Directions 2000: A Forum: The End of Top-Down School Reform

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Abolish the U.S. Education Department, the Republican majority says. Redo the national history standards, 99 U.S. senators decide in an extraordinary resolution. Deregulate school lunches and get rid of Goals 2000 legislation that establishes new federal agencies to review national curricular standards, Congressional committees propose. The heated words and angry proposals may or may not lead to concrete action but the words do spell the end of a decade of top-down school reform.

The past 12 years have been the longest uninterrupted period of national school reform since the beginning of the 20th century. Since the publication of A Nation at Risk, state laws have produced stiffer graduation requirements and more students taking academic courses, including higher enrollments in the Advanced Placement program. In 1994, federal legislation established national curricular standards in academic subjects and paved the way for national tests, making the year the high-water mark for expert-driven, foundation-sponsored, and federally directed top-down school reform. No more. Devolution and local control constitute the new G.O.P. mantra.

Whatever occurs in the nation's capital in the next year, it is appropriate now to calculate the high cost of such top-down reform.

Reforming schools in the United States requires the manufacturing of a national crisis and a severe scolding of educators. Cold War policymakers in the late 1950's, for example, ever competitive over the space frontier, decided that Soviet schools were producing more scientists than American ones. Public officials claimed that the schools had failed. Then, without a flicker of inconsistency, they turned to schools to solve the national problem by urging teachers and students to work harder in mathematics and science. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 provided funds for teachers and schools to build better academic programs. Since the late 1950's, other political crises emerged that again led to schools' being initially blasted for failing the nation and then being held responsible for solving the problem with the next generation. For the 1960's it was desegregating society and eliminating poverty, and, of course, in the 1970's and 1980's schools' falling educational productivity, as measured by declining test scores, was claimed to be the cause of the global decline in the country's economic primacy.

While manufactured crises may be necessary in American democracy, where a two-party system is strongly guided by popular opinion, there is a high cost exacted in eroded public confidence each time scorching criticism of schools occurs. Moreover, when the nation's leaders toss, like a hot potato, a social or political ill (for example, poverty, segregation, teenage pregnancies) to the public schools, there can be only burn scars left on the institution, since schools are largely incapable of remedying these ills. Another turn of this repetitive cycle has been emerging since the early 1990's, marking the end of this remarkable decade of sustained national school reform.

Conservative victories in the November midterm elections have reconstituted Congress and shifted the center of political gravity from the White House to the Capitol. An emerging bipartisan political agenda to deregulate federal initiatives, end welfare, and fight both criminals and illegal immigrants through local control point to a gradual shift away from top-down school reform as an instrument of national economic renewal. Instead, renewed skirmishes over vouchers, school safety, prayer, cultivating the work ethic and moral character in this generation of students will slowly replace talk of national goals, standards, and tests, thus making local schools more of a cultural battleground for competing values and much less an agent of national economic renewal. Some form of Goals 2000 will, of course, remain, as will the deep concern for schools' efficiently using limited resources, but reformers will no longer lip-synch the lyrics of national goals, standards, and tests; instead, they will renew an older call stressing parental choice, an individual student's responsibility to achieve, pumping character into school curricula, and striving for excellence in academic performance. Why will this be so?

The pumping up of the The Bell Curve (over 500 articles in national media in less than four months), a book whose authors argue for genetically determined racial differences in intelligence while dismissing remedial education and affirmative action as hopeless, even spendthrift, policies, mirrors (while certifying) the decided lurch to the right in the body politic over the last decade. This highly discussed book gives policymakers a scientific patina for spending less money on programs of improvement and giving more attention to policies that blame the poor and minorities for lacking "smart" genes.

A quarter-century earlier, the scientists William Shockley and Arthur Jensen raised the same issue of inherited intelligence gaps between the races, thus handing a previous Republican Administration the scientific legitimacy to launch a period of "benign neglect" for federal inaction on big-city problems, education, and other social concerns. In the 1970's, educational-policy talk in states and districts shifted from desegregation to back to the basics, from ethnic studies to minimum-competency tests, and from the disadvantaged to academic excellence and individual achievement.

The political shift in the mid-1990's means that there will be renewed policy talk about the critical role of schools in building moral character. Polemics about excessively bureaucratic schools and how unsafe public schools are even in the most protected neighborhoods will reappear. Challenges to existing school books, videos, and materials that are viewed as immoral or corrosive to children's character will mount even further. Educators and parents who successfully ended tracking or other forms of separating students by performance in their schools will battle aggressive proposals from other educators and parents for reinstituting high school tracks in the name of supporting academic excellence. Vouchers to be used in any private school will appear again on state and local ballots. Segregating students by achievement, even by race and ethnicity, will be tried anew. And the issue of in-school prayer will persist, further splitting schools and their communities.

Thus, the second-longest period of national school reform in this century will end before 2000. Economic fears will give way to divisive racial and ethnic fears. Those anxious about rending the fragile cultural fabric that holds Americans together will have much to worry about. So forget top-down reform.

So what? Do these policy debates and manufactured crises matter in over two million classrooms where the actual work of teaching students occurs? Yes and no. Yes, because the terms of any national crisis involving schools, amplified by the news media, trickle down into living rooms, community centers, and schools--reinterpreted, to be sure, but nonetheless shaping popular attitudes of trust and distrust in schools and teacher confidence and insecurity about the worth of their work. Yes, these ideas matter and policy talk does lead to revised political agendas.

The "no" response, however, is far stronger and should give pause to those legions of reformers who have unrelentingly sought top-down changes in schooling. Just as Goals 2000 offered very little hope for big-city schools with large percentages of low achievers and high percentages of dropouts, the renewed commitment to cultivating the individual work ethic within students or offering the illusion of vouchers to free inner-city parents from clogged school bureaucracies will hardly matter in disentangling the pathologies that mark so many urban schools. Few urban schools will profit from vouchers, character-building curricula, or a moment of silent prayer.

Nor will the demise of top-down reform matter much to those entrepreneurs who over the last decade have established school-by-school changes and created networks of improving schools across the country. No doubt their vocabulary will accommodate the fashionable policy talk about character and instilling moral values in individual students, but their daily work in schools will continue unimpeded. James Comer, Howard Gardner, Henry Levin, Deborah Meier, Eric Shaps, Theodore Sizer, and scores of other school-based reformers will adapt to shifting political agendas. And from my perspective, it is these school-by-school and network-driven reformers that offer teachers and students, even in big cities, the best hope, albeit a frail one, of improving what happens in classrooms.

The pattern of manufacturing crises, indulging in extravagant policy talk, and using quasi-scientific evidence to support education policies is an old one in the history of American school reform. Equally familiar is the mirage mesmerizing national policymakers that their talk about top-down laws or the worship of deregulation will somehow mean that changes automatically occur in thousands of schools and hundreds of thousands of classrooms. That self-indulgent and self-blinding mirage ironically permits the hard, rewarding work of school-based reformers to continue where it counts. May they endure.

Vol. 14, Issue 27, Pages 34, 37

Published in Print: March 29, 1995, as Directions 2000: A Forum
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