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10 Ways School Reformers Get It Wrong

When it comes to education reform, we're not trying to reinvent the wheel anymore; instead, we're building square ones.

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6. We often forget what smart things have been tried in education before. History is a powerful mine of data. Short-term memory leads to misidentifying problems and establishing misleading solutions. That’s true about the general definition of school failure. But it’s also true about what we know works and what we’ve experimented with in the past. Still, amnesia seems to prevail, even to the extent that those currently facing school problems generally don’t ask the question, “What have people done or thought about this before?” The 1970s was a period of enormous classroom and school governance experimentation executed in the context of continuing the national battle against poverty. Forms of diagnostic testing, common use of media, teacher training, parent training, and career ladders that brought parents into the schools as professionals made the school a place where, for a short time, it seemed that they could indeed be the engine of serious social change. We’re not reinventing wheels today. We are actually trying to build square ones.

“Pygmalion” studies in the US and abroad, particularly in the 1970s, suggested how school and teacher expectations shape student performance. This was largely the result of a one-size-fits-all approach to the classroom, which began to shift as understanding developed of the range of learning styles bring to the classroom.  The North Dakota Study Group made great progress in developing measurement and documentation techniques that were responsive to learning style differences. “Youth Tutoring Youth” programs demonstrated that students engaged in tutoring younger students made great gains in their own learning because they were drilling themselves and building confidence. The National Commission on Resources for Youth collected data that showed how students working in their communities doing work valued in those communities came to the classroom excited to think about curricula developed out of those experiences and with a new sense of themselves.

7. Class size matters. Researchers have argued back and forth on this one. But common sense tells us that Mitt Romney is quite wrong when he suggests that a good teacher can easily teach even up to 100 children in one classroom. Most people can remember the one person in their life whose intervention and trust made all the difference. So class size matters in part because teachers matter. For some of us it was a teacher, for some a parent, but when there are 30 or 40 kids in a class there’s very little chance of that close relationship happening in school. Furthermore, some teachers work well with big classes, some with small. We’re facing a teacher shortage. We need a range of teachers for a range of learning styles. There is not a one-size fits all solution. Experience and training matter too. Class size and teacher preparedness are critical elements in an effective classroom. Getting young blood into the school as teachers and teaching assistants (like Teacher Corps, City Corps, and other such programs, which abound through private and public funding) is a good approach to training teachers, but not to populating the classroom with young, inexperienced people in training instead of teachers with knowledge and experience. 

If we think about the education of privileged kids we can recognize quickly that a small adult-student ratio is a central anchor and face-to-face individual attention is highly prized. Who would pay for private school education with 40 or 50 kids in the classroom? Why do parents hire coaches for test preparation? Why is summer camp built on the idealized relationship with the counselor? It’s all based on our understanding that the close relationship between one child and an adult is invaluable for learning, self esteem, and achievement.   However we organize our classrooms, we have to create opportunities for close individual relationships to evolve.