Essay in The American Scholar Is Skeptical on School Reform

By Mark Walsh — February 10, 2015 2 min read
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Author and education professor Mike Rose has a thoughtful essay questioning some trends in education reform in the winter issue of The American Scholar, the quarterly journal of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

“If we determine success primarily by a test score, we miss those considerable intellectual achievements that aren’t easily quantifiable,” Rose writes in “School Reform Fails the Test.” “You will be hard pressed to find in federal education policy discussions of achievement that include curiosity, reflection, creativity, aesthetics, pleasure, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder.”

Rose, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, criticizes not only today’s heavy emphasis on testing but rigid curriculum practices that make it hard for classroom teachers to use their own creativity and experience:

Not long ago, a teacher I'll call Priscilla contacted me with a typical story. She has been teaching for 30 years in an elementary school in a low-income community north of Los Angeles. The school's test scores were not adequate last year, so the principal, under immense pressure from the school district, mandated for all teachers a regimented curriculum focused on basic math and literacy skills. The principal directed the teachers not to change or augment this curriculum. So now Priscilla cannot draw on her cabinets full of materials collected over the years to enliven or individualize instruction. The time spent on the new curriculum has meant trims in science and social studies. Art and music have been cut entirely. "There is no joy here," she told me, "only admonishment."

Rose is the author of, among other works, a 1995 book called Possible Lives: The Promise of Education in America. He traveled all around the country talking to teachers for that book, which is his frame of reference for The American Scholar essay.

Rose’s essay is a bit meandering, from the No Child Left Behind Act to Race to the Top to his criticisms of corporate-minded reformers to the efficacy of teacher evaluation and professional development. Yet it is also the kind of perspective one might enjoy hearing in person over wine and cheese at a meeting of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, if that’s what the society does anywhere.

Rose concludes by noting that education historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban have surveyed “the many unsuccessful and hugely expensive attempts at school reform in our past” and “observed the same mistakes being repeated over and over again: top-down remedies, grandiose claims about the latest technology, disdain for teachers.”

“To improve our schools, we need to be informed by knowledge gained from many days in the neighborhoods surrounding them and from many, many days inside the schoolhouse itself, learning from children’s experience and the full sweep of a teacher’s work,” Rose writes. “This is what contemporary school reform has failed to do.”

The winter issue of the journal also has two higher education pieces, “Habits of Mind,” by historians Anthony Grafton and James Grossman, about the need to teach research methods to those studying the humanities; and “What I Have Taught—and Learned,” by William M. Chace, a former Stanford University English professor who went on to become president of Weslayan and Emory universities.

American Scholar Editor Robert Wilson, in his editor’s note, resists the idea that the three pieces make up an “education package.”

“When, as a reader, I confront an editorial package in a magazine, it tends to be with all the enthusiasm I greet the annual report of my health-insurance provider,” Wilson writes.

But I agree with him that each one is worthy of reading on its own.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.