us hard to ask these kinds of questions and when we did, we realized that "good enough" wasn't. Our kids deserved an A+ school, not a B+ school. Thanks to our families, we recognized that.

    Common sense tells us that unless every child is performing at the highest levels there is work to be done. It also tells us that the work will need to be done with the resources the school has. Over the past decade, significant increases in real-dollar spending for education nationally have not brought significant increases in student achievement. Common sense tells us it's not more money that will help our schools improve. More money might help us splurge on new technology, send every district and school employee to some new training, hook up to the Internet, buy more metal detectors, and hire some consultants, but it won't make the school any better. Only our own hard work will do that.

  • There is no time to waste. The time for action is now. Families, schoolpeople, and the community want to get to work at making their school better for kids right away. They want concrete action and some visible results. But the gurus of reform continue to crank out the lamenting siren of school change: "It takes time, you won't see any real change for five years or so. You'll need to convene study groups, think deeply, conduct action research, build consensus, and plan before you implement."

Making our schools better places for kids is something we'll never be finished with, but families, schoolpeople, and members of the community deserve to see improvement right away. They should demand nothing less. Our common sense should offer them nothing less.

For years, as teachers, principals, and as a parent, we have been disturbed when the dogma of school reform rubbed against the grain of our own common sense. It was a liberating experience when we finally allowed ourselves to say, "I know the guru of the year says we should be doing X, but our common sense says we should be doing Y, so let's do Y." That is when we began to do our best work. We have found that sometimes it is a struggle to stay grounded in common sense. To help in those times, we retell and relive past experiences with kids, schools, and families. We talk with the folks who know the most about schools: the people closest to them.

When we feel really challenged, we use the "farmer test." Since farmers are just about the most common-sense group of people we know, we think, "What would the farmer do?" Would he be deterred by a "lack of deep introspective research" if his corn grew higher? We don't think so.

Joseph Palumbo and Jan Leight were most recently teaching principals at Newcomb Academy, a public school in Long Beach, Calif., known for its reform efforts. Currently, they are visiting professors with the School Management Program at the University of California at Los Angeles. This essay is taken from their upcoming book, Common Sense: How To Fix Your Local School.

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