It won’t be long before shocking reports of incidents erupt from the angry split among contemporary reformers. While this has not yet happened–at least to my knowledge–I can imagine it, given the high temperature of current reform rhetoric. The heated rhetoric on both sides of the reform debate is like one side saying to the other: “I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.”
At a fund-raising soiree for school reform, to make up an example, one attendee accused another of publicly criticizing new state policies that lifted the cap on the number of charter schools and required up to 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on student test scores as a “defender of the status quo.” She pointed her finger at the blogging reformer and said: “You are killing a generation of children and youth with your continual jabs at our efforts to expect the very best from teachers and students, to accept ‘no excuses’ from staff, and to fundamentally turnaround a failing system. All you do is support incremental changes here and there while propping up a failing system of schooling.”
The “defender of the status quo” replied angrily that those supposed fundamental reforms have little to no evidence supporting them and, worse, the policies she advocates lay the entire responsibility for success upon teachers and administrators to turn failure into success by ignoring the circumstances in which children come to school. “Incremental reforms,” he said, “can make a difference when they are planned, involve teachers from the start, implemented fully, and are sustained over time. Anyway, who gave you a license to take your bright, unproven ideas and try them out on kids?”
The “no excuses” reformer threw a glass of Cabernet in the face of the critic and stamped off.
The gap between school reformers and their critics, “defenders of the status quo” grows. “No excuses” urban reformers–shorthand for contemporary policy elites that include CEOs, top federal and state political leaders, and grant-giving donors–and those who question the goals (e.g., schools produce job-ready graduates who contribute to economic growth and competitiveness, everyone goes to college) and strategies (e.g., charter schools, pay-4-performance of teachers, common core standards) have a history.
Not only do well-intentioned reformers–both “no excuses” and “defenders of the status quo”–ignore past efforts at fundamental and incremental reform and similar arguments (e.g., creating student-centered classrooms in the early 1900s, importing electronic technologies into classrooms since the 1950s) but also fail to see that the disagreements over fundamental and incremental reforms are about the scope, content, and pace of change, not whether schools should reform or even the endpoint of reform.
In an earlier post (April 7, 2010), I offered a way of looking at different kinds of reform conceptually that might have avoided not only the Cabernet-tossing incident (yes, I made it up) but the deep confusion that contemporary reformers have in distinguishing incremental from fundamental reforms.
Consider a simple 2 X 2 matrix that distinguishes between types of change (incremental and fundamental) and the pace of implementation (make changes in small steps or make the changes swiftly or in grand moves). Consider further where four practitioners (and the policymakers and foundation officials who support such reforms) would place themselves.
c A B n
n C D n
Take a kindergarten teacher—call her Janice– who is an incrementalist. She put herself in the A quadrant (and where in the quadrant she would place her name—in the middle or close to B, C, or D indicates where her blend of inclinations rested). She saw her five year-olds lacking experiences with new technology. She introduced iPads in her kindergarten by persuading her principal to buy four. Next year, she would have eight and make a computer center just like her centers for reading, art, and science.
Barbara, a high school principal, placed herself in the C quadrant. In January, she had decided to introduce a block schedule of 3 daily 90-minute periods in September because she believed it would make teaching and learning more effective than the current 7 periods of 48-minutes. She concentrated only on schedule changes maintaining existing departments and avoided questioning teachers about what they would do in the 90-minute block. Within six weeks she had mobilized a faculty group to support the change, solved the logistical problems teachers identified, found the appropriate software to make the changes and got the parent school-site committee to endorse it. She found money for half of the staff to spend 2 weeks during the summer planning activities in each subject for the 90-minute block.
If A and C are incrementalist quadrants, B and D belong to those who seek fundamental changes in their classroom, school, or district but at different paces. Barciela, a veteran elementary school principal in a largely Latino barrio, confidently wrote her name in the B quadrant. She saw a rapidly growing majority of Latino students segregated from the rest of society. She wanted to create a dual immersion school (Spanish and English) where language skills and culture of her families and students could educate non-Latino children while Latino children could learn from others unlike themselves. She was passionate about this innovation but knew that it would take at least three years to get approved by the school board and enroll students. She laid out all of the steps that she would have to follow each year and listed the problems that she could anticipate.
Science teacher Sondra dashed her name into quadrant D with a flourish. She had found her customary way of teaching biology and chemistry inadequate for the culturally diverse students she faced each year. She believed in students discovering scientific concepts, working in teams on projects, and online instruction via university professors and games yet she was still tied to lecture, using the textbook with occasional lab periods. She wanted to make dramatic changes in her teaching. She located 10 laptops, a handful of biology software programs nicely integrated with key units that she would teach, and found a young biology teacher in another school who agreed to help her learn the new software and manage online instruction. Over the summer, Sondra reorganized the traditional biology course. In September, with the help of a student whiz with machines and software, Sondra put half of the class to work on new software and online lessons while she concentrated on the half-dozen students who needed extra help from her. In the past, these students fell behind quickly and eventually failed.
All of these practitioners sought different kinds of reform at different paces. Seeking incremental changes toward a fundamental reform is not only possible but desirable in a politically charged institution such as public schools. “Defending the status quo” is a tired slogan that makes little sense in the complex politics of school reform and short-changes those reformers who see fundamental changes as a series of small steps toward a desired end.
Whether that desired endpoint is good for schools, the larger society, and a political democracy is, of course, another question that deserves serious scrutiny–not a tossed glass of Cabernet.