School & District Management Opinion

The Cinderellas of Education Reform: Why Aren’t They Invited to the Ball?

By Anthony Cody — February 06, 2011 3 min read
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With state budgets falling short tough choices are being made for our schools. In spite of all the “students first” rhetoric, the way the various alternatives are being framed says much more about the ideology at work than what research and experience shows to be the best for children. Here are some genuine education reforms that, for some reason, have lost favor with lawmakers and their wealthy sponsors.

A recent study showed that school programs that target social and emotional learning yield significant benefits in terms of student learning.

Compared with their peers, participating students also significantly improved on five key nonacademic measures: They demonstrated greater social skills, less emotional stress and better attitudes, fewer conduct problems such as bullying and suspensions, and more-frequent positive behaviors, such as cooperation and help for other students. Also, the effects continued at least six months after the programs ended.


students who took part in social and emotional learning, or SEL, programs improved in grades and standardized-test scores by 11 percentile points compared with nonparticipating students.
Researchers were surprised by one outcome:
Simple teacher-led programs vastly outperformed multifaceted programs involving schoolwide activities and parent involvement. While classroom-based programs showed significant improvements across all five social measures and academics, comprehensive programs showed no significant effect on students' social-emotional skills or positive social behavior, and were less effective at improving academic performance.

It was the classroom teachers who were able to “move the needle” the most here.

Smaller class sizes have also been shown to be positively correlated with student success. The Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) provides eligible high poverty schools in California with additional funds to allow for smaller class sizes, additional counseling staff and time for teachers to collaborate and work on their assessment practices. This has resulted in significant growth in these schools.

News from Utah this week likewise indicates that the schools that met Federal growth targets had, on average, lower class sizes than those that did not.

And we have the indirect evidence. What do many people with money choose for their own children? Often it is the private schools, where class sizes are much smaller on average than those in the public schools.

But small class size is described as a “feel good” policy without a solid link to improved student achievement by Michelle Rhee’s Student First policy agenda, and Arne Duncan and Bill Gates have made comments recently calling for larger class sizes in response to tight budgets.

Another solid reform is programs that draw on experienced teachers as leaders, to create mentoring programs that emphasize professional growth and retention. The TeamScience program in Oakland has significantly reduced teacher turnover, and is building a culture of collaboration, where veteran teachers are highly valued for their expertise. But in the topsy-turvy world inhabited by our “reformers,” veteran teachers are a drag on the system, their masters’ degrees cost us more, but are scorned because experience and degrees do not always result in higher test scores.

These Cinderellas of education reform have all actually been shown to be positively correlated with student achievement. I should say that I do NOT believe test scores should be our primary benchmark for success, because they are such a narrow measure of learning, and miss much of what we value. The reforms I describe above rise to a much higher standard. They address the ways in which we value each child as an individual learner, and nurture them as whole humans. They respect the expertise and professional capacity of our teachers to respond to the needs of their students and create classroom environments that honor them in all their complexity.

Will those who are so insistent that we put “students first” in our decisions come forward to advocate for smaller class sizes? For the value of experienced teachers in our schools? And for social and emotional learning? All these things provide such tremendous benefits, and yes, often improve student test scores as well. Is there some reason these approaches do not seem to qualify as “reforms”?

By the way, those of us who advocate the sorts of reforms I describe here are holding our OWN ball, the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action, July 27 to 31, in Washington, DC. Come, dance with us for a real change to the status quo!

What do you think of these reforms? Why is it that these things are so often ignored in the drive to fix our schools?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.