Charting a Course to Reform: The Next 10 Years

By The Editors — February 10, 1993 12 min read
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Education Week and the current school-reform movement were conceived at virtually the same time. We have covered its ideas and developments continuously and in depth since September 1981. The summary of events, beginning opposite page 10, demonstrates just how extraordinary the scope of the reform activities has been.

From Risk to Renewal: About This Series

On April 27, 1983, Education Week published the full text of A Nation at Risk a report that shocked the nation with its grim assessment of student achievement, its martial metaphors, and its dire warning of a “rising tide of mediocrity.’' It summoned policymakers, citizens, parents, teachers, and students to action, proclaiming that learning is “the indispensable investment’’ for success in an information age.

That message rang true to Americans. We have always viewed education as the gateway to a brighter tomorrow, both for the individual and for the society as a whole. And our belief has deepened rather than receded over the past decade, as evidenced by our willingess to invest in the promise of schooling.

Since the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its report in 1983, spending for K-12 education has gone up 40 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars. And we have witnessed one of the longest and most sustained periods of school reform in the nation’s history.

By the end of the 1980’s, virtually every state had acted to impose the higher standards called for by the commission. Forty-two states had raised high school graduation requirements. Nearly every state had instituted a student-testing program. Three-fourths of high schools reported stricter attendance standards. And 70 percent set academic standards for athletics and extracurricular activities.

But all of these efforts, however well intentioned, have scarcely touched the classroom. As a new century nears, our schools seem firmly anchored in the old. And so, as we approach the 10th-year anniversary of that fiery call to arms, the challenge we face and the urgency of our task are even greater.

It seems only fitting, then, as a new decade of school reform begins, that we should pause and take our bearings: What have we learned from the past decade? What course should we set for the future? With this 40-page special report--From Risk to Renewal: Charting a Course for Reform’--Education Week begins that process.

Part one in this issue looks at the need to agree on a mission for our schools, the lessons that we have learned from a decade of reform, and the growing consensus about what “good schools’’ should look like.

In our Feb. 24 issue, we will launch part two of our special reform coverage--a seven-week series of articles on the key areas where change must occur if reform is to succeed. And, in our April 21 issue, we will conclude with an Education Week roundtable on how we get from where we are to where we want to be. The entire series is being sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

‘A Lousy Job’ Then and Now

The assessment properly begins with a question: Has the “indispensable investment’’ in public education paid off for the nation and for its children?

The answer, for anyone who believes in the public schools, is humbling and disturbing.

“We were doing a lousy job 20 years ago, and we’re not doing a better job now,’' Patricia Albjerg Graham, the president of the Spencer Foundation, lamented at a news conference last year to release nationwide trends in student achievement since 1970. “Twenty years ago,’' she added, “it didn’t matter as much.’'

True, there have been some notable gains. Just last month, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported significant improvements in students’ mathematics achievement over the past two years. Black and Hispanic youngsters have made some real strides in reading performance. And the high school graduation rate is rising, particularly among minorities.

But most gains for poor and minority students have been in the area of basic skills, not in higher-order thinking. And the proportion of American youngsters performing at high levels remains infinitesimally small. In the past 10 years, for instance, the number and proportion of those scoring at or above 650 on the verbal or math section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test has actually declined. And our students still lag behind those of other countries in international comparisons of science and math achievement.

Moreover, nearly half of all public school teachers reported last fall that at least 25 percent of their students were unprepared for grade-level work. And a report by the American College Testing Program found that 25 percent of high school seniors who took the college-entrance exam will need remedial math in college.

Clearly, the gains we have made have not been enough. Few would contend that the schools are anywhere near what they must be to meet the demands of the future.

‘A Complicated Agenda’

What has changed markedly is our understanding of the task at hand--our conception of what it will take to get from educational risk to educational renewal.

At the beginning of the 1980’s, most of us were incrementalists. We believed that if we simply ratcheted up the existing system and cracked down on the idlers, things would improve.

“Somehow, [we thought that] if we just shook people up, let people know students didn’t know enough, shook up policies at the top, we could do more,’' Ann Lieberman, the co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University, recalls of that time. Now, she adds: “It’s a much more complicated agenda.’'

Indeed it is. In the intervening years, as we have blunted our reform swords against the shields of inertia, we have come to realize just how much effort it will take to change an institution as intricate and durable as the school.

In public education, everything is connected to everything else. We can’t have a challenging new curriculum unless teachers are willing and able to teach it; or a shift to higher-order thinking skills without assessments that provoke students to go beyond drill-and-skill and that truly measure their progress.

New research on cognition and learning has also served to emphasize just how backward and counterproductive many of our current instructional strategies are. More than a century after Frederick W. Taylor’s ideas about scientific management of the nation’s industries first swept the United States, educators continue to churn out workers for obsolete factory-floor assembly lines: Students who sit in rows, do as they are told, and ask few questions.

As the education professor Theodore R. Sizer notes in his book Horace’s School, “We too rarely realize that today we know far more about the stunningly complex processes of learning than we did 90 years ago, but that the template of American secondary education that was struck then is very much in place.’'

Opening the Door

Meanwhile, our long-held belief in universal access to public education--previously honored more in the breach than in practice--is being tested as never before. In recent years, we have opened the schoolhouse door even wider to the poor, the handicapped, the minorities, the migrant workers, the non-English-speaking. And they have poured through that door in growing numbers, bringing with them the heavy baggage of society’s failures.

Neither schools nor teachers are equipped to solve the social and economic problems that afflict their students. But neither can they turn their backs on the brutal conditions under which many American children and their families labor. Such conditions, reflected in what the social commentator Jonathan Kozol calls “savage inequalities,’' separate schoolhouses in one community from another. They make a mockery of America’s commitment to education as a route out of poverty and despair. And they undercut a vital function of the public school in a democracy--to serve as a meeting place where people from all walks of life and all social backgrounds can come together to learn and grow through a common intellectual and cultural experience.

In the early 1980’s, we thought that we could mandate excellence. Jolt the country out of its complacency with bold references to war and global competition. Force the schools to improve through the sheer effort of our will.

In the 1990’s, we know better; we have begun to accept that every school must become its own center of excellence. We now recognize that government policies can provide the incentives, the framework, and the environment needed to support good schools, but they can’t create them.

Creating the kind of “learning society’’ called for in A Nation at Risk will take more than a refinement of the educational system.

‘A Clear and Compelling Mission’

Indeed, if there is one overriding lesson to be learned from a decade of reform effort, it is that a massive and systemic overhaul of public education is required--root and branch--at every level of the enterprise. A cultural change is needed in the ways that we think about schools, not just in how they operate.

A first step in that direction, as the article on page 5 suggests, is to rethink what it is we should expect from our schools. From a cacophony of demands, we must forge clear and realistic goals and a coherent strategy to fulfill them.

The unprecedented effort now under way to spell out what American students should know and be able to do could be the centerpiece of such a strategy. To realize its promise, however, we must figure out how to balance clear and high expectations for our schools with the freedom that they need to respond to the needs of individual students and communities.

Indeed, there is no blueprint for building the school of tomorrow, no one-size-fits-all. A school that could thrive in East Harlem would be unlikely to meet the needs of rural North Dakotans.

But there is a widening consensus about what a “good school’’ should look like.

As the article on page 14 illustrates, a good school is a child-centered school where students take more responsibility for their own learning, where teachers lecture less and coach more, where critical thinking not rote memorization is the objective, and where the task is to prepare the young for what President Clinton calls “lifetime learning.’'

A good school is a place where decisions are made as close to the heart of the educational enterprise as possible: in the classroom.

‘As Hard as Changing People’

Howard Gardner, the noted Harvard psychologist, believes that designing schools that truly reflect such an “education for understanding’’ would produce the “biggest revolution in education.’'

But Mr. Gardner knows how difficult a task that is and implores public school advocates not to underestimate it. “Most people who don’t know much about education either feel a good kick in the butt would turn things around, or a good weekend workshop,’' he laments. “The motto has got to be, ‘It’s as hard as changing people.’ ''

That’s another important lesson the past 10 years have taught: Complex social institutions resist change. Part of their reason for being, after all, is to provide continuity and stability to a society in flux. This may be particularly true of educational institutions, charged as they are with preserving and transmitting civilization’s cultural and intellectual heritage.

To a great extent, politicians and educators underrated the barriers to reform at the beginning of the 1980’s. In retrospect, the limited results produced by the straightforward recommendations in A Nation at Risk might have been anticipated.

The lesson to be learned here is that one should never underestimate the status quo’s power to prevail. The article on page 9 examines the formidable obstacles that have stymied even the most intensive reform efforts and reflects on what researchers have learned from the failures.

If systemic reform is to succeed, ways must be found to surmount these barriers. The weekly series of articles that Education Week will launch on Feb. 24 will focus on the critical areas that must be addressed if real renewal is to occur.

An Action Plan

In 1983, the members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education declared, “If the tasks we set forth are initiated now and our recommendations are fully realized over the next several years, we can expect reform of our nation’s schools, colleges, and universities.’' Ten years later, we are still looking for an action plan sufficiently robust and powerful to get us from here to there.

Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, the current chairman of the National Governors’ Association, describes the need best when he calls for an educational “war room’’ that would pull together the various local, state, and national initiatives into a coherent strategy that spells out what needs to be done when.

“Governors and the President can’t do this alone,’' Mr. Romer cautioned in an interview last year. “We’ve got to get all institutions in America, including the family, engaged or else we’re not going to get the job done.’'

In the concluding part of Education Week’s special coverage, we will bring together some leading educators and policymakers in an effort to begin roughing out a comprehensive strategy for systemic change.

And we will take a close look at the state of Kentucky, which has done more than almost any other state to pull together all the pieces of a coherent reform agenda.

Although Americans cannot rejoice at having made great progress over the past decade, we can find cause for hope and optimism. Never before has the nation carried on such a sustained and serious dialogue about educational renewal.

The country’s governors continue to press the cause, not only in their own states, but at the national level as well.

Hundreds of state and local initiatives have taken root, tenuously, but with promise.

Several large and ambitious educational enterprises are well under way that attempt to address major components of the educational system, ranging from the New Standards Project to the Coalition of Essential Schools, from the Accelerated Schools Project to Collaboratives for Humanities and Arts Teaching, and from James P. Comer’s School Development Program to the New American Schools Development Corporation.

The media, notoriously derelict in their coverage of education over the years, have given more attention to the reform issue than most dared hope for a decade ago.

A Nation at Risk asserted that, “if the people of our country, together with those who have public responsibility in the matter, care enough and are courageous enough to do what is required,’' the problems of our educational system can be both understood and corrected.

That is still true. The requirements have changed, and the vision has broadened. But, as the second decade of struggle begins, the challenge remains the same: To move from risk to renewal.

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 1993 edition of Education Week as Charting a Course to Reform: The Next 10 Years


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