If Schools Are Broken, What Is the Solution? Answer: Urban School Reform–WRONG!

Here we go again. Another 24/7 media frenzy over the direction of  school reform has erupted over David Guggenheim’s documentary “Waiting for Superman,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s gift of $100,000,000 to Newark public schools, and the resignation of Chancellor Michele Rhee’s from the Washington, D.C. schools. Oops! also the urban superintendents’ recent “manifesto.”  But why “here we go again?”


1. Today, school reform is a 18-wheeler tractor-trailer bound for U.S. schools carrying a full load of charter schools, pay-for-performance plans, national curriculum standards, hybrid high-tech schools, and more testing. That is pretty much all we see in the media as the reform-laden truck pulls into districts across the nation.

We forget, however, that U.S. schools are incredibly diverse and decentralized (100,000 schools, 14,000 districts, 56 million students, 3, 000,000 teachers). Big cities, inner-ring suburbs, exurbs, small towns, and rural districts–all initiate reforms. New curricula, innovative school organization, novel technologies to enhance learning, and scores of small-grained changes occur in wealthy, middle-income, and poor districts–not to mention hundreds of thousands classrooms where teachers make changes–without TV anchors, newspaper editorials, or bloggers taking note.

Policymaker talk amplified by media hype and the blogosphere make urban school reform–“schools are broken and need to be fixed”–the norm for all school change. Failing big city schools have become the image in the public mind for all school reform. While getting better schools in urban districts has to be a priority, equating the fixing of broken big city schools with all U.S. schools is a serious error in logic and policy.

Pause for a moment and reflect on the flawed logic of those who tar all public schools with the
urban brush. If all American schools are lousy, including ones in cities, how can they have produced graduates who have entered and succeeded at colleges and universities which are highly admired by the rest of the world? And, how can the critics also have ignored the rise in American economic productivity, global competitiveness and unrivaled prosperity  that stemmed from those very same inadequately prepared high school and college graduates? Well, at least until the Great Recession of 2008.

Other skeptics of all-public-schools-are-broken like Jerry Bracey, Nicholas Lemann, and Alan Krueger have made similar points often and eloquently, but to little effect on either policy or reform rhetoric.

2. Rhetoric about reform, as always, has little to do with what occurs daily in the nation’s classrooms. Policymakers compress ideas into slogans to sell and programs to adopt. But those slogans and programs seldom describe, much less capture, what occurs in kindergartens, middle school science, and English Language Learner classrooms. The world of policymakers and teacher lessons barely overlap.

For a rural Iowa elementary school teacher or a Long Island (N.Y.) principal in an affluent district, to read  that big city superintendents see the entire nation’s schools in “crisis” and all districts need to abandon seniority, adopt charter schools, and pay teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores–it is like Mars talking to Venus.

The heated words, high profile policies, and well-funded programs that federal, state, and local decision-makers adopt, at best, trickle into schools but seldom make it past the classroom door to alter the daily routines of teachers. Too many policymakers think that what they say, adopt, and fund is what happens in schools and classrooms. A colossal mistake.

3. Beyond grafting the one-size-fits-all urban reform agenda upon all schools and super-heated reform rhetoric, it is both a moral and operational imperative to improve urban schools. But not by mistakenly repeating the rhetoric or acting as if all schools are broken.

What is prescribed now as the medicine that schools must take–the current tractor-trailer speeding across the nation filled with those pills–ignores the history of earlier hyped cures for failing urban schools. Older readers will remember breaking big urban districts into smaller ones (the 1960s); site-based management of schools (1970s); restructuring schools (1980s); whole school reform (1990s).  These earlier prescriptions were tried, found wanting, and abandoned. Now, a new set of untested pills are being distributed.

Enough of the criticism, Larry, what do you propose to avoid the “here we go again” syndrome?  I have said this before. Having a mix of different kinds of urban schools (KIPP, Green Dot, Aspire, hybrids of high-tech and traditional classrooms, teacher-run schools, ones with wraparound services, etc.) offers diverse ways of organizing, governing, and teaching children. An urban portfolio of choices is sensible policy when you are uncertain which ways are best to get low-income children to learn and achieve in school. For the fact remains that policymakers do not know how to school, much less educate,  low-income children that enter public schools. The nation needs more experimentation, more evaluation, more transparency in reporting results and less tractor-trailer loads of one-size-fits-all reforms and hype about school reform.


Filed under Reforming schools

6 responses to “If Schools Are Broken, What Is the Solution? Answer: Urban School Reform–WRONG!

  1. Larry,
    Your comment: “the fact remains that policymakers do not know how to school, much less educate, low-income children that enter public schools.” ought to be emblazoned on every sheet of department of education stationery.

  2. Louise kowitch

    As a 22 yr veteran of a suburban district that serves it’s top 50 percent very well and is sometimes exasperated by average and below average kids, your point about media fixation on inner city schools and attention grabbing flash in the pan, glitzy solutions is on the mark. Some of us just toil quietly by keeping up with research, experimenting with a few incremental instructional improvements, honor and respect our students and help them become more mindful, independent thinkers. But that doesn’t make headline news. Perhaps we educators need to take a few strides toward explaining how practice improves, incrementally, and teach the media as if it were a developmentally challenged 8th grade social studies class.

  3. Larry, excellent post. I agree. It is a very complex issue and not easily expressed in a short space. I’d encourage to watch Sir Ken Robinsons video at youtube … http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U


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  5. Jess

    Ms. Kowitch – I hope you’ll lend your voice to the growing debate in Washington on this issue. I’m a former student of yours and am surrounded by professionals who attended private schools. From what I can tell, the people debating (and deciding the future of) education reform did not receive a public education.

    Your AP European History class was incredible. The mock trials, debates, group projects and class discussions prepared me for a rewarding career in issue advocacy.

    Thanks for being a teacher. It’s clear to me that you could’ve done anything – heading up a company, teaching at a private college, writing, researching. But you chose to teach in a public school.

    The other day, Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” randomly came up on my iPod. I remembered that you played that once for us in class, as part of a lesson. I’m sure that day had something to do with my chosen career.

    – Jess (Class of 99)

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