The Status Quo Is Always Changing

Sorting out the hype of reform rhetoric from the substance is a fulltime job. No one has yet applied for the post.

In the current dogfight between reformers vs. anti-reformers (labels that Stephen Brill bestows on these hardly monolithic groups in his best selling book Class Warfare), positions harden as salvos of criticism fly back and forth between warring camps. Epithets such as “deformers”* are hurled at those who style themselves as “no excuses” reformers dead-set on seeing urban schools as places where effective teachers and principals can overcome the effects of poverty. And these hardy reformers fire back salvos of criticism on anyone who supports teacher unions, opposes evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores, and snickers at charter schools. “Defenders of the status quo” is a common epithet they use. Slinging nasty names at one another creates ozone.

Who are these “defenders of the status quo?” Superintendents who worked well with their teacher unions–say Tom Payzant in Boston or Carl Cohn in Long Beach (CA)–easily get tagged as past “defenders of the status quo.” Ditto for teachers and principals who voice objections to Core Curriculum Standards, charter schools, or complex algorithms using student test scores to evaluate teachers.

The “no excuses” crowd need to position critics of Race to the Top and pay-for-performance as anti-reformers who oppose major changes and want things to remain the same in school districts. Yet when I look at what has changed in districts over the past two decades, the “status quo” is a non-starter in describing the many changes that have occurred. Most of these changes occurred in big city districts over the past quarter-century, well before many in the current generation of reformers could vote. The point I want to make is that earlier generations of reformers both inside and outside districts, upset over the lousy schooling that poor and minority children and youth were receiving, changed structures and procedures.

Consider the following reforms that most urban districts have adopted in the past quarter century:

*Raised graduation requirements

*Increased efficiency of business side of district operations through outsourcing and automation

*Increased the auditing, assessing, and evaluating of school staffs through automated data collection

*Deployed desktop and laptop computers extensively in schools and classrooms

*Created portfolios of schools from which parents could choose (e.g., charters, magnets, alternatives)

*Developed uniformity in curriculum and assessment

*Raised expectations that all students can achieve and enter higher education

Sure, many of the above changes came through external pressure of political coalitions that lobbied for state and federal mandates. Sure, many of the above changes have not yet altered what happens between students and teachers in the ways that were expected.  Sure, there are glitches and significant differences in opinion over whether some of these changes are better or worse for children and youth. And, sure, large gaps in academic achievement between minority and white students remain.

The point is that urban school reform has been going on for decades, pushed by top corporate and civic leaders in the nation, and changes have indeed occurred. The current status quo is an accumulation and on-going digestion of reforms adopted in the past quarter-century. In short, the status quo is dynamic not static.

The current generation of “reformers” pressing for charter schools, performance-based evaluations, Common Core standards, and other items on their agenda are in that stream of reformers anxious to, in their favorite phrase, “move the needle” in big city schools. Knowing that history and taking a longer look in the rear-view mirror to see how far urban districts have come (and yet looking ahead, how far they have to go) can help dial back the snarky exchanges that retard efforts to make common cause. Each side of the current snarling groups who see only evil motives in their opponents avoid seeing those who quietly work together, side-by-side, in improving how teachers teach and students learn.

There are “defenders of the status quo” who initiate quality charters schools and embrace KIPP-like models. There are “no excuses” reformers who work closely with teacher unions (Superintendent MaryEllen Elia  in Hillsborough County, Florida) and see the virtues of wraparound programs for poor families (Geoffrey Canada in the Harlem Children Zone). In the current climate of virtual hate between these groups, they have to collaborate on the sly. Amped up reform rhetoric destroys collaboration over the best way to improve teaching and learning. Turning down the noise, ending the barking at one another, is the first step in figuring out ways of helping teachers and students do the never-ending and essential work of teaching and learning.


*”Anti-reformers” or “defenders of the status quo” call the “no excuse” crowd “deformers.”



Filed under Reforming schools

12 responses to “The Status Quo Is Always Changing

  1. Pingback: Remainders: A visual library of education classics, old and new | GothamSchools

  2. Larry Littlefield

    The reform wars are irrelevant, and will be forgotten in a few years.

    All that matter is the retroactive pension enhancements of the past 15 years, and past taxpayer underfunding, with the two in varying proportions leading to the devastation of every school district in the country.

  3. Pingback: Online Education in America » Blog Archive » Remainders: A visual library of education classics, old and new

  4. Nolan

    Your list of changes over the last quarter century. “Yes…BUT!”

    Nothing on your list was a change to the CORE of what a school is: the act of teaching, instruction and learning and the people that teach.

    Those changes are really “nibbling at the edges” reforms that are more technology-based that every industry, every part of society has reformed as the times have changed but not specific to public education. These aren’t “public EDUCATION” reforms. Their reforms to the business of running schools; not reforms to the business of instructing students.

    Desktops and laptops in corporate offices…and the classroom;
    Increase business efficiency through outsourcing in companies across the country…and the classroom;
    Automated data collection in businesses across the country….and the classroom

    But not one iota about improving TEACHING and THE QUALITY OF THE TEACHERS THEMSELVES which is the CORE of the work of schools. That part has been quite status quo for the past 25 years, hence the need for real change and not this other nonsense.

    • larrycuban

      Believe it or not, Nolan, teaching in most urban classrooms has changed in the past quarter-century. With the adoption of curriculum standards, testing, and accountability across the U.S., classroom practices have tilted even more strongly than before toward teacher-centered instruction–more homework, worksheets, textbook assignments, large group instruction, and teacher talk–all geared toward preparing students for benchmark tests and end of year state exams. The intensification of traditional instruction is one of the hallmarks of the past few decades in urban districts.

      • Nolan

        Again. Tests. Worksheets. All fringe changes. Not a dramatic shift at all. Why hasn’t the field done a better job preparing teachers how to teach well? And to say its the testing is a cop out. Are you telling me that you have to do worksheets and teacher talk to prepare students for a test? Do students learn best that way? No. But if you have a large crop of average to ineffective teachers that WERE NEVER TAUGHT HOW TO TEACH WELL in ed school or whatever program they entered, all they are going to do is print out worksheets because THEY DON’T KNOW HOW TO TEACH; they don’t know any better. No one taught them or if they did, they never held them accountable for mastering the art of teaching before entering a classroom.

        I’m trying to point out that there is a HUGE VOID in the system here. It’s like we’re preparing surgeons by giving them different scapels, x-rays and knives but no one ever teaches them how to perform surgery. You can’t become a surgeon unless you know how to perform surgery well. But you can become a teacher without knowing how to teach.

        Therein lies the problem.

        Until that changes – everything else is fringe, noise, conflating the issue.

  5. edintheapple

    As you know so well unless the “new thing” is adopted by classroom teachers and supported by parents it joins the detritus of failed edutrivia.

    • larrycuban

      For most structural reforms in schools (e.g., establishment of kindergarten, the comprehensive high school–both in the early 20th century–deployment of desktop computers in late-20th century) teachers were neither consulted or involved in planning). Teachers did not adopt these new add-ons to age-graded schools but parents did want them and they have stuck, not withered away–as you suggest. For most district curriculum frameworks and textbook adoptions, however, teachers are usually involved at the committee level in deciding on content and books. Whether teacher decisions on these matters translate into altered classroom practices, well, that is another topic.

  6. This sounds like a call for Peace and Love — which never hurts. But neither “reformers” or “deformers” stand for basic educational improvements such as small classes, better-prepared teachers in subjects such as math and science, cadres of school-based tutors for many children who need them, and a curriculum that provides a foundation for honorable work, an interesting life and participatory citizenship — not just “college-readiness” for everyone.

  7. All of you make wonderful accurate points.
    The most disturbing part of my work as an advocate for at-risk community schools in New York City is the difference between the intellectual discussion and debate (at the highest and most well meaning levels on both sides) and the reality of what all of this dialogue looks like on the ground.
    If you’re curious, go see for yourself.

  8. Pingback: Thompson: Ending the Educational Civil War | STEMroots

  9. I could not agree more with Noland. We keep trying to “fix” instruction by doing a “better” job of what we have always been doing…. Badly using technology in the classroom is a classic example… eg online work sheets that allow students to learn at their own pace…It is using a worksheet that is wrong not the pacing…and when the inadequacy of these fixes reveal themselves in the Test, we try and “fix’ the student by creating mitigations aka interventions like tutoring and pull-out programs to “help” our youth succeed… And by supporting these interventions we continue to perpetuate the same inadequate instruction that caused the problem in the first place…

    While we have a long way to go on getting the “what” of teaching right… I agree that we have come along way in identifying what students should know and be able to do, and holding the educational system accountable…. The third grad teacher mention above can no longer hide in their classroom nor can my high school chemistry college that only conducted four laboratory experiments per year and gave nearly all of his students “B’s.”

    Getting the “what” of education is important but getting the “how” of education is more important… It is about the quality of the work we create for students to do… and we have a long way to go on improving the quality of this work and the environment in which it occurs. As my long time hero, Phil Schlechty says, “the only thing a teacher has control over is the work they create for students to do.” The irony of all, is that we clearly know what “work,” works best but we refuse to do it because “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

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