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School & District Management Opinion

The End of School Reform

By Peter Temes — April 04, 2001 5 min read
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We have spent billions on school reform programs to answer the question, “Can our schools be made great?” And the answer has been a resounding “Maybe.”

The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation is about to stop giving grants to support school reform. Why? Because the foundation has come to the reluctant conclusion that large-scale school reform might not work. Clark Foundation President Michael A. Bailin questions whether the millions his foundation has spent on large-scale reform programs have had lasting impact. "[T]alk about something that’s hard to do—try to change a system. Even under the best of circumstances,” he says, “it can absorb or co-opt the energy of the reformers.” The foundation’s new view is entirely consistent with the scene described recently in these pages by my teacher and colleague Lew Smith: a room full of educators confessing that, in the end, they really don’t think much change in their schools is possible. (“Can Schools Really Change?,” Feb. 7, 2001.)

Remarkable observations, and they point to wasted effort on a stunning scale by the tens of thousands of people, professionals and parents, young and old, dedicating their time, their money, and their spirits to large-scale school reform. But such observations are hardly surprising. We have spent billions on school reform programs in this country in the past decade to answer the question, “Can our schools be made great?” And the answer has been a resounding “Maybe.” Just about everyone who has worked in schools over time has heard this echoing ambivalence of our educational institutions.

The good news is that it matters relatively little whether we can craft great institutions out of our existing schools. Schools, after all, are only institutions; education is the work of educators, not the work of schools, which only enable but do not deliver education. Put another way, good schools are often necessary for excellent education, but they are never sufficient for excellent education. Once the classroom door closes, once the lesson begins, once the student steps toward the teacher asking for help, it is all up to the teacher, not the school. Good schools help; great schools help more; but great teachers are the far more precious commodity.

Broader systems do matter to the degree that they impact how, and how well, teachers teach, but not much beyond that. And as the Clark Foundation has discovered, addressing the system rather than the specific actions of individual teachers leads us to commit the cardinal sin of educators: confusing treatment with cure. In the long run, how hard schools try, how elegantly they are structured or restructured, matters not at all. What matters is the experience of the student. To say that a school is wonderful but the students aren’t learning what they should learn is obviously silly. But why, then, the enduring phrase—and philosophy—of “school reform”? The old joke about the man who looks for his lost watch in his kitchen, though he lost it in his living room, has special relevance here. Why look in the kitchen? Because the light is better there. And, for better or worse, the task of fixing a school is concrete enough to be measured and controlled far more easily than one can measure and control the task of reforming something as elusive and abstract as a student’s personal experience of learning. That clarity of process attracts the work of school reformers just as the good light attracts the hunter of lost watches. It is simply easier to treat the institution than it is to treat the student experience, because working with the concrete is so much easier than working with the abstract. Ask a student what a school is, and that student will point to the building on the corner. Where will the student point, after all, when asked, “What is your education?”


For the Clark Foundation, for the massed armies of school reformers, and for the rest of us, I have only one bit of advice to aid escape from the futilities of School Reform: Stop trying to make schools great schools, and take up the task of trying to make teachers great teachers. Never in my life have I heard a friend or colleague say, “That school changed my life.” Hundreds of times I have heard people I respect say, “That teacher changed my life.” And it goes without saying that great teachers are doubly precious in lousy schools. So let us work at the particulate level of helping teachers teach better, and let us succeed at that task before we take up the next one.

Stop trying to make schools great schools, and take up the task of trying to make teachers great teachers.

That, in fact, is the work of my foundation. Our staff members train teachers to teach challenging texts to all students through shared inquiry, by asking smart questions, and listening to students with great skill. We engage in school reform teacher by teacher, and have trained more than 150,000 teachers in the past decade. One of the great pleasures my colleagues and I have is to run across teachers we have trained years ago who talk about the ways they have used and refined the teaching methods we shared with them over years of classroom work, with thousands of students. Teachers we’ve trained have become principals, superintendents, even secretaries of education. I’ve tried an unscientific experiment with a few dozen of these teachers in recent days. “What’s the very best thing a new program at your school can do?” I’ve asked. Few said that the best thing would be improvement in their schools. But again and again, these teachers told me that what they really hoped for was to become better teachers. These people know that the bigger challenge of fixing schools is important, but it is far less real—for themselves and for their students—than the daily human impact they have as teachers.

A friend who recently retired as a district superintendent on the West Coast said essentially the same thing to me, in different terms. “The very best thing you can do for a superintendent,” he said, “is not to give him more money, more buildings, or a better contract. Instead, give him a tool to make his average teachers just a little bit better, and you’ll see a vastly greater impact across the district than any model school or blue-ribbon program will ever bring.”

Thinking as a parent, I recognize how right these educators are. Far too often, I’ve counseled one of my children to find the personal patience to wait out a weak teacher-a wait that generally takes a full school year, even within some of the best school districts in the country. It does not matter at all to my daughter that her school wins awards and is brilliantly managed by a dedicated and intelligent principal when she’s stuck for a year with a teacher who is simply mediocre. But help that teacher to become a better teacher—let us hope, a great teacher— and no matter where that teacher teaches, there will be hope.


Peter Temes is the president of the Great Books Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization in Chicago.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2001 edition of Education Week as The End of School Reform

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