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School & District Management Opinion

Losing It

By Howard Good — March 17, 2004 12 min read
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The confessions of an ex-school board president.

I was standing in front of the Education section at Barnes & Noble, scanning the tight-packed rows of books: High Schools on a Human Scale, Bridging the Achievement Gap, Why Is It So Hard to Get Good Schools? , There Are No Shortcuts, Dumbing Us Down, Children As Pawns, Testing Is Not Teaching, Inventing Better Schools,Class Dismissed. As I stood there reading the titles, I was suddenly overcome with a vast weariness. I realized something I should have realized long before: the general futility of school reform efforts. Here were all these books, shelf upon crowded shelf of hardcovers and paperbacks, propounding dozens of ideas for school improvement, but, meanwhile, educational quality continued to slip. What had made me think my own efforts were somehow exempt from the law of entropy? How could I have been so naive?

No doubt this wasn’t the best state of mind for me to be in, especially as I was trying to finish writing a book with the optimistic subtitle Rediscovering the Aims of Education. There were objective reasons, though, why my sense of optimism had collapsed like a Mideast truce. Perhaps the biggest was that only a few weeks earlier I had lost my bid for a third term on the school board. The defeat had left me feeling hurt and hollow and looking at the world with crusty eyes.

I hadn’t really wanted to run again. After six years on the board, the last three as president, I had accumulated, along with enemies and bad karma, the melancholy conviction that the stress and strain of board service outweighed the rewards. But I allowed myself to be persuaded by a few teachers, administrators, fellow board members, and neighbors that I was indispensable to the operation of the Highland Central School District. Vanity of vanities. I lost by 54 votes to an intense woman in her mid-30s who used to give my kids piano lessons. It may be a measure of the nature of her influence that they now never touch the instrument.

Although I hated to lose, there were moments when I could almost accept my loss philosophically. I told myself that maybe the system was seeking equilibrium after the many changes the board had made during my tenure. We had added full- day kindergarten, Advanced Placement courses, art and music rooms, computers, an all-weather track, foreign-language options, field trips, and more. Maybe my defeat wasn’t so much a judgment on me personally—two other incumbents also lost—as the inevitable conservative reaction to the relentless pace of change. Maybe the community had reached the limit of what it expected from its schools or could spend on them and was about to take some needed rest.

This was a comforting theory, but, deep down, where anger and bitterness at my election loss still gnawed, I didn’t believe it. Instead, I believed that I lost for random reasons: because the daily papers in the area didn’t bother to cover the race or evaluate the candidates; because three of my opponents on the ballot banded together to hire a telemarketing firm to call all the voters in the district; because public hatred of school taxes, particularly the portion that goes to pay teachers’ salaries, flared up; because critics of the superintendent had recently grown numerous, and when they took potshots at her, they often hit me, the board president, who sat beside her at meetings.

Why I lost the election is important only to me, and probably only until I get over my more serious wounds. But the consequences of a change in the makeup of a school board can affect thousands. When a board turns over, you can’t quickly right it, as you would a kayak, with an Eskimo roll. What were once top priorities may end up stuck at the bottom, and efforts to improve this program or that school may be disrupted or even abandoned. The result is wasted resources, burned-out staff, unmet goals—in Seymour B. Sarason’s telling phrase, “the predictable failure of educational reform.”

Today when I look around my district, I see the previous board’s initiatives in disarray. That is just how public education works—or, rather, why it doesn’t. While my defeat was still fresh, first the superintendent resigned and then the high school principal, both fearful that the balance of power on the board had shifted irrevocably to the idiots, paranoids, and obstructionists. Their fears have proved justified. It took six years of grinding effort to move the district forward a fraction of an inch, but no time at all for things to slide far back beyond the point from which we had started.

The near-impossibility of true educational reform has been documented in a number of studies. “If we have learned anything in recent decades,” Mr. Sarason wrote, “it is that changing mission statements, curricula procedures, or laws in no way guarantees desired outcomes.” Actually, some people haven’t learned even this much yet, the New York state board of regents among them.

In 1996, the regents adopted a plan to raise academic standards statewide. The plan required that students pass tests in six subjects—English, mathematics, science, U.S. history, global studies, and a foreign language—in order to graduate from high school. The tests were to be introduced on a rolling basis, with the students entering 9th grade in 2001 the first to have to pass all six. Originally, the passing grade for the tests was 55, but it was to jump to 65 for the English, history, and global studies tests in 2004, and for the other tests in 2005.

When a school board turns over, you can't quickly right it, as you would a kayak, with an Eskimo roll.

Only a bunch of cranky career bureaucrats in league with self-seeking politicians could possibly have come up with such a misconceived plan. Second thoughts about it arose almost immediately. A month after adopting the plan, the regents dropped the foreign-language test as one of those needed for graduation. The test was, in the words of state Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills, a “bridge too far.” Local school districts heaved a huge sigh of relief. They had always known, even if the state education department hadn’t, that for most students, foreign-language proficiency meant having enough Spanish to be able to order from the drive- through menu at Taco Bell.

Other parts of the plan have also been revised in light of the performance of actual, rather than hypothetical, students. As 2004 approached, the regents announced that 55 would remain the passing grade on the required tests for at least another two years. Mr. Mills called the adjustment “a response to the data,” giving an air of scientific rationality to what has become an out-of-control mess. The data showed that a whopping 9.9 percent of seniors statewide had scored between 55 and 64 on the tests. If the passing grade of 55 hadn’t been extended, up to 20,000 students would have been ineligible to graduate this year.

The Math A test has caused the greatest carnage. It may have claimed more victims, proportionally speaking, than the bubonic plague during the Middle Ages. All 22 students in the Beacon City School District who took the test in June 2003 failed, even though 21 of them were passing the class. The dead wagon was piled just as high in many other districts.

To its credit, the state appointed a panel of mathematicians to review the test. The panel later issued a 56-page report that recommended—you sitting?—publishing a suggested curriculum so teachers will know what to teach. If the decisionmakers at the state level actually need a panel of experts to tell them something as obvious as this, we are worse off than I thought, and I already thought we were pretty much doomed to sizzle like sausages in the flames of some educational hell.

Publishing a suggested curriculum won’t save us, but neither will ignoring the role of teachers in school reform. The studies all agree that, as one of them ungrammatically puts it, “teachers as change agents is the sine qua non of getting anywhere.” School boards can meet late into the night; state education departments can raise standards; the federal government can require annual high-stakes testing. None of it will improve schooling, though, as long as the daily interactions between teachers and students remain unchanged.

Much reform effort is designed to coerce changes in classroom practice, to overcome the perceived laziness or incompetence of teachers protected by tenure and inured to criticism. People may like their own kid’s teacher well enough, but they tend to be suspicious of teachers as a group. Many don’t even consider teaching real work, worthy of respect and a decent salary. It has been my experience that those who say they want to raise standards for students often just want to lower the boom on teachers. Bad teachers certainly exist. Sometimes I think that I had most of them growing up, and that my kids have had the rest. One morning, while I was driving my daughter Darla, an 8th grader, to school, she said, “You know, if they’re gonna make us go to school for six hours a day, they could at least give us good teachers.” What may have prompted this glum remark was an incident involving a teacher that had occurred a couple of weeks earlier.

Darla was walking down a hall in the middle school when she saw a 6th grader drop her books and papers all over the floor. She stopped and helped the younger girl gather up her stuff, and then rushed off to her next class. The bell had already rung. When she asked the teacher if she could go to the bathroom, he shook his head. “You should’ve gone before class,” he said. She tried to explain why she hadn’t. He wouldn’t listen. She sat all period squirming in her seat and fuming at the injustice done to her.

Ironically, the middle school operates, with a good deal of self-congratulatory fanfare, a character education program, Project Wisdom, that is supposed to teach students old-fashioned virtues like kindness, honesty, and respect. What Darla learned that day in class was that the program is mere talk, that it is safer to look out for yourself than to look out for others. This isn’t anything a loving parent or a functioning school system would want a child to learn. But it is the very lesson the teacher conveyed and the only one that, years later, she may remember from middle school.

Because school reformers are rarely intimately familiar with the culture of schools, they consistently underestimate the complexity of implementing their reforms. Character education, for example, is a fine idea, but that doesn’t mean teachers will implement it as intended. They may not have the skills necessary to implement it, or the incentive, or the time. It is a long, hard, unpredictable journey from idea to implementation, and most reforms get lost, or at least roughed up and robbed, on the way. Seymour Sarason and other researchers have concluded that schools change reforms— through accommodation, resistance, hybridization—more than reforms ever change schools.

One oft-proposed solution involves attracting and retaining the kinds of teachers who can make a difference in children’s lives. But where are we going to find these bright, motivated teachers? On eBay? In the personals? At schools of education, which typically have the lowest-achieving students on college campuses? And even if we did find them, could they do the job alone?

I had served long enough by then to finally realize the truth, that certain problems were intractable and would never go away.

Of course not. As Theodore R. Sizer of the Coalition of Essential Schools has pointed out, “We are stuck with a school reform game in which any change affects all, where everyone must change if anything is to change.” For reform to succeed, not only teachers must support it, but also parents, school boards, businesses, state legislatures, and the federal government. There must be money and organization to nurture it and patience to allow it to develop.

The history of school reform in the United States can be read as one continuous cautionary tale about the futility of searching for quick fixes to complex problems. Those today who push the panacea of higher standards are hardly less ludicrous than the technophiles who, in the 1930s, pushed the panacea of instruction by movies and radio, never realizing that tens of thousands of rural schools had no electricity.

We shouldn’t oversimplify the job of reforming schools. We shouldn’t confuse a change in policy with a change in practice. We shouldn’t expect the system to do us any favors, because it won’t. We shouldn’t think that adding more computers to the classroom or more frequent state tests can somehow override the devastating effects of racism, poverty, drugs, and crime on minority students. We shouldn’t fool ourselves with statistical projections and precise timetables, the soft-core porn of school reformers.

So what should we do? A few years back, David Tyack and Larry Cuban suggested “tinkering with the system,” which they saw as “one way of preserving the valuable and reworking what is not.” But most efforts at reform already constitute a kind of tinkering, now focusing on this problem, now on that, as if the system in which the problems emerge were basically sound. It isn’t, and tinkering—which Webster’s Dictionary defines as “a clumsy attempt to mend something"—won’t change that.

My own suggestion is that we blow the whole damn thing up and start over. You have probably seen TV news footage of shabby old buildings being instantly turned to rubble by implosion. Sometime during my second term on the school board, I began to entertain fantasies about similarly demolishing the system. I had served long enough by then to finally realize the truth, that certain problems were intractable and would never go away, that they were simply part of the standard operating procedures of schools.

Now that I’m off the board and able to think more calmly, it is even clearer to me that the system can’t be rehabilitated, only replaced, like a once-glamorous Las Vegas hotel that disappears with an apocalyptic bang in a dark, boiling cloud of dust and debris.

I suppose this revolutionary rhetoric makes me sound as if I just smoked the last of my stash from the ‘60s. But the current version of school reform is so conservative, so authoritarian, so inimical to children that something radically different seems necessary. We can equate testing with teaching and passing grades with learning, as federal education law does, or we can dream of alternatives. Given how much is at stake, perhaps the louder we dream, the better.

Howard Good is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York at New Paltz. His most recent book is Educated Guess: A School Board Member Reflects (Scarecrow Education, 2003).


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