In the previous post, I offered two perspectives on the past decade of school reform that explained No Child Left Behind and splits among reformers. One view featured individual and group motives. Market-driven reformers were out to destroy public schools and teacher union leaders only wanted to protect interests of teachers over children. These motives explained current battles between “reformers” and “anti-reformers.”
Then I offered an alternative to that dominant view: look at school reform as theater. Reformer actions expresses on the stage of public schooling struggles over societal values, beliefs, and ideas. Schools become places where national cultural and social battles are fought out even when they have not caused the problems to be solved. Then I asked the So What question: of what practical use is it to offer the dominant explanation and then an alternative that sees reformers acting out cultural struggles on the proscenium stage of public schools? Sure, such explanations may use ideas and language that academics might appreciate but how practical are such explanations for teachers and principals?
They are not practical. Worse yet, they may even encourage cynicism. These explanations rest upon politically impotent teachers and principals insofar as making and implementing policy. A more practical, if not realistic, explanation for the past decade of school reform would lay out a view of political power and influence shaping policies and making explicit who does what. Here, then, is a third perspective.
1.Who frames the problem and how it is framed matters determines which solution is chosen
Top political and business leaders and their cohorts believe (and have so for decades) that U.S. schools are failing to produce sufficient knowledgeable and skilled graduates to compete economically with Asian and European competitors. Unless schools produce more and better human capital–graduates–these leaders say that the U.S. economy will not grow and the standard of living will decline. To arrest any economic decline, federal and state governments have to press districts and practitioners to do better. With top leaders’ access to media and money, these beliefs soon become the conventional wisdom.
2. Once a problem is framed, the solution is usually embedded in the way the problem is framed
U.S. schools, especially urban schools, have failed to produce the right kind of graduates to enter a labor market anchored in a knowledge-based economy because parents lack choices of better schools. Solution? Offer charter schools, magnets, for-profit online schools, etc.
Schools have failed because 50 states offer different curricula. Solution? Common Core standards in math and English.
And schools have failed because most competent teachers have little incentive to do better while less competent teachers continue to teach. Solution? Use test scores to pay high performing teachers more money and weed out low performing teachers.
3. Policymakers adopt reforms and direct practitioners to put reforms into practice.
Once top leaders frame problems, forge solutions, and formally adopt them–for federal policymakers it is No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top competition–then it is up to state and local policymakers to fund, enact, and direct teachers and principals to put policies into practice. Here the policy-to-practice chain get jerked hard as teachers and principals are expected to implement faithfully what their leaders have decided and over which they had little influence.
Here, then, is another explanation for U.S. school reform. This one is political and organizational. It leans heavily upon top-down powerful and influential leaders defining the problems with schools, choosing and publicizing those solutions most feasible to solve the problems, and then delegating the solutions to those state and local decision-makers and practitioners to put reforms into practice. This explanation differs from the previous ones where motives were attributed to reformers explaining why they do what they do. In that explanation teacher unions were portrayed as giant villains capable of controlling entire school districts and even state legislatures to exert their will upon children. In the reform-as-theater explanation schools are like stages from which societal values, attitudes, and beliefs are acted out.
The theater and political/organizational explanations reveal the hapless, ineffectual role that teachers and principals–the ones who do their best with what they have–play in the larger picture of current school reform. More as objects to be manipulated than actual people who are individually and collectively capable of defining problems and figuring out solutions. Not a pretty picture. But is it a practical one?
Yes, it could be if the negligible role that teachers and principals now play in defining problems and choosing solutions can be turned politically into getting teachers individually and collectively involved in making those policies that aim at improving teaching and learning. Now, they are uninvolved. Where teachers and principals enter the picture is when they are delegated the task of putting decisions over which they had no say-so into practice.