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Published in Print: July 13, 2011, as The Futures of School Reform: Readers Respond to the Series

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The Futures of School Reform: Readers Respond to the Series

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In late March, Education Week launched "The Futures of School Reform," a seven-part Commentary series and time-limited blog, which concluded in June. Organized by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and led by Robert B. Schwartz and Jal D. Mehta of Harvard and Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, the project drew from a working group of more than a dozen researchers, policymakers, and practitioners from around the country. The writers expressed their visions on a range of education issues, including human capital, virtual learning, community and nonschool initiatives, and achievement models from abroad.

Their goal was to look beyond "miracle cures," opting instead for "tough-minded creative problem-solving." The collective hope was that the group's visions would evolve through an open dialogue with readers.

The following represents a small sampling of edited readers' online responses to the group's seven essays and 51 blog posts.


Schooling as a Knowledge Profession

(March 28, Commentary) Jal D. Mehta, Louis M. Gomez, and Anthony S. Bryk write that to educate all students to high levels, we must break the bureaucratic factory model of schooling. In its place, the authors suggest a different structure, where practitioners, researchers, and business partners network to create opportunities for constructive change.

  1. Too often, policy is made without taking into consideration the individuals the policy is designed to serve. Many educators would like to see change. As an educator, I would like to make changes to the current system, but I feel that all educators should be given a voice and be an integral element of that change. Read this comment and reply.


(March 30, blog post) In a follow-up blog post, "Creating an Upward Spiral," Jal D. Mehta suggests that unlike teachers in the United States, teachers in Finland, for example, are highly trained and have opportunities to collaborate, and their students receive wraparound services. To build a “practice-oriented system” at home, Mehta writes, the system’s moving parts—a strong teaching force, a positive school environment, the development of knowledge, and sensible accountability—must be integrated.

  1. Integrating elements in a pre-existing system of top-down directives and among high school faculty members who think it’s not their job to hand-hold students is a monumental task. We’re trying to do that in our district. But teachers do not see the urgency. Decentralizing power doesn’t happen overnight. It cannot be prescribed. Teacher-induction programs within schools can change culture and provide much-needed support to vulnerable early-career teachers. Read this comment and reply.

  1. The question for me is where in the system do we leverage first? It’s clear to me that the top-down accountability approach has been misguided. One answer, of course, is that we need to work simulaneously on all parts of the system, but in an era of scarce resources and in an education system as fragmented as the U.S.’s, I’m not confident this is possible. I think the best we can hope for is smaller-scale networks of individuals learning from one another and integrating their work. Read this comment and reply.


Learning From Abroad

(April 4, Commentary) Robert B. Schwartz, Ben Levin, and Adam Gamoran explore what the American education system would look like if it were to follow best practices from abroad, including recruiting talented teachers, providing teacher support and high-quality leadership, nationalizing curriculum, and offering early intervention. Most high-performing education systems, especially those in Northern Europe, the authors note, also provide students with a choice between college and career pathways.

  1. I think we really need to look at how other countries have different paths for kids who plan on going to college and kids who want to go directly to a career. Unfortunately, our schools are so college-focused that many of these children fall through the cracks instead of being directed to technical schools, apprenticeships, and the like that would actually put them in the direction that suits them best. Read this comment and reply.

  1. It is acceptable to make comparisons to Canada, a nation of similar size and with similar demographics to the United States, but Finland has a total population that is less than the city of Los Angeles, and less than half of all Finns are school-age. It is a nation with one nationality, one language, and a brisk and thriving social-welfare system. In all of the high-performing systems cited, teachers are seen as professionals and enjoy elevated status. In the U.S., teachers have become the scapegoats of a poor economy on both a state and federal level. Read this comment and reply.


(April 5, blog post) In his follow-up blog post, “American Exceptionalism,” Robert B. Schwartz asks why Americans are so skeptical of and resistant to the teaching policies from abroad. And he asks, “Why bother participating in international assessments of student learning if we are not going to study the policies and processes” that produce better results?

  1. Your comment makes me think of work that professional learning communities do around student-performance data. The protocol is that you test the students, look at the data, and adjust your instructional strategies as necessary. Then you post-assess. You talk to your colleagues to see what they are doing. This is a cycle, not an event.Read this comment and reply.

  1. I am not sure I buy into the argument that one needs top students with advanced degrees to create a cohort of effective teachers. Why not look at how and why ed schools produce so many ill-prepared teachers instead? Why not pay more attention to in-service initial mentoring that other successful systems have?Read this comment and reply.


Government, Markets, and the Mixed Model of American Education Reform

(April 18, Commentary) Terry M. Moe and Paul T. Hill suggest that school choice should not be viewed in the extreme terms of market vs. government, but rather a combination of the two, in which funding, among other resources, could flow across state and district borders and financial relief could be provided to the disadvantaged.

  1. Moe's and Hill's call for a mixed model for education is nothing more than an all out free market proposal. The perfect education system they describe is a smorgasbord of options from online to for-profit charters, and schools governed and run by taxpayers will have to compete for taxpayer funding. I don't know who pays Moe's salary but Hill's center is funded largely by a grant from the Gates Foundation. It is no secret that big business sees education as a new market to be exploited for profit-making enterprises, much like the medical model has run for the past thirty years.

    The proposal builds from two premises: first that American schools are failing and desparately need business to step in and offer altenatives, and second that competition can fix everything. The first premise is a sales technique called "assuming the sale." No convincing evidence need be presented if we just agree that schools are failing. I have yet to see this convincing evidence produced by any serious research effort. I have seen nothing that indicates lower scores on international tests endanger this nations position as the dominant currency, dominant military power, and political leader of the free world. I have seen evidence that stuggling schools and the "achievement gap" are more easily explained by poverty and assessment biases than by problems with instruction. American schools need to constantly question their efforts and make improvements, but they are far from failing.

    The second premise is simplistic at best. If you look at the array of obligations and regulations put on American schools, you will see that education is a small part of our function. We are social service providers, counseling providers, rehabilitation providers, law enforcement providers, internet police, and a host of other services bundled into our expectations with the greater emphasis on testing, reporting, and finding ways to fit it all in with time to teach. Big business can call us whiners, but when big business takes over, the cries for deregulation will be deafening. Who will take care of all the children when parents have the choice of sending their children to schools that can exclude those to whom the parent might object? Privatizing education is not just a business decision. Education is a socializing, democracy-sustaining enterprise that gives all children access to a free, quality education. The model is locally controlled by democratic structures, not economic structures. The question of who should educate children in the end is very simple. The nation owes every child a free, quality public education, and taxpayer funds should support taxpayer-run schools. Weakening that revenue stream with charters, vouchers, and other instruments of privelege for those who disapprove of community schools is bad government and a bad education model.

    Yes, I am a public school teacher and yes, I have a personal interest in free, public, democratically-controlled schools. I think that rather makes me an expert in children, learning, and what public schools really accomplish beyond the test scores.Read this comment and reply.

  1. The slant of this opinion piece is not surprising coming from Paul Hill and CRPE, but I am surpised the Harvard Ed Grad School would not require more scholarly analysis of why a blatant business model is more effective than the government model.

    There is a difference in funding and motivation between what business does and what government provides. A business model, which by definition requires profit to be successful, is not an economically efficacious provider of what we have deemed to be a government service and social benefit, public education.Read this comment and reply.

  1. This would be all well and good if it actually made sense. Step back from the economic theory and see what you are actually suggesting. You are suggesting that somehow teachers are resting on their laurels and all they need to get going and work hard to attract kids is to know that there is competition out there. Teachers work hard because they have intrinsic reasons and need a job. On a district level, they are doing the best they can with what they have and are limited by that. Or they are not. But adding these charter schools and voucher programs to the mix won't solve that issue. Can they compete? I just can't imagine such a thing. The only way to compete would be to try to push the children to score higher on the standardized tests and the teachers are already doing too much of that. Competition in education just makes no sense.Read this comment and reply.

  1. Our government schools have been drowning in mediocrity for too long. There has been little to no incentive for them to improve in every aspect of their operation. They need competition and they need it now.Read this comment and reply.

  1. Letting the money follow the children works great for those with the opportunity to obtain a better educational environment, but those left behind in districts with fixed costs and infrastructure lose even more, and we end up abandoning the more for the benefit of the few. The plan is sort of like the idea of deregulation that led to the financial debacle of the last few years.Read this comment and reply.


(April 21, blog post) In his follow-up blog post, “Choice as a Moderating Move to the Center,” Terry M. Moe questions whether, given the opportunity to re-create our education system, we would build one that was “all-government.” Citing as an example the success of the post-Katrina education landscape of New Orleans, where the system was rebuilt from the ground up heavily in favor of charter schools, he believes the answer is an unequivocal no.

  1. I'm supportive of charter schools, but I don't think governance reform is a panacea.Read this comment and reply.

  1. The nongovernment schools have rules that select good students and discourage undesirable students. They are highly desirable environments for good students. We learn that if we don’t follow in government schools with similar policies, good students will leave. What does this competition for students mean for our schools?Read this comment and reply.

  1. So we need to be clear just what we think markets can do effectively then figure out a metric for monitoring that. Read this comment and reply.


A System of Learners

(April 25, Commentary) Susanna Loeb, Dan Goldhaber, and Michael Goldstein explore how to differentiate support, professional development, and job growth within the teaching profession by narrowing the responsibilities of teachers, especially those new to the profession; and creating bottom-up professional development and integrating it with career development.

  1. When we agree on the words we will use to improve student performance, people and instruction will change. Form will follow function. Read this comment and reply.

  1. A few Maryland educators have been working in this direction by developing an online system that lets teachers share lesson plans and conduct interschool mentoring within each lesson. The Q-and-A (stored year to year) builds into a knowledge base for new teachers.Read this comment and reply.


(April 26, blog post) In a follow-up blog post, “The Coming Age of Teacher Choice,” Michael Goldstein offers five pathways for rewarding successful teachers: giving teachers budget control over their professional development, doing away with state licensure (or creating a federal one instead), providing transparency of workplace conditions, customizing job roles, and building teacher-run micro-schools.

  1. Even better would be a broader group (including students, parents/families, interested experts, and interested citizens) that engages in local issues that you describe—from continuous identification to sustained continuous refinement.Read this comment and reply.

  1. In a small rural state that has seen small learning communities abandoned in the name of consolidation, I welcome the opportunity to open micro-schools everywhere.Read this comment and reply.


Maybe the Square Peg Will Do

(May 11, Commentary) Frederick M. Hess, Greg M. Gunn, and Olivia M. Meeks suggest abandoning the idea of the teacher as “superhero,” which they say once made sense, in favor of a more reasonable model in which educators are not held to impossible standards.

  1. I can’t imagine a profession where key peformers are less set up for success than teaching. Yes, schools continue to rely more on cookie-cutter workshops than contextual coaching, despite research that has shown coaching to be the most effective and cost-effective source of training.Read this comment and reply.

  1. Hess ignores the underlying distractions of poverty that make it so difficult for urban kids to learn and retain knowledge. Any teacher with experience can see the imprint of poverty on how kids perform in school. That said, I think more good teachers would stay in the profession if they could specialize in those things they are good at and find rewarding, rather than focus on a horde of disparate tasks they neither enjoy nor are well-skilled at.Read this comment and reply.


(May 16, blog post) In a follow-up blog post, “If We Divide Up the Work of Teaching, Who Watches the Whole Kid?,” Greg M. Gunn writes that when the job of teaching is differentiated, the work of one becomes the work of many—and the whole-child view of the student shouldn’t get lost. It can rest with one teacher or become the collective responsibility of a teaching team, but it must be taken into account.

  1. I can’t imagine a profession where key peformers are less set up for success than teaching. Yes, schools continue to rely more on cookie-cutter workshops than contextual coaching, despite research that has shown coaching to be the most effective and cost-effective source of training.Read this comment and reply.

  1. There are still very important roles for "teachers" and "schools" (where the quotes are indicative of the very different characteristics - many included in the commentary. To be included: clear choice of and planning for goals / learning objectives / common core; clear identification of the core knowledge and assessment of the same; facilitation of the skills associated with effective learning and effective problem solving AND working well in teams; facilitating the skills and abilities for collecting, organizing, studying, assessing, and using information; and assistance with the very important digital portfolio in terms of organizing, presenting, and finally assessing them - and likely a few others.Read this comment and reply.


Using Technology to Move Beyond Schools

(May 16, Commentary) Richard F. Elmore and Elizabeth A. City address the need for schools to adapt to the role of technology in student learning. Schools will not survive, the authors write, if they hold to the belief that technology poses a threat to learning.

  1. If I were a choir, I would sing, “Amen.” My experiences in middle school with teaming found all of these experiences and one more, perhaps the biggest payback: A team of teachers can plan curriculum to coordinate timing of topics of study. When different subjects look at a shared topic or concept from different perspectives, you have the perfect learning environment.Read this comment and reply.

  1. As students have more access to open sources of knowledge, the more likely it is that these relationships and networks will mirror the learning preferences and biases of individual users.Read this comment and reply.


(May 17, blog post) In the blog post “What Would Happen if We Let Them Go?,” Richard F. Elmore cites two “typical” high school English classes where he observed disengaged students, lackluster teaching, and rule-bound classrooms—a scene he says is not uncommon in his experience. He asks, what would happen if we let students walk through the schoolhouse doors and find their own way? Would disaster befall them?

  1. I know what happened when I unlocked the door and let my own child outside. He smiled again. He ran, went to the beach, rode his bike, kayaked, sailed, skied, climbed, and volunteered. He had friends of all ages. My house became overgrown with books, art supplies, and things like Tesla coils and robots. He stayed up all night learning where the stars were. He learned to think.Read this comment and reply.

  1. You see ineffective teachers. I see exhausted teachers. Read this comment and reply.

  1. I have been in those classrooms as a student. I have been the teacher in those classrooms. It starts with the teacher becoming a learner with his/her students. It starts with giving the students choices. I just don’t want to let them go. I want to go on this learning journey with them.Read this comment and reply.


Why Attention Will Return to Nonschool Factors

(May 23, Commentary) Jeffrey R. Henig and S. Paul Reville write that “American schools won’t achieve the goal of ‘all students at proficiency’ unless they attend to nonschool factors.” Reform will require a commitment to a broader concept of education—one that allows for social, emotional, and behavioral intervention with measurable outcomes.

  1. The notion that governments can dictate “best practice” to teachers is arrant nonsense. So long as you can command the respect of your students—which necessarily implies that you have something worthwhile to teach them and know how to do it—you will succeed.Read this comment and reply.

  1. While I’m hopeful that nonschool factors will gain visibility and play a stronger role in guiding education policy, I’m also skeptical about how much impact that evidence will have when it comes time to face the reality that it will cost the public more money and entail putting aside some of our own self-interests for the greater good.Read this comment and reply.

  1. Systems do not change people, so our attention and energies need to be focused on the fundamental cause of the problems, not just the effects.Read this comment and reply.


(May 27, blog post) In a follow-up blog post, “Bolder, Broader Action: Strategies for Closing the Poverty Gap,” S. Paul Reville writes that in spite of Massachusetts’ establishing state standards, tough accountability measures, and investing billions of dollars in building school capacity, the effect of socioeconomics on academic achievement cannot be easily erased. The state is implementing a number of strategies to mitigate the impact of poverty: legislation to transform low-performing schools; an interagency council; full-service schools; extended learning time; and federal grants.

  1. If you really want to focus on poor kids on the edge of dropping out and falling further and further behind, you’d be wise to avoid all of the top-down ‘solutions’ and focus on dropouts who ‘made it.’ Watching the Obama administration’s education reforms is like watching the ’60s again, in slow motion.Read this comment and reply.

  1. Agree. When something is top-driven, it takes a long time for changes to take place at the lower end.Read this comment and reply.

  1. Much of this policy and approach entails investing in community organizations that work on the ground to empower families and students. Top-down isn’t always bad. Any complex problem will need a mix of top and bottom leadership.Read this comment and reply.


(June 6, blog post) In the group’s final blog post, “Four Paths for the Future,” Jal D. Mehta notes that in spite of the ideological differences of the Futures group, there is agreement that distrust, unrealistic expectations, an aging bureaucracy, and “nclb-style” accountability practices have weakened the schools. Mehta sees four paths emerging from the group’s discussions that hold promise: elevating the professional status and selectivity of teachers; designing better schools from scratch (think New Orleans and New York City); practicing social reform inside the school walls; and diversifying the role of teachers and leveraging technology to move beyond the brick-and-mortar school. Such changes, he acknowledges, will come with politics.

Vol. 30, Issue 36, Pages 40-42

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