Revisionism and Reform

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Those in every generation of Americans who seek social change, from our founding fathers and turn-of-the-century Progressives to 1960s radicals and today's supporters of "reinventing government," can be divided into two groups--reformers and revisionists. While reformers attempt to build utopia from scratch, believing the current institution is beyond repair, revisionists work to improve the effectiveness of an institution from within, strengthening the strongest elements and fixing those that are most off track. Both types of change are needed for lasting improvement to occur. Yet, by competing for funds and political support, education's reformers and revisionists operate as if they were two trains on a collision course instead of on two tracks to the same goal.

In education, reformers often assume our whole system of schooling has failed and try to make a radical break from the way education has been organized and delivered in the past. Confronted with the typical American school--800 children in an aging, decaying building with outdated textbooks, few computers, and not enough money--reformers tend to focus on the students, not the schools. Their plans, from vouchers and privatization to charter schools and magnet schools, take students out of existing schools and into a radically different model of schooling. Frequently outsiders, reformers distrust the ability or willingness of teachers and administrators to make changes on their own. Such reformers, from Chester E. Finn Jr. to Theodore R. Sizer, call for the development of new research, programs, and schools. This abandons the resources and experience already in the schools.

While reinventing schools creates more visible evidence for change, revisionist approaches may affect more students, produce greater educational improvement in a larger number of schools, and win more support for change inside the schools. Unlike reformers who stress new ways of doing things, revisionists stress making better use of what already exists, including applying the results of standardized tests to the classroom, using new forms of portfolio assessment, establishing higher standards for all students with extra help to meet these higher expectations, and introducing greater accountability with real consequences for students and teachers.

Since revisionists see the school as the basic unit of education, they tend to look at the school's structure and staff to see how they could use their resources more effectively and provide a better education for the school's students. Writing in these pages, Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, put this view in perspective: "Getting Americans to adapt the key elements of 'traditional' school systems that are more successful than our own is no less a revolutionary task than school restructuring," he noted. "Why? Because those 'traditional' elements mostly do not exist here: safe and orderly schools, rigorous academic standards, assessments based on those standards, incentives for students to work hard in school, and genuine professional accountability." (See Education Week Feb. 21, 1996.) Like Mr. Shanker and myself, revisionists believe we must first get our current house in order through higher standards and better teaching before we see if we need to move to newer quarters.

Revisionists' suspicion of radical plans and totally new designs does not mean that they reject large-scale change or advocate temporary patches. Instead, believing schools' staffs want to improve but just need help, revisionists work with those in the school, learning their needs and helping them accomplish their goals. This approach encourages teachers and administrators to help make changes succeed, rather than oppose them. My own experience assisting schools in minority and low-income neighborhoods through the nonprofit group Ventures In Education shows that revisionism can work; teachers can be encouraged to try better ways of instruction, and existing schools can increase their performance by raising standards and expectations for all students.

Revisionists believe that the reformers' measures change only one school at a time, serve too few students, and often drain resources available for the vast majority of students who are not in reinvented schools. While reformers claim competition will spur the public schools to improve, this does not occur in urban and rural districts. When I worked with the Macy Foundation in New York City to help minority high school students prepare for medical school by creating special courses with intensive work in math and science, the large number of students we turned away (4,000 to 6,000 applied for classes of 100 to 150) did not lead other nearby schools to institute similarly enhanced programs. I believe that competition from "reinvented" and "New American Schools" likewise will produce no lasting changes in their neighboring schools.

Too often, their different premises and strategies cause both of these factions to fail to understand each other and to misinterpret their goals. Reformers, believing there is something fundamentally wrong with the politics, finances, structure, and methods of our current education system, assume that revisionists are simply advocating a weaker, more gradual version of their own reform. They wonder why revisionists admit there is a problem but want to rely on those who created the problem to fix it. However, revisionists believe that education's base provides a useful starting point, even though in need of repairs, and do not believe broad-based change can be sustained when the rule book is thrown away. They see the reformers as trying to escape the problems--by creating separate schools and programs--rather than fixing them. Because they share the rhetoric and goals of change, but have different premises and approaches, these two sides misinterpret each other's methods and direction.

The truth is that two lines of attack have a greater chance of success than one alone. Instead of competing for the same support and attacking each other for having distorted mirrors of their own plans, both groups would multiply their effectiveness by working together for their shared goal.

The most effective improvements require blending the best reform ideas with more practical revisionist approaches. We can see this in other fields. Many small farm communities in the Midwest, for example, have been forced to confront the problems of smaller profits, the threat of agribusiness, and large numbers of their children moving to the city in search of jobs. Rather than surrendering and becoming far outposts of suburbia or letting themselves die out by refusing to change, many of these communities built on their sense of community and mutual interdependence and found better, more efficient ways to carry out their traditions. Similarly, successful factories in our post-industrial age have retained their hard hats and punch-clocks while simultaneously giving their line workers greater authority to make suggestions and improve the process. Although one car maker, Saturn, claims to have reinvented automobile manufacturing, the others retooled their factories, made revisions throughout the system, and regained international competitiveness.

When the impulses for reform and revisionism do not coexist, change often fails. The health-care debate of 1994 led nowhere, in part because the public's demand for change was squandered by reformers with elaborate plans to completely restructure the health-care system. Had the reformers proposed more revisionist measures to improve existing forms, they might well have reached a sustainable compromise instead of leaving the country with the old, flawed policy we still have today.

Similarly, the best way to providing a better education for America's children combines school reform and revision. Even if every reform network, every new program, were to double in size overnight and be instantly successful, that would still leave most children trapped in poorly performing schools. That's why the reformers also need the revisionists to make existing schools more successful. Working together, reformers can concentrate on long-term change by piloting new models and redesigning schools to learn what works while revisionists work within the system, enhancing schools and the skills of teachers and administrators to make them comfortable with change and able to improve the education of today's students. Through teamwork, revisionists can restore the foundations of public education while reformers take that base and expand in new directions.

David Korten, writing about international development in When Corporations Rule the World, says that it is almost always better for countries to develop their own human, institutional, and technical capital than to rely on outside investment that can "prevent real development and even break down the existing capabilities of a people to sustain themselves." This rule also applies for the real world inside schools. For a change to succeed, it must emerge out of the school members' real concerns and become an integral part of the school or educational system by tapping into people's talents and abilities and then developing them further. Just as countries like Korea and Taiwan became first-world economic powers by building up their intellectual resources, schools seeking to transform themselves into academic powerhouses must enhance their staffs' resources and abilities, rather than depending on outside programs influenced by political ideology and pressures by funders seeking quick results.

Despite the misconceptions of both reformers and revisionists, broad, long-lasting improvements depend on both approaches working collaboratively and separately. The education world needs the big visionary ideas and new school-by-school models as well as the quietly effective revisions and changes that spread across schools. And those who build their own schools or enter schools laden with plans and programs are as important to school improvement as those who strive to develop schools' own capacities to change.

These two improvement movements meet wherever schooling and students needs intersect. Instead of using their differences on policy and structure to fight each other, reformers and revisionists should return their attention to the school and the student. Teachers and students do not care if a change is a revision or reform, as long as it helps them teach and learn better.

Vol. 15, Issue 31, Pages 38, 41

Published in Print: April 24, 1996, as Revisionism and Reform
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