School Reform As Theater: So What? (Part 2)

In the previous post, I offered two perspectives on the past decade of school reform that explained No Child Left Behind and splits among reformers. One view featured individual and group motives. Market-driven reformers were out to destroy public schools and teacher union leaders only wanted to protect interests of teachers over children. These motives explained current battles between “reformers” and “anti-reformers.”

Then I offered an alternative to that dominant view: look at school reform as theater. Reformer actions expresses on the stage of public schooling struggles over societal values, beliefs, and ideas. Schools become places where national cultural and social battles are fought out even when they have not caused the problems to be solved. Then I asked the So What question: of what practical use is it to offer the dominant explanation and then an alternative that sees reformers acting out cultural struggles on the proscenium stage of public schools? Sure, such explanations may use ideas and language that academics might appreciate but how practical are such explanations for teachers and principals?

They are not practical. Worse yet, they may even encourage cynicism. These explanations rest upon politically impotent teachers and principals insofar as making and implementing policy. A more practical, if not realistic, explanation for the past decade of school reform would lay out a view of political power and influence shaping policies and making explicit who does what. Here, then, is a third perspective.

1.Who frames the problem and how it is framed matters determines which solution is chosen

Top political and business leaders and their cohorts believe (and have so for decades) that U.S. schools are failing to produce sufficient knowledgeable and skilled graduates to compete economically with Asian and European competitors. Unless schools produce more and better human capital–graduates–these leaders say that the U.S. economy will not grow and the standard of living will decline. To arrest any economic decline, federal and state governments have to press districts and practitioners to do better. With top leaders’ access to media and money, these beliefs soon become the conventional wisdom.

2. Once a problem is framed, the solution is usually embedded in the way the problem is framed

U.S. schools, especially urban schools, have failed to produce the right kind of graduates to enter a labor market anchored in a knowledge-based economy because parents lack choices of better schools. Solution? Offer charter schools, magnets, for-profit online schools, etc.

Schools have failed because 50 states offer different curricula. Solution? Common Core standards in math and English.

And schools have failed because most competent teachers have little incentive to do better while less competent teachers continue to teach. Solution? Use test scores to pay high performing teachers more money and weed out low performing teachers.

3. Policymakers adopt reforms and direct practitioners to put reforms into practice.

Once top leaders frame problems, forge solutions, and formally adopt them–for federal policymakers it is  No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top competition–then it is up to state and local policymakers to fund, enact, and direct teachers and principals to put policies into practice. Here the policy-to-practice chain get jerked hard as teachers and principals are expected to implement faithfully what their leaders have decided and over which they had little influence.

Here, then, is another explanation for U.S. school reform. This one is political and organizational. It leans heavily upon top-down powerful and influential leaders defining the problems with schools, choosing and publicizing those solutions most feasible to solve the problems, and then delegating the solutions to those  state and local decision-makers and practitioners to put reforms into practice. This explanation differs from the previous ones where motives were attributed to reformers explaining why they do what they do. In that explanation teacher unions were portrayed as giant villains capable of controlling entire school districts and even state legislatures to exert their will upon children.  In the reform-as-theater explanation schools are like stages from which societal values, attitudes, and beliefs are acted out.

The theater and political/organizational explanations reveal the hapless, ineffectual role that teachers and principals–the ones who do their best with what they have–play in the larger picture of current school reform. More as objects to be manipulated than actual people who are individually and collectively capable of defining problems and figuring out solutions. Not a pretty picture. But is it a practical one?

Yes, it could be if the negligible role that teachers and principals now play in defining problems and choosing solutions can be turned politically into getting teachers individually and collectively involved in making those policies that aim at improving teaching and learning. Now, they are uninvolved. Where teachers and principals enter the picture is when they are delegated the task of putting decisions over which they had no say-so into practice.

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2 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

2 responses to “School Reform As Theater: So What? (Part 2)

  1. Thank you Dr. Cuban for another thought provoking blog. Accepting the final analogy of viewing the last decade of school reform as political theatre as relevant. Then does it not demand a critical response? I would go a step further then political theatre, and say it leaves us living a Greek Tragedy in which America’s children, parents, teachers, and principals are left suffering, and feeling helpless in their own schools.

    We find ourselves on this stage where children are the tragic pawns of policy makers who feel more comfortable with CEOs than with children, parents, teachers, and principals. Who view our public schools as a factory model that considers children capital, and places the hope for equity in high stakes assessments. Policy makers can be seen moving parents, teachers and principals as pawns on scripted political stages. As you state this is “Not a pretty picture. But is a practical one.” If this is not a Greek Tragedy than nothing is.

    This analogy leaves education reform as a stage where policy makers shape societal values, attitudes, and beliefs without consulting the so-called beneficiaries. Such policy has no real democratic foundation. A policy more reminiscence of a behind the Iron Curtain Stalin era program than any democratically driven model. What we have is a top down policy that has no real data to support itself as successful according to recent SAT scores and our 17 year-olds scores on NAEP. We are left with a policy lie told over and over again hoping to be seen as truth.

    The essential question for parents, teachers, principals, and educators becomes can we continue to do as people did during the days of Jim Crow continue “to go along to get along’, or do we march like people did during the Civil Rights Movement? Silence and apathy were not acceptable during the days of Jim Crow, and neither is it acceptable on the political stage of education reform today.

    I decided early on not to go along to get along. I paid the price of marginalization, and isolation. I spoke out, stood up, held town hall meetings, presented resistance stories at national conferences, blogged, started the Facebook group Children Are More Than Test Scores, and even walked 400 miles from Connecticut to DC to protest NCLB/RTTT. Even helped to start the Save Our Schools March and Week of Action movement. Thank you Dr. Cuban asking us to examine where we stand on this political stager of education reform.
    I am walking to DC again this summer, because someone has to tell them in Washington DC that our children are more than test scores.
    Silence and apathy are not acceptable,
    Jesse Turner
    Children Are More Than Test Scores

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Jesse, for your passion and commitment to a kind of schooling that focuses on more than testing. Each of us can do our part individually, collectively, or both. I wish you well.

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