Education Opinion

Three Things I Used to Think About School Reform

By Nancy Flanagan — October 08, 2011 4 min read
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A couple of years ago, Deborah Meier, whose thinking frequently encourages me to slow down and go deeper, was musing about changing one’s mind. Her reflections were inspired by a meme frequently used in workshops by Richard Elmore, who asks participants to write down what they used to think--and how those beliefs had changed. Elmore’s first example of a “used to” totally blew me away:

I used to think that policy was the solution. And now I think that policy is the problem.

Stirred by Meier and Elmore, I wrote my own “used to/but now” contribution, and posted it. About an hour after it went up, I got a concerned e-mail from a good friend, wondering if maybe I needed a listening ear--or a stiff drink. Wow, he said. That’s the most depressing thing you’ve ever written. He may have been right--it was a chronicle of my broken educational dreams, pretty much.

Elmore has now edited a book in which 20 revered educators go through the same assignment. It’s an exercise in learning, he says: “It strikes me as ironic that in a field nominally devoted to the development of capacities to learn, there is so little visible evidence of what those who do the work have actually learned in their careers.”

So--here’s another stab at Elmore’s exercise, evidence that I am paying attention. Still learning.

#1) I used to think teaching was an honored and creative profession in this country. I thought you could teach productively for decades, constantly revising your practice and tweaking your ideas to better serve the changing students who turned up in your classroom. People would admire such dedication and respect long experience, as long the teacher’s evolving instructional strategies were supporting rich and relevant content. I thought that teaching was its own energy source, no two years could ever be the same, and good teachers would always be appreciated by students and families.

Now, I see teaching regularly described as a dead-end career for the intellectually anemic. Or a starter job for those aiming for loftier “leadership” positions, but earning “credibility” by actually teaching for two years. The biggest lesson learned by Finland--investment in a fully professional, long-term teaching force for better results--is routinely ignored here. Worse, the very best part of teaching-- using your wits to solve a range of unique challenges--is being systematically squeezed out of classroom practice, in favor of uniform, flavorless instruction designed to yield marginally better results on standardized tests. And teachers have become technicians.

#2) I used to think equity was something that could actually be accomplished, or at least improved, by targeting money and resources. I thought Americans cared deeply about educational justice for children and saw equality of opportunity as a critical civic goal-- the rising tide lifting all boats, the political benefits of a fully educated citizenry, and so on. I used to think the mission of public schooling was giving every child, no matter what they brought to the table, a fair crack at a good life.

Now, I’m pretty sure Americans have been convinced that their public schools exist as trade and industry training grounds. If economic indicators are bleak, schools must be held accountable. Equity--the principle of fair and just social conditions-- has been recast as adequacy: enough resources to run basic training centers, where the children whose families must rely on public education learn fundamental literacy and compliance skills.

Schools have become places to apply scientifically based interventions with predictable, measurable outcomes. Big ideas--nurturing active citizenship, building on children’s curiosity and strengths, collaboration and engagement--are marginalized as fuzzy and imprecise. Worrying about increasing poverty has become “excuse-making.”

#3) I used to think that innovation in education meant new technologies--in the broadest sense of the word, everything from ground-breaking school governance models to clever teacher compensation plans to parent-accessible on-line gradebooks. Every problem could be solved by applying a solution--and the faster and more efficient the fix, the more likely it would become part of everyday life in the classroom.

Now, I believe that great shifts in communication, media, and global access to information and power will wash over schools in the next two decades and obliterate most traditional school practice--grades, classrooms, special education, textbooks, curriculum, instruction, the public-private divide. Existing School World is utterly unprepared for these sweeping changes.

This revolution will not be driven by social improvement goals or promising technological innovation to enhance human learning. It will be driven by commerce.

How have your beliefs changed?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.