It’s been about five years now, more or less. Five years of this so-called “Educational Reform Movement,” spearheaded by self-proclaimed “mavericks” like former D.C. School Superintendent Michelle Rhee and now embraced by a host of her destructive admirers like Newark’s Cami Anderson, entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and others. These ‘reformists’ eagerly tore up decades – even centuries – of bedrock educational values and practices to embrace new ones. The promise was no less of a revolution, a ‘total transformation’ if you like. If we followed their advice and were willing to absorb the painful changes they recommended, our public schools, regardless of geographical or socio-economic setting, would be transformed. Gone would be the tired school model of old, with its emphasis on teacher-centered learning, student accountability and lecture. Replacing it would be a dynamic new model, consumer-driven, student centered, administratively powered…and it would produce the equivalent to an educational Heaven on earth. From it would emerge brilliant, creative, confident students, eager to engage in debate and Socratic dialogue, ready for day one at the best colleges and universities in the world.
It didn’t happen.
The reformers’ call for change varied by region, but their core beliefs were wrapped up in a few common concepts. Teacher tenure or any related form of institutional job security was to go. New evaluative tools for teachers would no longer take their content knowledge, style or experience into consideration; now the focus would be on how students responded to them. Every moment of every day was to be documented, quantified, reviewed and revised in a torrent of new paperwork floating between teachers and their administrators. And in the end, from teacher jobs to the very existence of any particular school as an institution, high stakes testing would determine all. Community building, intellectual curiosity, and the love for learning were out; fear, disruption, testing and constant contention were in. Again, reformers said that it would be messy, and it was, but as time marched on America’s students would emerge sharp, competitive, ready to work in today’s global knowledge-based economy.
And what is most curious are the studies. Educators, reformists and their opponents, love to point out studies. Studies come to all sorts of conclusions, and to be fair, it’s not difficult to find one or two that seemed almost predestined to back a specific design or approach. But what studies have not shown, what there is no evidence of, is this massive shift, this dramatic change in temperature, which was promised. Not one. In some districts test scores are a bit higher; in others, lower. But nothing revolutionary. Zilch. This reformist tsunami, like its real-world equivalent, produced a dramatic wave but left only destruction in its wake.
Believe me, I want to be proven wrong on this important point. I want to see some real, dramatic evidence that the disruptive changes implemented in our public schools did indeed produce revolutionary, seismic results. But there are none. Not a single ‘super school’ has emerged from this movement; in fact, what we’re seeing in places as different as the urban district of Newark to the rural districts of Central Florida is much of the same: careers wrecked, schools disrupted, students bewildered and institutions stripped of community spirit and memory. Insecurity, fear and fury now emanate from parents, teachers and students. Boards of education meetings have been transformed into shouting matches. Don’t take my word for it; even the ‘great reformer,” of Chris Christie, Cami Anderson, no longer bothers to attend any community-based meetings in Newark. Even she knows that her ideas are so absolutely bankrupt, so steeped in failure that she avoids any forum where she might face the very public she claims to serve.
So why has this movement failed? Why has it wreaked complete havoc on our public schools with little indication of groundbreaking, progressive results? There are a great many reasons, but first and foremost is the flawed reformist belief that somehow schools can be magically separated from the communities that produce them. Reformists tell us that larger, complex issues such as poverty, unemployment, child neglect and abuse, crime, lack of technological access, child nutrition and student society can somehow be conveniently divorced from the day-to-day operations of any school and classroom. They stipulate that a single teacher can be held exclusively responsible for months and months of student academic outcomes, and that somehow the communities and families that produce them bear little or none.
Okay, so perhaps you’re thinking, if I’m so smart, if I’m so confident that the reformist approach to modern public education is so destructive, then what works? What is the magic formula that will indeed allow us to convert our students, every single one of them, whether they attend school in leafy Livingston or in the extremely mean streets of Camden into competitive Princeton applicants?
I need time to ruminate on that one, but I think I have an idea. I’ll follow that up in my next blog.