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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 11/15/2010

Lisa Simpson and why reform isn't really reform

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Kevin G. Welner, professor of education policy and program evaluation in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and director of the National Education Policy Center. He can be reached at

By Kevin G. Welner
In an old episode of The Simpsons, Lisa mounts a campaign against a Barbie-like doll called “Malibu Stacy” that spouts sexist phrases such as, “Let's wear makeup so the boys will like us,” and “Math is hard.” Lisa appears to win over the other girls at the store with her solid arguments against the sexist doll, but then “new” Malibu Stacy dolls are brought out and the girls crowd around in excitement. The only thing new, however, is a new hat.

Same doll – new hat. I’m reminded of that when I hear all the talk these days about school “reformers.” Their reforms seem oddly familiar. They want to close down schools and reopen them as charters. They want to bring in private managers. They want to use standardized tests of students to determine teacher quality.

This is all “reform,” we’re told, because … ?

Actually, I’m not sure why it qualifies as reform. The thinking, as best I can tell, is that if teachers unions oppose something, it gains the "reformy" embrace from media and politician types.

To be fair, all these ideas probably did qualify as reform back when I started studying education in the mid-1990s. Since then, however, three of most dominant trends in education have been school choice (mainly charters), privatization of services, and standards-based accountability (mainly No Child Left Behind).

What we’re seeing now is most accurately labeled “intensification,” not reform. It’s changing things, but it’s changing them in the same direction we’ve been moving for well over a decade.
Such intensification would be a good thing, whether called “reform” or not, if only the trends of the past decade-plus were positive.

From where I sit, though, standards-based accountability policies have prompted test-focused instruction that parents are others are really not very happy with. And school choice reforms have simply created a separate sector – some heroes, some corruption; some good schools, bad schools (but probably more of the latter).

In short, what we’re intensifying has left us no better off – and arguably worse off. But doing more of it is what currently qualifies as “reform.”


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By Valerie Strauss  | November 15, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Kevin Welner, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  charter schools, kevin welner, lisa simpson, school reform, the simpsons  
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For positive reform to take place, it must come within the schools and classrooms. We still have too many "independent contractors" teaching our students. Until education sees the value of professional learning teams focusing on teaching students specific skills and developing formative assessments that measure these skills, we will continue to have a system that does not prepare students for the 21st century workplace. We have been given a common set of rigorous standards (Common Core). It is now our responsibility to use these skills as the vehicle to drive curriculum and create appropriate measures to ensure student proficiency. In addition to the Common Core, we have plenty of current research that provides us with proven-effective instructional strategies. We still have a lot to improve on. Let's not wait for policies. Let's start our grass-roots reform movements in our own schools to prepare our leaders of tomorrow. We don't need to wait for Superman. We already have plenty of super people in our schools ready for positive change.

Posted by: core4all | November 15, 2010 8:26 AM | Report abuse

One sign of a logical failure on the part of the author here is: "From where I sit, though, standards-based accountability policies have prompted test-focused instruction that parents are others are really not very happy with."

Did the author attend a school without tests? I attended a school that pre-tested and post-tested extensively, not just the whole subject, but for each topic, and I loved it. It also worked- I was able to make at least 2 years of progress every calendar year. If you don't have exams, how do assess whether the students have learned the topic? If you don't have independent tests, how do you assess whether what one school is doing is covering all of the bases? If you don't have carefully controlled experiments, how do you determine whether your teaching methods work?

I think what we're seeing is that a system that measures what works in education is being put together. Charter schools are an extension of this, at the whole school level. Schools have been "failing" (although this generally means they have poor students, not poor teachers or facilities) for year, but we can't close them down except for population changes. If we find non-performing charter schools, no one will choose to go and they will die. Is is Schumpeter's creative destruction at work.

Rather than looking at education as test focused, which, frankly, it has always been, we need to look much deeper to change education in this country. The fundamental problem is clearly not the schools or the instructional methods, but the motivation level of the students. The very fact that schools contain very successful students and very unsuccessful students is evidence of this. The fact that certain cultures or subcultures place a high value on educational attainment shows up in the amount of work kids put in. It is finding the will to create this cultural change that is the true challenge to education. I was hoping that it would be the leading cause of the President, that his personal story would show the triumph of hard work over circumstance, that it is not affirmative action that is needed, but just action, every day, motivating and pushing students forward at home.

If parents aren't making this a core value, the schools can try to step in, but it's probably not going to work!

Posted by: staticvars | November 15, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Of course schools need to test, but what we don't need are multiple state, national and local comprehensive standardized tests intended on being the only measure by which teachers and schools are judged.

High stakes standardized tests do little to improve teaching. They stifle personalization, drain off resources and prevent schools from teaching valuable, but less testable, skills.

Perhaps most importantly, they demoralize teachers. Everyone wants better results without paying teachers more, improving their working conditions or finding other ways to make the profession more respected and respectable.

Let's do a word problem.

Poor pay - respect = Demoralized teachers.

Demoralized teachers = Poor teaching

Poor teaching = An ignorant public.

Posted by: 1teacher1 | November 15, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Deep in my heart, I wish all tests would be elimated.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 15, 2010 9:41 PM | Report abuse

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