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.”