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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Teaching and Learning Is Complex

By Guest Blogger — February 23, 2018 4 min read
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Kicking off the next six weeks of guest bloggers is John Thompson, a former inner-city teacher and self-described “anti-reformer.” In a previous life, John was an award-winning historian before shifting gears to teach high school in Oklahoma City. In 2015, he published A Teacher’s Tale: Learning, Loving, and Listening to our Kids, arguing that test-fueled reform is doomed to fail.

This is the last in a series about rethinking my classroom experiences. I very much appreciate an opportunity to pass on anecdotes that speak to why “Big R Reforms” have failed. Twenty years of these interactions, along with listening to colleagues and studying education research, have made me what Rick Hess dubbed a “little r reformer.” Life is complex. Simplistic quick fixes don’t work in education any more than they do in the rest of life.

These re-readings of material cut from A Teacher’s Tale were prompted by a trip to the Oklahoma State Capitol, which brought back so many wonderful memories of legislators and my students schooling each other. The only bad memory was hearing a John Marshall student say, “They say we’re bad. We may be bad, but we’re not as bad as Centennial.”

That ubiquitous statement made my stomach churn—just like it did when I was teaching at Marshall and Centennial. I bet educators in other urban schools have heard an identical sentiment over and over, with only the names changing.

The last thing our kids needed was a continual reminder of their shortcomings. However, the reward-and-punish version of school reform could not function without the drumbeat of criticisms and the data-driven recording of deficiencies. Test-driven reform unavoidably deteriorated into an unflinching focus on the remediation of low-skilled students who didn’t measure up.

Given the fundamentally macho mindset of a reform movement which celebrated the punitive, it was not surprising that Oklahoma City Public Schools bet the farm on remediation to get students to pass the four End-of-Instruction (EOI) exams required to graduate. It was shocking, however, that bubble-in test prep was marketed under the brutal name “EOI boot camp.”

One Centennial student nearly broke into tears when explaining why she dropped out of school: “They wanted me to go to EOI boot camp! Why? I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Our students lacked plenty of basic skills when measured by primitive standardized tests. The way to improve their academic performance, however, would have been to invest in their strengths. Affluent kids probably wouldn’t ace tests about the routine challenges that inner-city kids face, but we don’t force them to pass graduation exams on what it takes to navigate the foster care system, to find affordable health care, or find a safe place to live.

Our dysfunctional schools’ problems are intertwined and interrelated. Reformers made a terrible mistake when they gambled on a couple of leverage points: better instruction inside the four walls of the classroom and competition based on invalid and unreliable metrics. They tried to intimidate a fearful “culture of compliance.” Reformers forgot that teachers and administrators are employees who work within a system they didn’t design. We educators need to engage in bureaucratic politics to do our jobs according to our consciences. We win some, but we also lose plenty of battles.

Throughout my career, we went months at a time successfully making the extra effort to keep our school orderly and to teach effectively. We weren’t blameless when things went wrong, but usually it was an increase in gang violence and/or ill-conceived political mandates that unraveled the progress and threw our school into months of dysfunction. And as Campbell’s Law explains, when systems face unreliable and invalid accountability metrics that are impossible to meet, the results aren’t pretty.

Even a generation ago, reformers should have understood that the problem isn’t the percentage of low-income students. The challenge is extreme concentrations of students from generational poverty who have endured multiple traumas and come from troubled neighborhoods lacking social capital. Rather than focusing unflinchingly on what is wrong in those communities and schools, we needed conversations and partnerships. We should have built on children’s, families’, and educators’ strengths.

Rather than imposing a data-driven blame game, reformers should have listened to why only a small percentage of classes could provide instructional excellence before safe and orderly learning environments were established. The answer isn’t punishment. Even though a credible code of conduct is necessary, it’s not sufficient. Chronic absenteeism and tardiness must be addressed, not covered up by “jukin’ the stats.” Students can’t learn and earn a diploma if they don’t attend class. And none of those challenges can be tackled without a system of student supports.

I’m not saying that every low-performing school failed the way that John Marshall and Centennial did. But I bet the stories of other defeated schools, especially those that were made worse by school reform, were equally complex. I’m also saying that to improve, we must listen and learn from flesh-and-blood students and tackle real-world problems, not focus on made-up metrics.

John Thompson

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.