The Malaise of Education Reform

There are as many varieties of education reform as there are cereal boxes in a supermarket. And, like cereal in a supermarket there is little difference in the various varieties of education reform. Since the early 19th century reformers have been trying to improve education. No decade has been without reformers declaring education was broken and needed some variety of reform. One explanation for the hackneyed character of reform is because every effort to improve education is referred to as reform.

One must be an expert to distill the difference between reform efforts. Often reform is not new. Re-packaged reform is derivative from earlier efforts. One example is Charter Schools emerging out of the alternative schools’ movement of the 1960’s. Upon examination, the reform effort to eliminate bureaucracy in education is the same for Charter and alternative schools. Alternative schools aspired to be innovative. So, do many Charter Schools. Mostly, the similarity between alternative and Charter Schools is the pension for changing the structure and process of schooling. In this regard, there is little difference between these reform efforts.

On the matter of choice that is at the center of numerous modern reform efforts, there is little distinction between what is and what has been. Religious schools—Catholic, Jewish, Protestant—have always and endlessly struggled to be paid for by state aid. The same is true of independent schools. None of them, ever, wanted the oversight or public scrutiny associated with public funding. Vouchers fall into this category—providing publicly funded certificates to families to attend religious or private schools where there is no public accountability. None of these approaches to reform have resulted in major improvements in education even though they have succeeded in securing public funding for books, buses, food, services, and some personnel. Even the free market argument for competition has not yielded accelerated improvement for all school-aged children.

There is no shortage of reform efforts in curriculum, governance, funding, teacher certification, structure, sequence, administration and management. Examples include social studies, mayoral control of education, local, state, and federal funding, middle schools, superintendents, and scientific management. Despite the plethora of reform efforts, few have yielded demonstrable results in achievement—mayoral control of education and Charter Schools are among the most recent reform efforts with dubious outcomes.

In such a malaise, the obvious issue is whether reform matters. The answer is yes. There is no shortage of reform efforts that have had enormous impact with very significant outcomes. Examples include co-education, busing, teacher licensure requirements, compulsory education, free lunch, vocational education, kindergarten, teacher unions, integration, extra curricula activities, requirements in math and science, health screenings and inoculations, health and physical education, Special Education, bilingual education, accountability, and art and music education. The roster is endless. The outcomes are demonstrable for all school-aged children.

Pointedly, there are reforms that matter and those that are merely distractions. Navigating the malaise of education reform is a challenge for education professionals. It is difficult to imagine how a parent or a citizen with no school-aged children at home makes sense out of the cacophony of reform efforts. This is particularly poignant when the public is expected to financially support education in their local communities. Here, the politics of reform become acute.

Every education reform since 1870 that has been successfully implemented has improved literacy, graduation rates and the quality of workers. It has also increased educational attainment for all communities that had educational activism at its base. Universally successful reform efforts have resulted from exquisite organizing often without governmental resources—human or material.

Currently, the efficacy of reform emerges from philanthropic dollars and the corresponding influence such dollars have on education policy and governmental spending. Local organizing is rarely evident. Funded reforms reign supreme, often without evidence of consequence. Almost always the funding for reform is external to educational agencies. The most egregious example of education reform spurred by philanthropic dollars with no evidence of consequence is the imposition of the education agenda of the Zuckerberg Foundation on Newark, New Jersey with mayoral and gubernatorial support.

There are rarely any resources in a district or state agency budgeted to support the development and implementation of reforms in schools. Only some form of guerrilla warfare allows some schools or districts to develop and implement reforms that depart from routine. Or, as is too often the case, schools or districts with the least amount of material resources and political acumen are the targets of public-private reform partnerships. Recent reform efforts in Newark, NJ; Pittsburgh, Pa; Chicago, Ill. and New Orleans, La. are examples of public-private partnerships pushing a particular approach to improvement. The evidence of positive outcomes is scant.

In contrast, positive evidence continues to mount from the passage of the Elementary, Secondary School Act and its subsequent re-authorizations. As the first, official, funded education policy and program and reform effort by the Federal government, ESEA continues to have a huge impact on education. Head Start is the most stunning, and arguably, most successful Federal innovation in pre-collegiate education. However, the role of local, state, and federal education agencies further muddles the understanding of who is responsible for the continuous improvement of schools. Adding to the malaise is the fact that even the Federal Department of Education is not immune to the politics of reform, particularly when philanthropic resources are leveraged for the implementation of a particular policy or reform program.

Parents and professional educators must not be seduced by the vagaries of education reform such that the malaise renders constituents speechless or inactive. This is more essential now than it has been because, unlike the predictions about television’s influence on education, new technologies and media are already radically transforming what children learn and how they learn it. Access to information and skills is, or has been, democratized. The reform of education is lagging behind rapidly changing technology. This appears to be the case because organized activism for the integration of technology into education is not so evident.

Pre-Kindergarten another reform lurking on the horizon with demonstrable benefits is not universally available. Every family that can afford to provide PreK for their children does so. Major economists declare that the antidote to generational poverty is universal access to PreK. The implementation of universal PreK is stuck in the politics, class, and economics reminiscent of the press for a free public education in places like Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco in 1870. Then the naysayers were private academies serving the middle classes, denominational schools serving immigrants, and vocational schools training workers for the new industrial empire. Though there is evidence of organized activism for access to universal PreK, a disproportionate array of education reformers making the most noise are pre-occupied with dubious reform efforts.

Another contributor to the malaise of education reform is the revolving door of leadership. A change in leadership at a school or district compromises any reform effort. The short-circuiting of momentum of reform is highly likely with a change in leadership. Explaining this phenomenon is difficult but every new leadership wants to make her own imprint on a school or district and is eager to distant themselves from prior management. Here lies one of the major tensions in the lexicon of reform.

There is an orthodoxy that pronounces that a school or district cannot successfully implement more than three reforms simultaneously. Such an approach defies the 80-20 rule that maintains organizational success is derived from 20% of the products or services delivered. Everything else produced by the organization might be effective but is not likely to endure, particularly if there is a leadership change. In education, the average tenure of a superintendent is three years. With such a short tenure, an orthodox approach to reform is dysfunctional. Despite leadership changes, the old guard—school board members and school-based practitioners—want to maintain what is familiar regardless of effectiveness and resist all new initiatives. If the analysis is partially accurate, the orthodox approach to reform is not workable.

No less important to reform efforts are the conditions that justify innovation. Historically, education has lagged behind the needs of the community. Nothing exemplifies this gap better than the teaching of auto mechanics to students on the defunct Edsel by Ford Motor Co. Mechanics skilled at servicing the Edsel were not aligned with the automobiles that needed service. It is very difficult for schools to be aligned with the needs of the community because there are no provisions for innovation in a typical education budget. By the time schools began teaching keypunching, the skill was no longer in demand. The current landscape requires persons skilled at writing computer code and developing new computer applications. Millions of recent high school students are without such knowledge and skills. To correct this condition, a massive reform effort is necessary. But saying so, does not make it so. And, organizing and sustaining such a reform effort is not simple or easy. More to the point is the issue of identifying the community need before the gap occurs and installing the innovation in alignment with the emerging opportunity. The emergent trends in transportation are an example.

Worldwide, airports are being converted to aerotropolis centers. Briefly, aerotropolis are projected to evolve from current cities but instead of traffic moving downtown it will flow to airplane terminals surrounded by residences and amenities. The aerotropolis represents the logic of globalization in future cities where the airport is the center of the city and international commerce. The challenge for education reform is adjusting its instructional program to prepare students capable of supporting the likelihood of such a community. Within the context of a muddled legacy of education reform, a new gap is certain to exist before schools can adjust to the new demand. It is noteworthy that plans for aerotropolis are underway in Beijing, Delhi, Taipei, and Memphis.

Education must prepare students for the way they are going to live in community. It is not sufficient to educate for the way life was in community. And, the utility of reformers cannot, should not, wobble about in boutique efforts. Reforms that matter avoid the malaise and have consequences for all children.

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