School reform: The problems — and some solutions

I recently published an excerpt from a new book titled “Public Education Under Siege” edited by University of Pennsylvania historian Michael B. Katz and UCLA education scholar Mike Rose.  The book is a series of essays that discuss he problems with technocratic educational reform; the intersection of education, race, and poverty; and alternatives to modern school reform. Here is a Q & A I did with the authors about their book and public education today.

Q) Why did you write “Public Education Under Siege”?
A) Well, maybe the best way to answer that question is with an example from the news.  At the end of July, the Walton Family Foundation (the philanthropist arm of Walmart) donated $20 million to Teach For America to recruit and train close to 4000 teachers to work in underresourced schools across the country.  The largest percentage of these recruits will be coming to Los Angeles, where one of us lives.  If the past is prologue, most of the new TFA crew will work in L.A. charter schools.  There’s a lot about this story that is good news, right?  The Walton Foundation is spending its fortune and shining its considerable spotlight on education, and Los Angeles will get at least 500 sharp, idealistic young people in its schools.  This scenario fits well in the current mainstream school reform agenda.  But the story also raises for us a host of questions about contemporary reform, and we produced “Public Education Under Siege” as a kind of sourcebook to use in exploring those questions.

 Q) So what are those questions?
 A)  One set of questions has to do with teaching itself: What does it involve?  What does it take to nurture it and do it—and how can we determine when it is done well?  A related set of questions has to do with understanding and sensibility about race and class, for many young teachers—like those TFA recruits—will be working in communities quite unfamiliar to them.  Race, class, and the economic and social history of schools matter.  The TFA story raises yet another question for us: What do underresourced schools in low-income communities need?  They certainly need teachers and principals who can commit to them, come to know them well and stay with them, for turnover and instability plague them.  Because so many of their students carry big burdens, these schools also need multiple integrated services: health care, legal aid, social work, and so on.

Finally, we believe in the old journalist’s dictum: follow the money.  Private philanthropies are more deeply involved in public education than ever before—and that could be a blessing, especially in these budget cutting times—but are there agendas behind the money?  The Walton Foundation has a record of support for charter schools and school vouchers, and the corporation financing the foundation is strongly anti-union.  If the influx of TFA recruits enter charter schools, that de facto further strengthens charters and, as well, directly or indirectly displaces local teachers, some of whom are highly qualified—exactly the teachers school reformers desire.  So a private foundation is directly influencing public education policy and practice.

What we did in “Public Education Under Siege” was enlist people who have thought long and hard about issues like these and had them write short, accessible articles that lay out the fuller policy deliberations we should be having, deliberations that include the nature of teaching and learning; race, class, and inequality; the goals of education in a democracy; teachers unions, school governance, and parent involvement; school finance; education and the criminal justice system; and the role of private philanthropy in public education.

Q) Why aren’t these issues part of the school reform discussion?
 A)  Well, there’s political reasons, certainly.  There is such reluctance to bring up issues of race or class, for example.  You’re accused of playing the race card or of engaging in class warfare—and the discussion stalls there.  Also, there are a lot of people and moving parts in contemporary school reform, and some of the conservative players have agendas, like vouchers and privatization, that can benefit from narrowly defining public school accountability.

But we also think that the core ideas driving mainstream reform—a faith in market-based solutions, a belief in technical fixes, like high stakes testing, a down-playing, even disregard, for teacher education and experience—put powerful blinders on reformers, many of whom are well intentioned and do care abut the awful education received by poor kids.  The market-technocratic orientation can make it hard to appreciate, let alone understand, history, culture, and social context as well as the intricacies of teaching and classroom life.

 Q)  How did this set of beliefs take hold, even among some liberals who previously had recognized that the public education system should be run as a civic institution rather than a business?
 A) Multiple reasons, really.  In general, in American politics there’s been a shift toward the Right going on since the Reagan presidency.  And even before that, there’s been a growing attraction toward market-based solutions to public policy problems.  This embrace of market models, and along with it a technological orientation to social issues, has become increasingly bi-partisan.  It’s the new wisdom.

Partly, this move toward market solutions has been guided by a long-term and, frankly, masterful effort by conservatives, libertarians, and free-marketers to craft arguments, taking points, narratives, and policy briefs in support of this market orientation.  And schools have been in their sights for a long time. And partly, there’s legitimate frustration that we all share with the poor education a lot of kids receive, typically the most vulnerable children in our society.  Mainstream reformers are looking for new solutions, and the kinds of market-oriented, technocratic solutions we’ve been discussing have the appeal of the new and the spirit of the times behind them.  We get their frustration, but think that some of their solutions create more problems than they solve.

 Q) Speaking of solutions, do any of the writers in the book have any ideas about what needs to be done instead?
A) Yes, absolutely.  Different writers have different goals, and we think all are important.  In some instances, they want to demonstrate through data, classroom illustrations, or historical and social analysis why a particular aspect of reform is wrong-headed or could have bad unintended consequences.  For example, the problems with over-reliance on standardized test scores as a measure of student achievement, or the limitations of “Value Added” methods of assessing teacher effectiveness, or the way “choice” can contribute to resegregation.

In other cases, the writers argue that mainstream reformers don’t go far enough in implementing the goals they espouse.  Reformers want to reduce the achievement gap, for example, but downplay the role of poverty in academic achievement, thereby limiting the kinds of interventions they create.  Or reformers embrace a civil rights rhetoric but don’t honor the call of the Civil Rights Movement for economic justice as well as educational access and equity. And in yet other cases, the writers want to shine a light on issues that are rarely if ever discussed in mainstream school reform, such as the role the increased criminalizing of students has on achievement, or the negative effect our lack of informed national language policy has on English Language Learners.

A number of the writers present alternative solutions to the problems that plague our schools and, more generally, offer alternative visions of reform.  There are discussions of a fuller set of goals for education in a democracy—the civic, social, intellectual, and moral, as well as economic, human capital goal that dominates current educational policy.  And we get to see classrooms in which this fuller purpose plays out.  We get to see examples, both in a regular public school and a charter school, of leadership that resists the test-driven pressures of the time and creates rich learning environments for poor kids.

Several writers offer a different vision of teacher development and assessment, ones closer to the actual work that teachers do.  And several writers offer different models of teacher unionization.  There are also discussions—based on community work in New York and Los Angeles—of organizing parents, assisting them in gaining a voice in their schools.  And there is an argument for raising again the truly big issue blocking educational equality: school finance reform.

At times it feels like the current reform movement is a runaway train—a very well-fueled, fast-moving, powerful one.  But there are increasing counter-voices to it, from local anti-testing movements to broader national organizations.  We need to create a coherent, compelling alternative vision, a different story that includes both critique and exemplar.  We hope that the writers in this book collectively contribute to that story.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · August 27, 2013