Veteran teacher: The key failing of school reform over decades

Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post - English teacher Pat Welsh looks back on the fads that came and went. Veteran teacher Pat Welsh. (By Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Patrick Welsh was an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., for 43 years before retiring  in June. He wrote a piece for The Washington Post’s Outlook section about his experiences with failed school reform efforts over four decades, which you can read here. Here’s his bottom line:


The tug of war over standardized tests is just the latest round of a struggle I’ve watched many times before. In the four decades between when I started teaching English at T.C. in 1970 and my retirement this year, I saw countless reforms come and go; some even returned years later disguised in new education lingo. Some that were touted as “best practices” couldn’t work, given Alexandria’s demographics. Others were nothing but common-sense bromides hyped as revolutionary epiphanies. All of them failed to do what I believe to be key to teaching: to make students care about what they’re studying and understand how it’s relevant to their lives.


None of the reforms Welsh and everyone else has lived through managed to transform the curriculum so that kids actually wanted to be in school and learn.

Welsh starts with the first reform in which he was involved, starting in 1971, which was his second year at T.C. Williams. That was when the 11th and 12th grades of the city’s three high schools came together at T.C. Williams, “a way to achieve full integration of black and white students while avoiding the inflammatory issue of who got bussed where.” Next came the reform wave sparked by the 1983 “Nation at Risk” report, which essentially said the future of the country was being threatened by America’s mediocre public schools.

I didn’t buy it. If schools were in such horrible shape, how was it possible that immigrant students — from Korea, Vietnam, Iran and other trouble spots around the globe — could enter T.C. Williams speaking little or no English and end up at top universities? Granted, there was then, as there is now, a crisis of poverty among children, and schools struggled to make headway against a persistent achievement gap. But that didn’t warrant an indictment of the entire American education system.

There’s plenty more. Read the whole thing.


Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · September 29, 2013

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