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Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 10/20/2010

Threats to school reform ... are within school reform

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Mike Rose, who is on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and is the author of “Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America" and "Why School?: Reclaiming Education for all of Us.”

By Mike Rose
Here’s an all-too-familiar storyline about reform, from education to agricultural development: The reform has run its course, has not achieved its goals, and the reformers and other analysts speculate in policy briefs or opinion pages about what went wrong. The interesting thing is that the reform’s flaws were usually evident from the beginning.

As someone who has lived through several periods of educational reform and has studied schools and taught for a long time, I see characteristics of the current reform movement, as powerful as it is, that could lead to unintended and undesirable consequences. But when reform is going strong it can become a closed ideological system, deaf to the cautionary tale.

I have six areas of concern:

Tone down the rhetoric
In the manifesto “How to Fix Our Schools” published on October 10 in The Washington Post, New York City’s chancellor, Joel Klein and 14 colleagues wrote: “It’s time for all the adults – superintendents, educators, elected officials, labor unions, and parents alike – to start acting like we are responsible for the future of our children.” The collective “we” is used here, but it’s pretty clear rhetorically that the signatories believe that they are already on the side of the angels. Anyone who is not on board with their reforms is acting out of self interest.

This is not the way to foster the unified effort called for in the sentence. Reformers have been masterful at characterizing anyone who differs from their approach as “traditionalists” who want to maintain the status quo, putting their own retrograde professional interests ahead of the good of children. Teachers unions are the arch-villain in this Manichean tale of good and evil, and schools of education are right behind.

I’m reminded of the toxic rhetoric of patriotism that characterized the 2008 presidential campaign. So, if I may, in the interest of the children, I suggest a less adversarial language. Many of the people on the receiving end of it have spent a lifetime working for the same goals voiced by the reformers, and the reformers need their expertise.

There is another language issue, and that’s the unrelenting characterization of public schools as failures. To be sure, this crisis rhetoric predates the current reformers, going back to the 1983 document “A Nation at Risk.” Since then, the language of crisis and failure has intensified. Crisis talk can give rise to action, but heard consistently enough and long enough, such rhetoric can also lead to despair and paralysis.

There is a crisis in American education, and it involves mostly poor children, and thus it is a moral as well as educational outrage. But it is just not accurate to characterize public education itself as being in a 30-year crisis.

I can’t tell you how many professional people I meet who, upon finding out what I do, erupt with damning statements about public schools: they are a catastrophe, we are doomed, the situation is hopeless. What is telling is that they are not speaking from experience; they don’t have kids, or their kids are in private school, or are grown. They are voicing the new common sense. Unless you’re in the free market camp of the reform movement, this reaction is not good news, for it suggests hopelessness and withdrawal from support for public education.

The problem with “cleaning house”
Some districts are so dysfunctional that clearing them out seems the best option. But the history of reform in education – and other domains as well – reveals the shortsightedness of such action.

In even the most beleaguered school district there are good teachers and administrators, and their skills and local wisdom are tossed out in the clean sweep. And in most communities there are grass roots movements to improve the schools, and they are typically ignored.

Finally, this approach predictably is going to piss people off, not only those who are part of the problem, but many others in the community as well. No one likes to be pushed around – as the voters in Washington D.C. just demonstrated. Clean sweep reform shakes things up and attracts the media, which might be useful. But these tactics can generate more heat than light. Though it is tedious and calls for great skill, a more targeted and discriminating approach that builds on what is good has a better chance of long-term success.

Be careful of the "Big Idea"
Reformers are often driven by a big idea, a grand process or structure that will transform the status quo. Not too long ago, the big idea in education reform was turning large schools into small ones. For No Child Left Behind it was a system of high-stakes tests that would drive achievement. One appealing big idea today is charter schools.

The problem with the big idea approach to school reform is that large-scale educational problems have more than one cause and thus require more than one solution.

The mother of big ideas in contemporary school reform is the belief that we can capture dynamic phenomena like learning or teaching with a few numerical measures. This is the logical fallacy of reification, and the last century of psychological science is filled with unfortunate examples, as Stephen J. Gould trenchantly observed in The Mismeasure of Man.

Though most reformers acknowledge the problems with NCLB, they continue to try to build a better technocratic mousetrap, not questioning the assumptions behind their use of testing and accountability systems. We’re seeing all this play out with currently popular "value added" methods of evaluating teachers as reformers ignore the concerns raised by statisticians and measurement experts.

One more manifestation of this way of thinking is the attempt to develop quantitative models of teacher effectiveness. In a nutshell, the approach attempts to pinpoint specific teaching behaviors and qualities and correlate them with a numerical measure of student achievement.

There’s another logical problem here, the reductive fallacy –the attempt to explain a complex phenomenon by reducing it to its basic components. Even if researchers are able to specify a wide range of behaviors and qualities, the further problem is that it’s likely, given the history of such attempts, that the result will be a small number of significant correlations with the measure of achievement – which itself might be flawed.

We’ll end up with a thin composite of good teaching.

We just witnessed with NCLB the way high-stakes testing can narrow what gets taught; a reductive model of teacher effectiveness could lead to a corresponding narrowing of teaching itself.

Focus on instruction
It is characteristic of contemporary school reform to focus on organizational structure and broad testing and accountability systems, but change at that level is a necessary but not sufficient condition for reform. As Deborah Meier, the maven of the original small schools movement, once said: You can have crappy small schools too. What goes on in the classroom makes all the difference.

It could be argued that standardized tests give us a window onto learning, but it is a pretty narrow window, distant from the cognitive give and take of instruction.

And it could also be said that aforementioned measures of teacher effectiveness will bring characteristics of good teachers to the fore. Even if they work, these methods won’t help us think about curriculum, the organization of the classroom, what we want students to do intellectually, how we address academic under-preparation, and so on.

Instruction is the gigantic missing element in reform, and without it, all the structural changes in the world won’t get us very far.

Privileging youth over experience
Reformers have a tendency to downplay the value of experience and to celebrate the new. You will rarely see a career public school teacher featured in reform media, but will see young teachers in KIPP schools or Teach for America volunteers.

Furthermore, ask yourself, when in a reform document have you found reference to the rich Western tradition of educational thought, from Plato through Horace Mann and W.E.B. DuBois to the 20th century treasure trove of research on learning. It seems that the reform movement’s managerial-technocratic orientation has an anti-intellectual streak to it.

I greatly admire the young people who sign up for Teach for America or work diligently in schools like KIPP. I began my career in education via an earlier alternative program, Teacher Corps, so I know the exhilaration and challenge. But I also know how green I was, and how the wisdom of veteran teachers saved me from big blunders.

What I’m concerned about is the way young teachers are used in reform publicity, what they symbolize. The message is not simply the accurate one that we need to attract bright and committed young people to teaching, but that the new and the alternative will save our schools.

In what other profession would such an appeal be made? Can you imagine proposals to staff hospitals with biology majors or the courts with pre-law graduates?

Merit pay could be related to experience, though many merit pay schemes link pay to test scores. The original Race to the Top proposal did mention professional development and career trajectories, though I haven’t read much more since. This cult of the new is interwoven with the reformers’ attempts to remove seniority and to not consider teachers’ academic credentials.

However these issues play out in management-union negotiations, reformers are going to have to develop ways to draw on experience and expertise, not with add-on rewards but as central to the reform enterprise.

Don’t downplay poverty
Low socioeconomic status does not condemn a child to low achievement. This fact has led some reformers to downplay – and in some cases dismiss – the harmful effect poverty can have on the lives of children in school. To raise the issue of poverty is to risk being accused of making excuses or of harboring “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

I grew up poor and have worked a fair amount of my life with low-income students. To be poor affects everything from health to housing – which weighs mightily on children.

There is also the extraordinary gap in educational resources. While a poor kid is trying to work through an outdated textbook at the kitchen table, his affluent peer across town is being tutored in algebra in her own room. Only someone who hasn’t been poor could say that all this can be overcome by school. It is telling that the Harlem Children’s Zone, a rightfully celebrated crown jewel of reform, incorporates health and social services with schooling.

Reformers slip into either/or thinking here. They are right to insist that schools provide poor kids with a top-flight education, but to insist on excellence does not require negating the brutal realities of being poor in America.

If education involves children’s psychological and social as well as cognitive well-being, then we have to address poverty, and the reformers have an unprecedented bully pulpit from which to do it.

Wealth and income gaps are widening in the United States, and no less a figure than Warren Buffet observed that we’re in the middle of class warfare, and the rich are winning.

Which is all the more reason to get school reform right this time.

I'd like to thank Megan Franke, Kris Gutierrez, Felipe Martinez, Janelle Scott and Matt Stevens for their help.


Follow my blog every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | October 20, 2010; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Mike Rose, No Child Left Behind, Performance pay, Race to the Top, School turnarounds/reform, Teacher assessment, Teachers  | Tags:  Harlem children's zone, KPP, Teach for America, a nation at risk, curriculum, deborah meier, how to fix our schools, joel klein, manifesto, mike rose, narrowing of curriculum, no child left behind, poverty and schools, race to the top, reform manifesto, school reform, stephen j. gould  
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"Crisis talk can give rise to action, but heard consistently enough and long enough, such rhetoric can also lead to despair and paralysis."

And what must our children think hearing this day in, day out for years. Yeah- I would really value my public school experience.

Posted by: altaego60 | October 20, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

From my personal and teaching experiences, every thought that Mike Rose has presented here has the substance badly needed when considering the needed improvements in Public Education. Understanding the links between our economic times and student's learning is crucial:

"Wealth and income gaps are widening in the United States, and no less a figure than Warren Buffet observed that we’re in the middle of class war, and the rich are winning." (from Mike's article)

It's not just that the rich are winning, but that our MIDDLE CLASS, which has shouldered so much in the evolution of our country's short history, is rapidly shrinking, and we are taking on the societal structure of a 3rd world country.

Just one example:
Not so long ago, much of our children's learning depended on the expectation that middle class parents would be the primary backup to the lessons presented in school and other needs. Most middle class parents a generation or two ago put many hours into monitoring their children's homework, contributing endless hours to PTA concerns and fund-raising, volunteering in classrooms, etc. etc. With most parents working outside the home and/or losing jobs, that valiant workforce has been much diminished not by lack of desire, but lack of sheer energy, time and resources.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | October 20, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

Mike Rose hits all the big issues in this article. Nice job.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 20, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

I agree; Mike Rose has done a nice job here summing up the main points to be concerned about.

I especially liked his sections on Privileging youth over experience and Be careful of the "Big Idea."

Posted by: DHume1 | October 20, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Another great article posted by Valerie Strauss. But as usual, you can count on the power brokers in the reform movement to ignore it because it was written by someone in education.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 20, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, great job. Put it all together and you get: no change. Oh, please wait a few decades til we think it through. Don't risk peeving anyone. Yeah. Meanwhile, another generation or two gets cheated out of a good education because the teachers and the ed. schools can't get their acts together. Study-dither-complain-get raise/get grant-study-dither-complain-get raise/get grant. Well done.

Posted by: axolotl | October 20, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

@axoloti: Just because a school system chooses not to enact the particular reforms pushed by the corporate "reformers" doesn't mean that they are not enacting reform. There are other kinds of reform and those reforms that engage all the stakeholders have a better chance of working over the long term because they get the buy in from those who are expected to carry out the reforms. Refusing to follow the "acceptable" reforms--those that are approved by the billionaires (merit pay base on test scores, more testing and charter schools)-- doesn't mean adherence to the status quo. That's a favorite sound bite of the reformers and it simply isn't true in many (probably most) cases. I teach in Montgomery Co. and we've been recognized for a lot of the changes we've made. They aren't the same changes attempted in DC, however and they shouldn't be. Why does education have to be one-size-fits-all? That really just doesn't work when your product is people! Also--It sure is a lot easier to engage in the task of improving student performance when one is treated like a professional and shown some respect.

Posted by: musiclady | October 20, 2010 7:57 PM | Report abuse


It seems that all you have to offer here is, well, the same old stuff: sarcastic complaints about what Strauss posts. It would be useful if you at least gave me and everyone else in this blog world an idea about what you think "would work." Your bitter sarcasm and hyperbolic comments make your points sound uninformed and sophomoric.

In fact, read your last post again. Notice the short bursting thoughts, the interrupted thoughts, and the incomplete thoughts. This style of writing is similar to what people do when they throw tantrums. Dictate the next tantrum you hear. The style and the structure is uncannily parallel.

Posted by: DHume1 | October 20, 2010 7:58 PM | Report abuse

Dhume1 -- a failed psychologist, I see, with a tendency for the moronic, if not just freshmanic. Perhaps also against reforming the schools because you don't have to, as you see it. I see the S70 (S60?), or perhaps a starter Mercedes, in the short driveway of your Reston or Bethesda home. Your wife, a government lawyer, having it all. Your kids in a good school, and hoping to go to a second-tier college. You are training for that half-marathon, or is it, tae kwon do with your daughter. Aha, you can forget about school reform in the Nation's Capital.

What would work in the DC schools: strengthening teacher evaluation to make it more useful and defensible, limit the time devoted to teaching to the test. Continue to strengthen the teacher corps--professional dev for those with promise. Don't invest in the weak ones. Remove about half of today's principals. Ensure that school building rehab and new construction is as evenly spread as possible across the wards. Hire a new supt. with better communications skills than Rhee. Call the bluff of the sped lobbyists and lawyers who are draining the budget. Have a parent-teacher task force review and refine the curriculum and make sure it is used consistently; do not hire consultants except in minor advisory roles. Hold the selfish teachers union to the contract its members recently approved overwhelmingly. Encourage charters, but decertify those that appear weak. Regardless, do not re-establish a board of education, proven to be incompetent and unresponsive for all the years we had one. I've said all this before, DHume1.

Posted by: axolotl | October 20, 2010 8:29 PM | Report abuse


Thank you. And I've succeeded.

Now I can see where we definitely agree and disagree. This is what rhetors call stasis, the narrowing of what each position actually is.

I am sorry that I asked for you to repeat what you have already stated before. I just haven't actually seen it through the stink of me-against-you junior highpomatic banter in your last 10 or so posts on Strauss's blog. Go back and look at them. They are all about the same.

Posted by: DHume1 | October 21, 2010 12:33 AM | Report abuse

And, David, I apologize for jangling your sensibilities, but you gotta toughen up to play in these blogues. As for tantrums, I rarely encounter them, but that is partly because I am somewhat insulated from them. For someone like you who is so into tantrums in a clinical way, I suggest your recalibrate your detector, update the bogus info on written communication (v. voiced) patterns, and lean back a bit on the projection mechanism. I look forward, placidly, to our next exchange.

Posted by: axolotl | October 21, 2010 8:01 AM | Report abuse


That's okay. My sensibilities were never jangled. But my ability, I must admit, to see sense in your various post utterances was jostled. It is difficult to recalibrate a detector when much of what I read from your discourse is "full of sound and fury" from an insulated individual. Your comments certainly lead me to believe there is a tell-tale sign there that "signifies nothing." I wonder if the rest of the passage from Macbeth holds true about you, too.

Posted by: DHume1 | October 21, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse

Actually, Valerie, oops, I mean Mike, instruction is at the core of reform. Not the type of theoretical hocus pocus found in most ed schools, but the practice of instructing the hardest class rooms in the nation. In my seven years working with charter schools instruction was number one, in my year of working in a NYC public school, the best instructional advice I received was that I needed to move around the class more. Please.

Posted by: delray | October 21, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Super article! Too often reformers use scare tactics like the politically-correct police to force you follow along or be condemned. While reform is often necessary to use current knowledge to better address a need, a start-from-scratch approach is not always the best method.
There are many things that work, and have worked for education, but reformers are unwilling to continue these practices because they are not "new and improved". Sometimes the best way to learn is hard work and memorization. We managed to create a nation full of brilliant scientists, business leaders, innovators, etc. using methods from long ago. Maybe there is something to those practices.
Many of our current educational problems can be traced to LAZY. Students don't want to do the work necessary to learn. Parents don't want to do the work necessary to assist their children to learn.
Some children do have advantages when they start out in life. There are enough assists to make up for most of those advantages if students simply work hard and do their best. We see so many inspirational stories about those from meager beginnings who succeed. If they did it, why can't so many others? Their stories always involve personal/family sacrifice and hard work.
Quit whining and get busy.

Posted by: CommonJoe2 | October 21, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse


The insulation, such as it is, is from a few gentle, collegial barriers below and inside. I am completely exposed both ways to the outside, up and sideways, painfully so at times. I take my share of flak, but can't remember the last tantrum received or inflicted. I sense you don't know what real sturm und drang is, given what you do; being a half-empty kind of person does not help you. Try taking 2 mg of Hu and call me in the morning.

Posted by: axolotl | October 21, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse


Actually a lot of reformers use old school tactics to teach and take the best of what has worked for years both in and out of the classroom, they just realize that sometimes you get what you get in a classroom and still have to try to make it work. Reformers don't want only the newest tactics and reformers don't hate teachers (most of the reformers I know aren't sitting in a Microsoft office, they teach).
You have, of course, used the other sides brand of scare tactic because you know that a majority of people are scared of change. Politically correct? That's the Ayers/Klonsky calling card.

Posted by: delray | October 21, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse


You're right. I'm not a great fan of Goethe or Schiller either. The characters are usually highly conceited and the writing style sounds like the narrator cannot do anything but whine. I never liked the stuff. You're the first person I found who does. I guess we all have to emulate someone, though. You might as well take on the characteristics of name-calling teenager yelling at the world.

Posted by: DHume1 | October 21, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

The so called "educational reform" we are experiencing is obviously destine to fail.
I'm wondering how we're going to pick up the mess.

It was recently anounced that ratings for New York City teachers will be posted publicly like they were in Los Angeles. When the job marked improves, I'm wondering how the NY and LA school systems plan to attract teachers.

Posted by: PhilLombardo | October 21, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

Rather limp and flaccid, David. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but an exception will be made for you because you can't handle substance, so you harp on writing style!

Posted by: axolotl | October 21, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse


I wish I could harp on something else but the meager pickings in your posts leave little room for substance. I work with what YOU give me.

When I comment here, I will not project illusions of who I think you are. I will not conjure fancies about your children and what you are doing with them. I will only work with what you actually post.

When style interferes with the content, well, then I will comment on the style. From your posts, it is obvious that style trumps substance.

Posted by: DHume1 | October 21, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse

Brilliant. Thank you!

Posted by: vprecht | October 22, 2010 8:38 AM | Report abuse

Brilliant. Thank you!

Posted by: vprecht | October 22, 2010 8:39 AM | Report abuse

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