January 20, 2008

Where does effective reform come from?

Thursday, Andy Rotherham challenged historians of education:

[H]ere's a question for the historians that might help explain why education does careen from one thing to the next. What are the most compelling examples of where the education system has reformed itself in ways that have demonstrably benefited students? Haven't most of the reforms, for good and ill, come from influences on the outside, whether higher ed leaders, business, etc...?

I'm not sure Rotherham was responding to Diane Ravitch's plaintive query fairly (I read Ravitch's argument to be that the content of Michael Bloomberg's and Joel Klein's reform ideas is nonsense), but let me answer the question as best I can. As David Tyack and Larry Cuban point out in Tinkering toward Utopia (1995), we sometimes confuse noise for reform.  Well, that's not quite their point: they argue in an early chapter that you have to distinguish between cycles of reform rhetoric and institutional trends. We can't look just at the visible reforms, the ones that have someone shouting from the rooftops about them. In other words, the only reforms that might pop up on Rotherham's radar screen would come either from outside reformers or from the louder inside advocates.

But "the most compelling examples of where the education system has reformed itself" might lie precisely in institutional trends that are tough to identify as coming from a specific set of pressures. I would argue that on the whole, elementary schools treat children much better than they did a century ago: only rare beatings (which provoke outright shaming if they become public), much less physical punishment, and a much higher proportion of teachers who understand better ways of motivating kids. That doesn't mean that everyone is perfect, just much better on the whole than teachers from a few generations ago.

One could make a pretty good case that the consistent rise in NAEP math scores in many states is the result of changing practice. As I've argued before, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics is not perfect, especially in how it communicates ideas, but my guess is that math instruction is slowly shifting, with more use of manipulatives and other varied repertoires in early grades and also in early childhood settings. Again, nothing is perfect, but as a child I never encountered the easy introduction to graphing that my own son had when he was in preschool in the 1990s. (It involved tasting fruits and vegetables, with children in the class putting up an icon of the food when they liked the taste. The result was a vertical bar chart of preferences by food.) I don't think that came from outside schools.

That doesn't exonerate school officials. I've criticized Tyack and Cuban's incrementalist framework, using desegregation as the obvious counter-example. But that history doesn't quite provide an argument in favor of mapping business rhetoric onto schools. Among other things, there's only one city I know where desegregation was supported by the business community: Charlotte. And where were today's advocates of high-stakes accountability in the 1980s and early 1990s, as Presidents Reagan and Bush were appointing federal judges who eventually undermined and reversed the pressures for desegregation? I think only Miller and Kennedy get credit there, and I can think of several who actively tried to undermine desegregation.

I'm not sure that Rotherham's question is even a relevant one: the fact that we can find a few examples of where outside pressure was absolutely appropriate doesn't mean that it's a panacea. Sometimes the "I'm an outsider" and "reform is inevitable" rhetoric trumps informed judgment. If "I'm a professional; trust me" is fallacious, so is "I'm a businessman; trust me."

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on January 20, 2008 2:48 PM |