The Myth of Failed School Reform, Part 1

In 1990, Seymour Sarason published The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform. A decade later, Diane Ravitch’s Left Back:A Century of Failed School Reforms hit booksellers. Now, not a week goes by that failures of public school reform are dissected, tallied, and trotted out as exhibits for wannabe reformers. The next two posts re-frame school reform as looking at different clocks. Clocks?

In some upscale hotels over the registration desk, clocks show times across the globe.  Different time zones alert travelers to what time it is in the city they wish to call.

There are such clocks for school reform also. Different reform clocks record the different speeds of reform talk, policy adoption, what happens in classrooms, and what students learn. Were these clocks in public view, policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and researchers would see that changes in policy talk and action have occurred but at different speeds, some far too slow for impatient reformers to notice. Framing reform as being recorded by different clocks makes the dominant belief in their constant failure a myth.

The myth, of course, has a history. It is anchored in commission reports (e.g., Nation at Risk), books (e.g., Left Back), and studies (e.g., Spinning Wheels) over the last century that document curricular, organizational, and instructional failures. The myth also comes from the feverish rhetoric of entrepreneurial reformers who see failure everywhere in order to sell their particular product (e.g., Saving Schools).

Yet the hyped policy talk, books, and documents seldom distinguish between major reforms that have stuck such as kindergartens, comprehensive high schools, coed and desegregated schools and those that have disappeared (e.g., educational radio and television, The Platoon School, Dalton Plan). Historians and thoughtful observers, however, have learned that school reform has a series of clocks that move at different speeds.

  • Media time. This is the fastest reform clock of all, ticking every day and week. What is  eye-grabbing and controversial registers on the media clock. Tweets, blogs, social media–and don’t forget newspaper and TV headlines–document immediate events and opinion, shaping and legitimizing what policymakers put on school reform agendas. Condom distribution in high schools, for example, received strong media exposure as a school policy aimed at solving teenage pregnancies. Policymakers talk about online technologies that will revolutionize teaching and learning.  In watching only the media clock, however, policymakers may wrongly conclude that what happens in one school happens everywhere and that what is reported actually occurred.
  • Policymaker time. This clock chimes every year campaigns for national, state, and local offices crank up to re-elect incumbents or bring fresh faces to public posts. In some places, policymaker clocks tick more quickly when annual budgets or referendums come up for voter approval.

To offer a recent example, federal policymakers have defined schools as an arm for the economy. Since the 1990s, higher academic standards, copying corporate business practices, and advocating charters have been converted by top officials into campaign slogans. Presidents George H.W. Bush and son, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have pushed for world-class standards, charters,  and business-inspired reforms to raise students’ performance.

Policymaker time, then, runs on election cycles. But other clocks measure whether the talk and adopted policies have turned into action. Enter the bureaucratic time zone.

  • Bureaucratic time. This clock records administrative actions implementing policy decisions. Often the hands of the faster media and policymaker clocks make a complete turn just as the bureaucratic clock passes the first hour. The lag between policymaker time and bureaucratic time occurs because of the complexity in converting policy into feasible, clear procedures for principals and teachers who do the actual work of schooling. The bureaucratic clock chimes when new rules are announced, revised budgets presented, and increased departmental coordination occurs. An example of how the hands on the bureaucratic clock are reduced to a crawl can be seen in desegregation.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954) banned legally segregated schools. Studies recorded the tortured progress of judicial policymaking as state governors and local school boards across the South wrestled both peacefully and violently with implementing the decision between the 1950s and 1980s.  States and districts, prodded by federal court orders, slowly embraced open enrollment, busing, and other remedies for desegregating schools. Over time, district attendance boundaries were redrawn; schools were closed; magnet schools were opened. By the mid-1990s, a full four decades after the Brown decision, Southern and Southwestern schools had largely desegregated (except in big cities where re-segregation has occurred).

The policymaking and bureaucratic clocks, then, are seldom in sync. Important details that can spell the difference between successful and failed implementation take considerable time to craft and put into practice. Often political, demographic, and other non-school factors create greater lag time between the clocks.

Further lags in time occur when the practitioner and student learning clocks come into view in the next post.

About these ads

1 Comment

Filed under Reforming schools

One response to “The Myth of Failed School Reform, Part 1

  1. Joel VerDuin

    I appreciate this framework / analogy for looking at school reform. What is interesting (as I think about this) is how internal publics, our principals and teachers can sometimes be driven by these different clocks. Even internally, we sometimes want change as fast as the media clock is moving, and grow dissatisfied with “the system” when it does not move that fast. Perhaps this comes from always wanting to “fix” what is perceived to be wrong without an understanding of the massive complexity of system. This frustration of internal publics is usually verbalized as a dissatisfaction with some facet of the system by accusing it of being unwilling to change.

    What is usually oversimplified, in people’s conversations, is the real complexity and a misunderstanding of the structure of “the system” of public education.

    I really do like this analogy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s