Education Opinion

Looking Backward at Education Reform

By Willis D. Hawley — November 01, 1989 8 min read

Shortly after the President’s State of the Union address in 1993--in which he emphasized the importance of high-quality schools--a member of the White House staff proposed that a national conference be held on the 10th anniversary of the publication of A Nation at Risk. The purposes of this event would be to celebrate the successes of the education-reform movement and to give the President a platform from which to suggest priorities for future school improvements.

The President convened a number of his advisers who were knowledgeable about American education to discuss the possible agenda for such a conference. Portions of that meeting’s transcript, obtained by this reporter, are reproduced below:

President: If we hold this conference, what changes over the last decade would we point to as evidence of the reform movement’s success?

Adviser A: Over all, a lot of progress has been made. Students are taking more academic courses; we give more tests of student and teacher competence than any other nation; dropout-prevention and drug-abuse programs have been implemented; teachers’ salaries have risen; and we are spending much more per student than we were 10 years ago.

President: That seems very impressive. I assume that we can cite improvements in student achievement resulting from these reforms.

Adviser B: Mr. President, the evidence on changes in achievement is inconclusive. Almost every state reports that its students now score above the national average on standardized achievement tests. But performance on other measures, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Scholastic Aptitude Test, shows little change. And we still do poorly in international comparisons of student achievement.

President: Now, this doesn’t make sense. How could we have adopted all these reforms and increased spending on education, yet not see big improvements in performance?

Adviser D: Experts give a number of reasons, but the one I find most telling is that both the number and the proportion of children in our schools who are disadvantaged because of economic conditions, family instability, or poor health have been rising steadily.

The President: Let’s not get off the track here. I didn’t call this meeting to talk about health issues or social conditions. Why haven’t the reforms and increased spending paid off in school improvement?

Adviser B: Maybe because school has not changed very much for children; that is, in most schools, students are still being taught as they were before all the reforms were enacted. And students are still taking the same kinds of tests, and these tests shape both the curriculum and the way teachers teach.

Adviser C: If I may, Mr. President, let me interrupt. Even if B is right, why is this important? Didn’t schools serve those of us in this room well?

Adviser B: Mr. President, I will resist the temptation to respond to my colleague’s second query.

There is a growing consensus among those who do research on how children learn that we cannot significantly improve students’ performance until educators, policymakers, and parents abandon the so-called “jug and mugs” theory of learning.

This view of education holds, in effect, that teachers are the jugs and students the mugs--and you can take it from there.

The “jug and mugs” outlook underlies many of the weaknesses in educational practices and policies. For example, it explains why teachers talk so much of the time children spend in classrooms, why students expect to be passive when they learn, and why tests typically focus on the acquisition of knowledge rather than on the capacity to use it.

President: So, what’s the alternative, and how would it change things?

Adviser B: Well, research has discredited the idea that learning consists of the transmission of knowledge to students by teachers, texts, or computers. Instead of being viewed as consumers of information and skills, students should be seen as producers of knowledge and learning capabilities. If the research about how children learn were as well known as it should be, reforms would aim at very different roles for teachers and administrators than are now typical, and at big changes in the curricula that most students experience.

President: O.K., I’m with you, but this all seems quite abstract. Give me some specific examples of the reforms we should be pursuing in light of the research you talked about.

Adviser B: If students were thought of as producers of knowledge, teachers would be seen as managers of learning experiences. Their job would involve more than maintaining discipline, providing students with interesting material, and efficiently directing them to the right answer. It would mean putting students into situations where they could learn to use knowledge they already have, to relate that old knowledge to new in systematic and reflective ways, to organize seemingly unconnected pieces of information, and to assess their conclusions before settling on them--even if the conclusions were correct.

President: Hold on. Can we keep this discussion at sea level?

Adviser E: I also read the report to which B seems to be referring. Let me take a crack at summarizing the implications of what is now known about learning for the reform of teaching and curricula. If current research were applied in these areas, the so-called “basic” and “higher-order” skills would be dealt with simultaneously rather than sequentially. And we would recognize that higher-order skills are within the grasp of almost all children--at all ages.

Acquiring information would be treated as one means to achieve learning rather than as the goal of education. Problem solving would receive attention, but even more important, teachers would stress the development of problem-finding capabilities. They would also focus on helping students understand the strategies they use in the process of learning and problem solving. In this connection, opportunities to learn with and from others would be emphasized.

Because a good bit of learning occurs incidentally, what children study should, to as large a degree as possible, deal with problems and contexts that are familiar to them. Instead of trying to cover lots of different topics, curricula should go into depth on a limited number of issues and emphasize what is called “generative knowledge,” ideas and theories that help students organize and learn other knowledge.

President: Earlier in this meeting--and it seems like a long time ago--someone said that this research on learning has implications for the ways schools are administered. How so?

Adviser B: The primary job of administrators would be to support teachers in their efforts to be effective managers. Principals, for example, would focus on two sets of activities. First, they would minimize the distractions and obstacles teachers face in helping students learn. Second, they would encourage and reinforce the teachers’ own learning by modeling strategies teachers could use with students and by recognizing that successful teachers require continuing opportunities to develop their professional expertise.

Adviser F: I’d like to jump in here. The changes in schools that would occur if we made these kinds of reforms are important to the nation’s future economic growth and productivity.

President: We’re getting into deep water here. Please elaborate--but keep it short.

Adviser E: I’ll try. You will recall, Mr. President, that the authors of A Nation at Risk emphasized the importance of educational reform to the nation’s economic competitiveness. But they seem to have had little understanding of how technological changes and international economic trends would change what American workers would need to know and be able to do.

Some jobs are being simplified. Over all, however, the types of jobs that are now being created require different and higher levels of education and related skills than was the case 10 years ago. Such outcomes should include the abilities to identify, analyze, and apply appropriate information in responding to complex situations, and to learn on one’s own and with others. And productivity on the job and success in one’s personal life increasingly depend on the ability to deal with uncertainty, to work with others, to help set group goals, and to overcome racial and ethnic prejudice.

Unfortunately, the school-reform movement has emphasized the assessment of relatively narrow and low-level skills. At the same time, the curriculum requirements imposed by the states typically have added more of the same types of courses we have always had rather than make changes reflecting economic and technological trends.

President: This is getting very depressing. It makes me want to turn to simpler matters--arms control, for instance. But let me summarize the messages I’ve heard in this meeting. The reform movement of the last 10 years has resulted in all kinds of new policies and increased spending on education. But there has been little change in student achievement.

During this time, the nature of jobs has been changing so that our workers will increasingly require abilities we have not been developing in our schools. On top of all this, you tell me that the proportion of children who are educationally disadvantaged has increased significantly.

How long have we known about these things?

Adviser E: For about four or five years.

President: Why didn’t someone address these issues at that time?

The transcript and, presumably, the meeting ended at this point. As this report goes to press, there has been no word from the White House about plans to celebrate the success of the education-reform movement.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1989 edition of Education Week