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What Real School Reform Looks Like

Education reform is not a battle; it must be a continuous collaboration.
 
 
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Michael Petrilli’s recent charge on the Observer’s Opinion page that the elections confirm “[t]eachers unions remain the Goliath to the school reformers’ David” is neither a brave claim to make in a paper serving a right-to-work area of the U.S., nor an accurate portrayal of the balance of power in education reform.

First, a question: If teachers unions are the primary causes of public education failures, why do right-to-work states such as my home state of South Carolina also sit historically and currently near the bottom of test data we routinely use to evaluate school quality?

Also: Since the most prominent correlations between unionization and student achievement show that unionized states have high test scores and non-unionized states have low ones, why do reformers such as Petrilli ignore that school quality data are primarily reflections of poverty and affluence?

In part, the answers reveal union bashing, “bad” teacher refrains, and finger pointing at the “status quo” to be straw man arguments, distractions from genuine problems and solutions.

Like his misleading assertion about unions, Petrilli’s suggestion that a battle exists between reformers and their “opponents” is false. The current reform movement includes politicians, think tanks, and advocates constituted of people with little or no experience or expertise in education, such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and billionaire Bill Gates.

Educators rejecting these so-called reforms are not avoiding reform or accountability, but rejecting policies discredited by evidence.

Accountability-based education reform driven by standards and high-stakes testing has existed since the 1890s. A century of evidence reveals that accountability has failed miserably, often entrenching the problems instead of addressing them.

Yet, reformers persist in calling for new standards, more tests, and misguided assaults on teachers, although public school failures have nothing to do with a lack of accountability or the quality of standards and tests.

I have spent 18 years teaching high school English followed by 11 years in higher education working with teachers and future teachers across the Upstate of South Carolina. Below, I want, like Anthony Cody blogging at Education Week, “to draw some lessons for our side” – the side with experience and expertise calling for genuine change.

Public schools reflect and perpetuate the inequity of opportunity found in society. Thus, the only lessons we should take after the recent election are that we need education reform grounded in equity and opportunity, not accountability, and that must occur at three levels – society, school policy and classroom practices:

  • Social reform seeking equity and opportunity for children and their families by ensuring access to health, dental and eye care; food security; and stable jobs with strong wages.
  • School policy guaranteeing equity and opportunity by addressing equitable teacher assignments, de-tracking course offerings, fully funding essential educational structures regardless of community characteristics, reforming discipline policies that disproportionately alienate and punish marginalized students and dismantling accountability structures based on a perpetual process of creating new standards and “better” high-stakes tests.
  • Classroom practices honoring equity and opportunity by rejecting teaching-to-the-test, offering all students rich learning opportunities based on student interests and needs, replacing fragmented content-based course structures with interdisciplinary courses, and shifting instruction away from teacher-centered practices and toward student-centered invitations, requiring students to be active and thoughtful instead of compliant.

For these shifts in education reform to occur, however, we must face one important lesson: Education reform is not a battle, as Petrilli suggests, between change agents and defenders of the status quo. Education reform must become a continuous collaboration.

Public education is not failing because of unions, “bad” teachers or an inadequate accountability system.