Education Commentary

Civic Virtue and the Reform Mill

By Jeannie Oakes, Karen Hunter Quartz, Steve Ryan & Martin Lipton — February 23, 2000 10 min read
Reform was a mission of moral, civic, and cultural change as well as an effort to improve student achievement.

On the eve of America’s independence, John Adams wrote, “Public virtue is the only foundation of republics.” He also asserted that real liberty depends on “a positive passion for the public good.” More than two centuries later, we are struck by the abundance of civic passion in our nation’s public schools, by the centrality of civic passion to significant school improvement, and by how the school reform mill suffocates passion with short-lived, politically safe programs.

For much of the 1990s, we followed 16 schools engaged in comprehensive reform. As participants in middle-grades projects sponsored in five states by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, educators in these schools often rose to the challenge to strengthen students’ intellectual accomplishments by making their schools more caring, more inclusive of children from diverse backgrounds, and more genuinely participatory.

In California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Texas, and Vermont, we found schools that struggled to engage all of their students in rich, challenging, and socially significant intellectual work—driven by a Jeffersonian commitment to public education as the key to democracy. Teaching children to change the world, one school faculty countered its community’s serious racial discord with an ambitious, schoolwide curriculum focused on culture, difference, and friendship. Another joined low-income parents, faculty members, and students in politically powerful relationships aimed both at narrowing the black- white achievement gap and solving neighborhood infrastructure problems. One state project leader used Carnegie’s prestigious name and the project’s modest funding as levers to tilt more state resources toward the state’s low-income children. In each of these cases and many others, reform was a mission of moral, civic, and cultural change as well as an effort to improve student achievement.

America has a long-standing tradition of such civic missions. Yet, at every turn, educators seeking to blend moral and civic change with high achievement encounter obstacles in the form of deeply lodged ideological preferences for schooling that favors private interests, competition, and individual gain. These preferences, when countered by civic-minded ones, make school reform a battle of cultural contradictions—and an uneven battle it has become.

Confronting these contradictions is a daunting undertaking that many educators are reluctant to undertake and few communities are eager to support. But national, state, and local policymakers create even more obstacles when they perpetuate what we call, with all due disrespect, the “reform mill"—a system of institutional gears and pulleys that, in sad irony, impedes meaningful change. The reform mill squeezes the moral life out of civic-minded reforms with its unyielding attachment to technical and rational processes. For example, to gain widespread “buy in,” reform leaders often grind complex ideas down into catchy slogans, lists of best practices, and vignettes from model schools. Watered-down wisdom makes its way into packaged materials and prescribed “trainings.” Such technical assistance nearly always blocks the deep inquiry and learning that fundamental shifts in norms and practices require.

Transforming curriculum and teaching into rich intellectual inquiry requires educators to confront constructs such as individual differences, intelligence, and behavioral conditioning. Yet the reform mill does little to create climates in which teachers can critically examine the historical and theoretical underpinnings of these and other ideas. Instead of forming professional communities committed to using knowledge, analytic skill, and critical perspectives to shape their practice, teachers are asked to swallow “expert” prescriptions for such techniques as interdisciplinary units or problem-based learning.

The reform mill squeezes the moral life out of civic-minded reforms with its unyielding attachment to technical and rational processes.

Altering structures and practices that disadvantage low-income children and children of color often threatens privileged students and their families who currently profit from stratified schools, and it taps into a broader cultural ambivalence about race and the widening gap between rich and poor. Yet the reform mill, committed as it is to political safety and technical rationality, reduces the potential for socially just reform to slogans like “all kids can learn” that do little to assuage these fears and that focus narrowly on individual achievement.

Practices that could make schools caring and nurturing places require schools and communities ready for normative, as well as technical, changes. Yet contentious political environments and limited resources of state education agencies, the technical, packaged interventions promulgated by public and for-profit training providers, and narrow self-interests embodied in local school boards and organized parent opposition undermine the possibility of care. The reform mill takes the inclination to make schools more “caring” and reduces it to technical fixes such as smaller schools, teams, curricula to help teachers talk with students about personal matters, or service-learning programs. The short-term staff development that accompanies such reforms provides teachers with little room to meld research, practice, and their moral commitments to growth, empathy, and shared responsibility.

Finally, bringing inclusive, participatory governance to their schools is often thwarted by negative reactions to processes that hint at redistributing power and resources. Thus, the reform mill might offer a seat on school governance committees and a vote on decisions of small consequence to simulate full participation in dialogues about power and resources.

Despite what many actors within the reform mill know and express with eloquence and conviction, they cannot bust loose from the cultural imperatives of technical (rational, orderly, scientific, and efficient) mandates and constraints. Coming full circle, a “successful” reform becomes one that meets bureaucratic criteria (reports filed, teacher “contact hours” met, programs instituted, points added to test scores) rather than one that institutes rigorous learning by changing hearts and minds and adding and redistributing resources. One teacher summed up these reform conditions in a way that seemed to conflate “passion” with getting “all bent out of shape": “You have to be able to change with the situations that come up within the school system. Every year, you’re going to see change. You learn to deal with it. You don’t get all bent out of shape because you still want your job, so you have to go along with the program.” Another teacher said, “Change only lasts a short time. ... You have to go with the flow. And I try to do the best job that I can with whatever I’m asked to do. It makes my day much easier.”

Practices that could make schools caring and nurturing places require schools and communities ready for normative, as well as technical, changes.

Many local educators find no alternative to the mill’s superficial rendering of reform. With financial incentives—albeit small—attached to new state initiatives, signing on to reform is often the only way for schools to secure monies beyond their basic allocation. Schools compete for a staggering array of new programs, and sometimes adopt programs that duplicate or conflict with one another—"to get as much as they can,” in the words of one teacher. Short application deadlines and reviewers’ preferences for copying ideas that are implemented elsewhere discourage thoughtful proposals. As one teacher told us, “We’re always changing, but we’re not exactly sure why we’re changing.”

This is a grim story, indeed. And yet, we can report an alternate explanation and mood. The reform obstacles are huge, but the potential for toppling them lies everywhere. In every school community, we found a passionate minority who struggled against the reform mill, exploiting every crack and opportunity in it, and when these closed up, they found others.

These were the local heroes in our study who embraced reform as a civic virtue, rather than a set of packages and “professional” practices. They were not motivated primarily by raising achievement-test scores, avoiding sanctions, gaining recognition, or making schools orderly, although many of them accomplished all of these things. Rather, they sought to create caring, socially just, and democratic learning communities for their students and for themselves. With civic virtue at the fore, they acted in idiosyncratic, opportunistic, and contextually appropriate ways that were often truer to the spirit of reform than policymakers could have anticipated. Ignoring, circumventing, or subverting the reform mill, these educators challenged themselves, schools, and our culture to be fundamentally better than they now are. Watching them led us to reject the idea of school reform in favor of a concept of “betterment.”

Betterment, unlike reform, requires parents, educators, and policymakers to engage in sustained public discourse about how schools promote the public good, as well as individual gain. While our culture, propped up by the myth of meritocracy and equal opportunity, limits reform by focusing narrowly on individual gains, betterment asks that schools confront the cultural contradictions that define civic life.

Betterment sees rigorous academic learning arising out of relentless struggles to provide such learning opportunities to all children. Sustaining this struggle requires understanding and responding empathetically to student diversity, fostering close interpersonal relationships that add value to individuals’ lives and community life, and steady participation of educators, parents, and community members in a critical discourse about the possibilities of school change and social action.

Our culture, propped up by the myth of meritocracy and equal opportunity, limits reform by focusing narrowly on individual gains.

Betterment requires the kind of commitment summed up by one community leader who connected her community-organizing work with a low- resource Texas school: “It’s a relationship, a public relationship, not a private one—not with your best friend, your family—but a public relationship where we decide overtly, consciously, we’re going to work together to do this. It’s the fact that we know each other, that we have a sense of one another, and a sense of where the other is coming from. We know we’re on the same team. It’s just a matter of how we’re going to get done what needs to be done.”

Despite our emphasis here on local dialogue and struggle, reframing reform as betterment requires top-down leadership and initiatives. Policymakers and reform leaders must create the political clout and capacity for schools to serve the common, public good. They must press educators to challenge the narrowly instrumental and individualistic demands of powerful local constituents. Top-down support, especially if adequately funded, can create the necessary safe space for local learning during early stages of change when resistance may be great, when satisfying results may be few, and when educators are most vulnerable.

Most of all, betterment requires that policymakers and educators quit asking how the gears and pulleys of reform can be greased and start asking how both national and local reform efforts can reflect John Adams’ “positive passion for the public good.” It also demands that, if the ends of reform are schools that are educative, socially just, caring, and participatory, then the means of achieving those ends must be so as well.

Jeannie Oakes is a professor and the associate dean of the graduate school of education and information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where Karen Hunter Quartz and Martin Lipton are research associates. Steve Ryan is an assistant professor of education at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Ky. They have adapted this essay from their book Becoming Good American Schools: The Struggle for Civic Virtue in Education Reform, published by Jossey Bass.

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2000 edition of Education Week as Civic Virtue and the Reform Mill