Education Opinion

Where the Action Is in School Reform

By Nancy Flanagan — August 26, 2011 3 min read
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The criticism most frequently leveled at Diane Ravitch’s blockbuster book on education reform, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, is that Ravitch doesn’t end the book with policy implications, her personal prescriptions for improving schools in America. In addition to identifying root causes of the disease, this thinking goes, Ravitch is honor-bound to cure it.

Yeah, yeah, the critics say--Ravitch does talk about strong, comprehensive curriculum and good teaching, but where are the innovative policy levers? Where are ideas like the $125,000 teacher salary initiative or the scheme to publish test-based teacher evaluations in the newspaper to shame, then fire, the laggards? Where is Ravitch’s Superman solution?

In general, “reformers” aren’t very interested in curriculum and instruction (unless they can package and sell it). What happens in the classroom is too low-level and “inefficient” to capture the interest of those whose goal is economic domination of world markets--plus raising international achievement scores. Whole-school reform models that guarantee a quick uptick in scores, maybe, but the small, grubby details of classroom interaction are--well, boring.

Also, misunderstood. Real, lasting school reform is always incremental and time-consuming, because the actual work of schools-- teaching and learning-- is painstaking. Lasting reform will always be laborious, step-by-step work. Genuine efficacy is contingent on building personal relationships and competencies--leading to trust, an essential element in useful change and deep learning.

What happens at kindergarten sand tables and in 7th grade science labs matters more than what Anne Geiger calls “big sexy ideas” about reform. First-generation college attendees are motivated--and actually graduate--because they uncovered a passion and see a purpose in having a college degree. Not because their teachers were spurred by score-based salary increases, or because they wore “pride” apparel at their charter school--and certainly not because of political rhetoric about being “college and career-ready.”

Several years ago, my district sent teachers for (expensive) training in the Reading Recovery model. The Board was persuaded to do this by research showing that first graders who struggled with literacy skills benefited from quick Reading Recovery remediation, and were far less likely to end up in special education, a potential major cost savings to the district.

The trained Reading Recovery teachers did a little demo at a board meeting, showing techniques they picked up in the training--sentence strips and the like. Board members expressed surprise--that was Reading Recovery? The strategies seemed so simple, so logical and uncomplicated. When you boil them down, however, the most critical elements of a good education are deceptively clear-cut: teach students important ideas and skills, and teach them in a way that allows students to absorb and use the knowledge.

Curriculum and instruction. Ho hum. The devil is in the endless details, the 10,000 hours of work it takes to master effective instruction for every child, to select the right materials and carefully develop the right skills.

There’s a beautiful piece up at Learning First Alliance today, about school being more than a placement site:

Schools are not just “places” where children go. They are one of the most central aspects of a child’s life, and often a key part of her identity.

Students don’t derive their identity as productive citizens and valued members of a community from clever inducements, policy levers that alter their educational settings or switch out their teachers.

That identity comes from what is taught and learned. Plain and simple.

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.