On School Reform: The Difficulties

The topic of school reform has been around for some time. A Nation at Risk served as the focus in the early 1980s. National standards came forward as a result in the late 80s, to be followed by state standards and state-mandated tests. Today, school reform still gets focused air time from presidential candidates every four years. With the election in the past, President Obama now seeks educational reform.

Meanwhile, how much has it changed? Is the change in the direction of reform or reinforcement of the status quo? This post focuses on why educational reform is more about rhetoric than substance, thus why they won’t change.

Schools are too busy aiming at perfecting the outdated Industrial Age model. The school calendar, curriculum, credit system, daily schedule, and many instructional methods are Industrial Age products. For those who don’t know, the Industrial Age is long gone.

Reason 1
If school developed a new idea that is against the norm, the community forces within the public will act to undo the change; thus returning it to the norm because an “it was good enough for me” attitude.

Reason 2
The public desires higher academic standards and expectations, as well as tougher discipline. Well, at least until it effects them.

Reason 3
As a group, educators are not agents of change. It’s their inability to think outside of the Industrial Age model that will help keep schools with their current rut. Much change with schools is illusionary, insignificant, or based to reinforce the Industrial Age model.

Reason 4
Unquestionably, and supported by law, conditions of work are subject to the collective bargaining table. Therefore, in order for change to occur, the teacher union must not only be involved, it must be willing to change.

Reason 5
For change to occur, educational leadership must be willing to take risk and simultaneously challenge the public. Since such a combination jeopardizes their job security, the chance of this happening is slim.

Reason 6
Schools are currently on a paper chase with publicized, mandatory-testing programs. Interestingly, the majority of the tests are based on content standards from the Industrial Age. Schools have spent much time and energy to align their curriculum to these tests/standards, thus any deviation away into something new would be at the risk of scores.

Reason 7
Meaningful change involves a pronounced period of chaos, which would probably be accompanied by lower test scores. Although going through this phase could lead to high standards and results, schools have a tendency to retreat during these situations.

Reason 8
With the ongoing race to score well and be acclaimed to the public, schools work hard to place a positive spin on anything and everything. If schools are as good as the claim, why should they change?

Reason 9
Picture a school hallway as a large conglomerate with each room representing individual companies. As teachers focus on their own classroom, fewer focus outside the box: about the grade level or department; and even fewer address a bigger school-wide mentality.

Reason 10
With a shedding of responsibilities to others, education current lacks balanced accountability. Parents, students, and school administrators shift some of their responsibility to teachers. Surprise! They also have legitimate responsibilities.

Closing Thought

Years ago I heard a member of a state Department of Education say something like this: “Given the system we have, there’s no doubt in my mind that the teacher’s in this state are doing better. After all, I have the stats to prove it. The real question is, is this the system we want to perfect?”

27 thoughts on “On School Reform: The Difficulties

  1. Excellent insights shared here in your post–thanks. Reason 4 and Reason 5 are spot on. Tough challenges to overcome without a sense of “give and take” from all parties involved in the process.

    Like

    • Al,
      As a friend of mine once said, education contains a lot of “inertia” …. something at rest tends to remain at rest unless acted upon by an unbalanced force … plus considering its massiveness, it takes a lot of energy to get it to even budge!

      Thanks for visiting and commenting.

      Like

  2. Great post! We really ned to do something about our schools…But the big question is are people willing to make the sacrifice that is needed for an overhaul…The funding of schools in Ohio has to be addressed also…Our property taxes have been going up at an alarming rate in many areas.

    Like

    • Beeze,
      Change isn’t easy – let alone significant change. I question whether the public has the guts and patience to do it – let alone understanding the reason why.
      Thanks for commenting.

      Like

    • I have relatives in Ohio and have watched the school systems decline or stay the same there despite high property tax rates and the promises made when Ohio instituted a lottery. From my outsider perspective, it appears that the new dollars are quickly consumed by greater administrative costs and funding for non-core curriculum expenses.

      Like

      • Thersites,
        Ohio does have school funding issues, and one that is turned into a political quagmire in the statehouse.

        In terms of the Ohio Lottery. Yes, it was sold that way and has improved funding allocation. However, at the time, profits from the Ohio Lottery went into the state’s General Fund … yes, the same pot that funds education.

        Thanks for visiting.

        Like

  3. Oh boy, a topic near and dear to my heart since I see the output of the schools as the young students meander into my college classes.

    All the reasons you mentioned are good ones, but there’s another reason that might better explain why school reform is often talked about but seldom enacted…

    Everybody goes to school as a kid. Therefore, as adults (and thus, voters), everyone thinks they know about school and what is needed to “fix” school. Of course, most of those people haven’t even stepped foot into a school in ten, twenty, or perhaps many more years.

    From my vantage point, here are my suggestions for possible fixes:
    1. No more trophies for showing up. You’ve got to make the students earn excess praise, it shouldn’t be something that they expect.
    2. Embrace brains. While it might make sense to most people that schools would embrace smarts, in actuality they seldom do. Many schools have pep rallys for athletes and special concerts for musicians, but few schools have special recognition throughout the year for their best academic students.
    3. Change the attitude. Throughout the last two decades (and perhaps much longer than that), being smart meant being not cool. Only the schools can facilitate the idea that smart = cool. Certain programs on TV (Big Bang Theory, CSI to an extent, Numb3rs, etc.) have begun to show brains as a good thing but it’s only a small drop in the bucket of public opinion.
    4. Increase teacher pay – but only for deserving teachers. A sticky, sticky situation for sure, but the only way to truly improve the overall education levels of the students is to employ highly educated, fully competent teachers. Those people are (usually) attracted to colleges or businesses since those groups offer bigger bucks and/or other perks that grade schools simply don’t offer.

    Those are some of the biggest changes I’d make. I’m also a fan of some other more controversial ideas such as tracking that I think improve student learning but if the ideas above are implemented I think many of the problems with education would be eliminated.

    Like

    • Chris,
      Thanks so much for your response as I was hoping you would comment.

      I’m right with you on all you suggestions. I recall reading Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, which supports your point about praise.

      Thanks again for commenting.

      Like

  4. Frank, you have touched on a sore point for me. The problem is one of long standing. I am a veteran advertising agency owner (not a big one mind you). I cannot tell you the number of resumes I have received over the years which were composed with the English language so contaminated I wanted to puke.

    The sad part about this is that these individuals, college graduates or students nearing graduation, apparently believed the crap they were submitting was as good as it gets. The irony is this — they were applying for employment with a business which uses the language to communicate ideas, concepts and theories for its clients — and clearly demonstrated their lack of qualification by the form and substance of their application.

    Our systems for the most part are satisfied with mediocrity, shrink in fear when confronted with the truth, and circle the wagons to defend their flawed positions. Several years ago, one of my friends, a retired senior vp communications for a Fortune 100 company, myself and several other professional communicators were asked by a local school district to feel the pulse of the community and report back. We were all volunteers with no axe to grind.

    We devised a scientifically based survey, collected and processed the data and presented the results, which though truthful, were not complimentary of the job the district was doing. The superintendent, with his title of “Dr.,” became irate when confronted with the truth. Needless to say, we would not give the SOB the time of day after that.

    That was my last attempt to interact with education.

    You have rightly stirred this pot which needs stirring.
    Thanks,
    Joe

    Like

    • Joe,
      I feel both your passion for the subject and your dismay with the process you encountered with the school district review. Truth avoidance is part of the problem.

      Thanks for your insightful comments.

      Like

    • Ah ha … I got a thinker thinking! LOL … When I hear Secretary Duncan, I have a tendency to see through his points. However, I believe he’s genuine in his concerns. Thanks for the comment Tim!

      Like

  5. I’ve seen public education change as a student and now a father of students.

    The biggest problem that I see with education is bloated administration. I have seen increased tax assessments for education almost entirely consumed by greater administrative costs. More often than not, the new bureaucrats contribute little to the education process. They just push paper around and holds seminars for teachers on the latest “methods”.

    The second biggest problem that I see is that there is less and less actual teaching going on. Kids spend more and more time in extra-curricular activities during class time. As they fall behind because of all of the wasted time during school hours, teachers respond by loading the students up with homework.

    Like

  6. Pingback: On Opinions in the Shorts: Vol. 55 « A Frank Angle

  7. ok. buckle up. i’ve been teaching for about 25 years, and i’m going to push you to either give some answers or recant some of your claims…all in good, clean fun! i’m not going to say that anything you’ve said is either wrong or right. however, there are plenty of times when i hear people – whose backgrounds i know nothing about – making comments about what’s wrong with education when those people have no clue about what’s really going on. i don’t know what you know or don’t know, so maybe you’re even more qualified than me. i have no idea. and because i have no idea, i want to know what has shaped your opinions.

    Reason 1
    If school developed a new idea that is against the norm, the community forces within the public will act to undo the change; thus returning it to the norm because an “it was good enough for me” attitude.

    community forces? can you define exactly what that is? those are? they be? is? i’m guessing that means the teachers, but i’m only guessing.

    Reason 2
    The public desires higher academic standards and expectations, as well as tougher discipline. Well, at least until it effects them.

    “until it e(A)ffects them.” until what affects who? until the tougher discipline affects the public? does that mean what you’re saying is that the public wants tougher discipline unless that affects the public? tell me how the tougher discipline would affect the public? – if that’s what you mean.

    Reason 3
    As a group, educators are not agents of change. It’s their inability to think outside of the Industrial Age model that will help keep schools with their current rut. Much change with schools is illusionary, insignificant, or based to reinforce the Industrial Age model.

    who are the “educators”? teachers? principals? superintendents?

    Reason 4
    Unquestionably, and supported by law, conditions of work are subject to the collective bargaining table. Therefore, in order for change to occur, the teacher union must not only be involved, it must be willing to change.

    if i were going to make changes to your work, how you do it, when you do it, etc, wouldn’t you want to be involved?

    Reason 5
    For change to occur, educational leadership must be willing to take risk and simultaneously challenge the public. Since such a combination jeopardizes their job security, the chance of this happening is slim.

    define “educational leadership.” after, explain how their job is in jeopardy. who can remove them from their job?

    Reason 6
    Schools are currently on a paper chase with publicized, mandatory-testing programs. Interestingly, the majority of the tests are based on content standards from the Industrial Age. Schools have spent much time and energy to align their curriculum to these tests/standards, thus any deviation away into something new would be at the risk of scores.

    if i were to tell you i’m going to evaluate your performance based on standards a, b, and c, and you felt that standards a, b, and c were outdated, but they’re still in use, are you going to perform for those ancient standards that are still in use, or are you going to perform in a direction that you prefer, and let’s assume your standards are better, but they still contradict with what is expected. which standards will you perform for? ancient and in use, or your personal choice that is better but is unrecognized by those who cast judgement?

    Reason 7
    Meaningful change involves a pronounced period of chaos, which would probably be accompanied by lower test scores. Although going through this phase could lead to high standards and results, schools have a tendency to retreat during these situations.

    if that is so, then shouldn’t the public or whatever governing body have an obligation to expect, tolerate, and have the patience to wait for those futures changes to reach fruition?

    Reason 8
    With the ongoing race to score well and be acclaimed to the public, schools work hard to place a positive spin on anything and everything. If schools are as good as the claim, why should they change?

    how many industries have members who regularly stand up and say, “hey, i messed up here, here, and here”? also, who gets to determine whether or not they really are or are not as good as they claim? if you work in an industry and you’re being judged by the general public, but those members of the public have never stood in your world and have no clue what you do or how you do it, then why should they be able to judge you?

    Reason 9
    Picture a school hallway as a large conglomerate with each room representing individual companies. As teachers focus on their own classroom, fewer focus outside the box: about the grade level or department; and even fewer address a bigger school-wide mentality.

    how do you know? how do you know how much they do or do not collaborate to address a school-wide mentality? what criteria are you using to determine what they are or are not doing/thinking?

    Reason 10
    With a shedding of responsibilities to others, education current lacks balanced accountability. Parents, students, and school administrators shift some of their responsibility to teachers. Surprise! They also have legitimate responsibilities.

    “they” also have legitimate responsibilities. who are “they”? what responsibilities are being shifted by: A- parents, B- students, C- administrators? to whom are those responsibilities being shifted?

    Like

    • RMV,
      There you go again, digging into the depths of my history here. 🙂 … I appreciate though.

      Here’s my scope in a nutshell. I spend 26 years in the classroom. Yep, I was one of those counter-thinkers. So, yes, I know first hand. Given the staff that I worked with, plus the number of teachers I’ve been around at conference, consulting, and giving presentations, I stand by my 10 points.

      Since I appreciate you taking the time to ask the questions, I want to answer all of them, but my current work project is consuming my time – so I ask for your patience. Hopefully I will remember, but if not, feel free to remind me. Thanks for commenting.

      Like

  8. Thank you very much for directing me to this article and the comments. I found it very interesting, and it pulls me even further into the study of this problem. I do have a proposition, and it is radical, and I plan to post it in the very near future. I also want to deal with some of the points here, at length. And plan to write about it on my blog with a link to this post here. I have to say that though I was a college professor for some 25 years, my experience is so different, that I may not be qualified to speak of the subject, but the comments are welcome, and I believe a discussion could be a group effort to find a solution. I will propose a solution from my point of view…

    Like

    • Shimon,
      Glad you found something here of interest. I can tell that you have been thinking a lot about this topic, so I look forward to your post(s). Who knows, you may have a series of posts in the works! Thanks for commenting.

      Like

  9. Pingback: back to school | the human picture

  10. Pingback: Flashbacks: On Education | A Frank Angle

  11. Remembered this one. Also have much experience (years in classroom at multiple levels, edu product development, research centers, and with creation of state level curriculum/guidelines…also generational “family business” locally and at national level.)
    Drives me crazy. Best I stay far far away….
    It’s so much about profit now – and “clean data” which has nothing to do with amount actually understood/learned. Lots of “studies” still going on with early edu and elm – the crisis is at secondary level – especially with new arrivals coming in at that level with little/no edu background. It is a crisis. But little kids are so much easier to work with, so cooperative, and so willing to please…. easy to get that data.
    Lots of warehousing going on…and salaries being paid. Money being made by companies that really don’t care about kids – just bottom line
    See….getting ramped up…best to walk away. Thank goodness some stay.

    Like

  12. Teachers with high outcomes (scores?) are rewarded and that means that they are naturally going to nurture high achieving students who don’t need that nurturing. The students with lower outcomes are going to fall through the cracks (or gaping holes) and no-one wants to deal with them as their jobs are on the line. Over here, teachers are actually judged on the educational outcomes of their class and may lose their jobs if their students don’t all pass. Ridiculous! School has become a race to the finish line rather than a place where the joy of learning is initiated and supported. It’s no wonder many students roll out of the production line of “School” and never want to go back.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Narf,
      Oh yes … the production-line model seems to be global. Yep … teachers here are also judged on the testing scores of their class. As I say, if anyone wants to make a teacher look bad, give them the worst students … but that’s not true in all cases.

      Like

      • The worst students are where a real teacher learns the most. It’s always a learning experience on both sides. Every year is a new chance to learn and grow for both students and teachers and each class is a living breathing creature full of possibilities. THAT is what draws real educators to the table. It is just a pity that the organic evolution of a class is hampered and shut down by the ridiculous rules and regulations that are enforced upon them both and that shut down the chance for true learning experiences 😦

        Liked by 1 person

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