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Education Opinion

Why Our Reach Exceeds Our Grasp in Ed Reform

By Guest Blogger — November 12, 2013 5 min read
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Note: Jal Mehta, associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is guest blogging this week.

Welcome! My name is Jal Mehta and I am an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You might have seen my piece in the NYT last spring arguing that the Rhee-Ravitch debate obscures more than it reveals, and I’m going to be offering some similar thoughts here this week. Much of what I’m going to say draws on my recently published book, The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling, so if you want to learn more you can find it there or here. Starting later today, I’ll offer some thoughts about how we might improve our educational system, but I wanted to start by offering a historical perspective on why school improvement has proven so elusive.

The American school system assumed its contemporary form a little more than a century ago in the Progressive Era. In one generation, between 1890 and 1920, the modern school system was created by a group of civic elites, who transformed a nation of one-room schoolhouses into a set of district school systems. Influenced by prevailing Taylorist models of business organization, superintendents (mostly male) were empowered as CEOs of the school system, and teachers (mostly female) were expected to follow the rules and programs their superiors chose. In this hierarchical model, teachers possessed little power to formally resist dicta from above, although the “loose coupling” of the system permitted them considerable control over what happened inside their classroom walls. Training for teachers was minimal, the assumption being that teaching was not a complicated task. Top education schools, including the one where I work, avoided the training of teachers and the potential stigma of associating with low-status, feminine work; instead they focused their efforts on extensive training of the male administrators who would govern the system.

For the first half century (1910-1960), this model worked with a degree of harmony, largely because the expectations for what schools needed to produce were fairly limited. Loose coupling preserved enough teacher autonomy to make teachers feel as if they were in control of their own domain; school boards and superintendents had enough formal power to preserve the idea of a supervisory system and democratic control; and education schools trained administrators and teachers, a function which paid their bills while allowing their professors to research what they liked. Teachers were mostly women, who had few other employment options and also frequently were not the breadwinners in their families; thus their low pay did not provoke significant resistance. By 1960, most white students graduated with a high school degree, which, regardless of how much they had actually learned, would certify them for middle class occupations in manufacturing and other jobs. A small number of advantaged students went to better public schools or to private schools and then on to college. The result was that many different actors got what they needed, even if the sector as a whole was not doing much to maximize the learning of all of its students.

In contrast, in the past 50 years (1960 - present), the limits of this way of constructing the sector have become apparent as the expectations for schooling have increased. Driven by a combination of civil rights imperatives and the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial economy, policymakers now expect all students to achieve to fairly high levels. But the means to achieve these increasing ambitions are not there. Consider:

• Poverty rates, always high by international standards because of America’s weak welfare state, have been exacerbated by the collapse of manufacturing and increasing segregation and joblessness in many of the nation’s largest cities.

• Educated women, who had been a largely captive labor market, have seen their options proliferate, weakening the talent pool for teaching.

• The highly decentralized nature of American education has become a weakness rather than a strength because, as David Cohen and Susan Moffitt have pointed out, standards for what we want students to do have risen, but norms against governmental interference have constrained the federal government and even states from providing the kind of infrastructure (curriculum, teacher training, and more) needed to achieve those goals.

In this context, what was not developed in the Progressive Era has come back to bite us: we want consistent high-level performance across the system, but we do not have a strategy to select talented people to teach, develop knowledge to guide their work, train them to a level of competent practice, and give them opportunities to grow and improve their work over time. We have ambitious goals, but we haven’t built the means to achieve them.

The result has been a downward spiral in the interaction between policymakers and practitioners, with only rare pockets of the hoped-for improvements in practice. Policymakers, looking out on a landscape in which there is highly uneven performance among schools, with dropout rates which have reached as high as 40 - 50 percent in some urban districts, understandably have sought to intervene. They have done so through a variety of mechanisms--charters, vouchers, public school choice--but most notably through an effort to set higher standards, test whether students are meeting those standards, and create consequences for schools that fail to improve. Teachers, for their part, seeing external mandates developed by people who know little of the daily work of schools and who are unwilling to provide the social support their students need, are predictably resistant to these regulations from afar. Unions, seeing teachers scapegoated for failing schools, harden their positions and seek to resist external accountability. Policymakers, in turn, see schools as units which need tighter coupling (to overcome teacher resistance), and unions as obstructionist relics blocking needed reforms. Around and around we go, with everyone playing their appointed role, but with no improvement in sight.

What we want is the opposite dynamic, which is more characteristic of the nations which consistently top the PISA rankings: more selective entry to teaching, longer and more practical teacher training paid for by the state, more welfare state support of students outside of schools, and more time for teachers to collaborate and improve their practice. Such a system has a more positive dynamic feedback loop, whereby higher performance leads to more public confidence, which in turn weakens the need for overly invasive external testing, which in turn creates the kind of schools and field in which teachers want to work.

That seems like enough for a first post - more details on how we might shift from one trajectory to the other later in the week.

-- Jal Mehta

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.

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