Where is the U.S. in school reform now?
To answer this question, I will do what lawyers often do when arguing a case. I will stipulate certain statements as facts. These statements may not sound like facts but as an historian and practitioner of school reform I claim they are. Should readers quarrel with these statements, I do have supporting references and we can discuss those in dispute later. I stipulate the following:
Historically, school reformers have overstated defects in the existing system and made gloomy predictions of disaster. Then they have understated difficulties of changing the system by proposing rose-colored solutions.
Exhibit A is what has occurred over the past three decades.
Market-inspired school reformers, endorsed by policy elites, media and parents, using low U.S. scores on international tests time and again, have blamed chronically low-performing public schools for hampering national economic growth, innovation, and productivity by producing graduates mismatched to the job skills employers needed to compete in a constantly changing global marketplace.
To solve this serious problem of low academic performance and inadequately prepared graduates, state and federal officials have, over time, created and legislated a school reform agenda containing the following items:
*Common (and high) K-12 academic standards,
*State and national tests to determine if all students meet those standards,
*Student test scores as the primary metric to determine success of policies,
*Accountability regulations that hold districts, schools, students, and teachers responsible for results,
*Expanded parental choice, mainly through publicly financed charter schools,
*Teacher and administrator evaluation and compensation on the basis of student test scores.
Business and civic leaders, public polls, and bipartisan policymakers endorsed this school reform agenda. The evidence, however, showing that this popular strategy has improved schooling for U.S. students, including minorities in urban districts or that skilled human capital has, indeed, led to national economic growth and an improved market position—remains contested.
Of the multiple and competing economic, political and social purposes for public schools in a democracy, the economic aim of preparing students for a market-based democracy has dominated public schools in the 20th and 21st centuries.
In the early years of the 20th century, a business and civic coalition of educational progressives lobbied state and federal governments to create vocational schools and curricula to prepare youth for industrial jobs. The federal government began subsidizing vocational courses during World War I. Progressive reformers created the comprehensive high school in the 1920s with multi-tracked curricula, including vocational education, that sorted students by their probable destination upon graduation into blue- and white-collar jobs.
By the 1970s, however, reformers were dismantling separate vocational curricula. While the comprehensive high school still exists, vocational education courses have migrated to community colleges and other venues.
Currently, the three-decade long concentration on schools as instruments for national economic growth–the central political goal of U.S. policy since the late-19th century–has created a college prep curriculum for all students. The present market-inspired reform agenda, like the earlier movement for vocational education, has overwhelmed other collective purposes that have driven U.S schools since the 19th century.
Preparing youth for the labor market has competed with the public’s expectation to prepare children to participate politically and socially in the community, expand equal educational opportunity, and, at the same time, help individuals climb the social ladder to success. This last purpose of schools as a vehicle for social mobility has meant that parents see schools as an individually acquired consumer good to help their sons and daughters achieve success in life.
The economic purpose for tax-supported schooling—a public good–has dominated policy debates for well over a century and in the past three decades has joined social mobility, a private good, to suck out all the oxygen in any discussion of civic or other purposes for public schools.
Most reformers, the general public, and educators have yet to distinguish between cycles of policy talk and action from what happens to policies when they are implemented in schools.
Policy talk refers to reformers’ cyclical rhetoric of gloomy assessments of schooling problems married to over-confident solutions. Hyper-excited policy talk occurred over national defense during the Cold War with the Soviet Union in the 1950s; we hear echoes of it now with fears of Chinese economic and military hegemony in Asia. Ditto for policy talk about distance learning or online instruction transforming U.S. schools and colleges in the 1960s, 1990s, and, now. Pronouncements from federal officials—take a look at the 2010 National Technology Plan—and for-profit companies promise a brave new high-tech world of individually tailored online learning at home and elsewhere eventually replacing brick-and-mortar schools.
In short, policy talk is hyperventilating rhetoric that we have heard repeatedly.
Policy action refers to the decisions governors, mayors, superintendents, and legislators make in adopting policies to solve school problems. Examples range from school boards buying iPads for kindergartners to superintendents establishing new math programs to the U.S. Congress and President approving NCLB. Like policy talk, there have been cycles of adopting similar policies in phonics, dropouts, and technologies.
Policy implementation in schools, however, is not cyclical. It is linear. There are trends. Schools as institutions have structures, cultures, and history. Regularities in structures and culture change slowly and incrementally so that trend lines become noticeable over time.
Implementing new programs stretch out over five or more years. When researchers, for example, observe classrooms to see how computers are used by teachers in activities they find great variation across classrooms in the same school and among schools in the same district. Some teachers pick and choose elements of the program; others change policy by redesigning activities and lessons. Because of school culture and organizational realities, change is gradual and episodic. But trends do appear over time. What happens in schools and classrooms, then, is a world apart from the hyperbole and gloom accompanying cyclical policy talk and action.
These three statements about historical patterns in school reform I stipulate as facts answer the questions of where the U.S. is in school reform now.