For the past month or so I have been wrestling with questions that have bugged me for a long time.
I have learned over the years that school reform have life cycles that follow a singular pattern. Join me in a fast-forward trip through school reform in the U.S.
Late-19th century Progressives, for example, saw overcrowded classrooms, unqualified teachers, immigrants speaking dozens of languages and unfamiliar with being American, rote recitation, massive inefficiencies in administering schools, and students wholly unprepared for an industrial workplace. Schools were failing to educate children and youth. It was a crisis that had to be ended. New curricula, medical and social services, different forms of instruction, innovative school organization and democratic governance became the established ideology for “good” public schools between the 1890s and 1940s.
After World War II, a rising movement of anti-communism rejected Progressivism in schools and spurred by the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union sought to inject academic steel into a Swiss cheese curriculum to produce more engineers, mathematicians and scientists. Again what constituted a “good” school shifted.
By the mid-1960s, the Civil Rights movement spilled over both segregated and desegregated schools altering again Americans’ sense of what a “good” school is.
And in subsequent decades, economic fears of Japanese and German exports out-performing U.S. cars, electronics, and other products led to business and civic leaders looking to schools to bolster an inefficient and sagging economy. A Nation at Risk (1983) coalesced those fears into a war plan to revive the economy through making schools stronger academically and turning out graduates who could enter the workplace prepared with requisite knowledge and skills. Again, the definition of a “good” school shifted. The U.S. continues to this day to be in the thrall of this education-cum-economy ideology.
In this hop-skip-and-jump through the history of U.S. school reform a pattern emerged.
First, policy elites in each generation, exaggerating existing conditions, condemned schools for their low quality. Schools had failed. They graduated students unfit to enter the existing political, economic, and social world. Then these ardent school reformers proposed governance, curricular, organizational, and instructional reforms that would turn failing schools into successful ones often underestimating the complexity of schools as institutions and the resources needed to make the proposed changes actually alter how schools operated and teachers taught. Finally, after time had passed, as schools didn’t conform to the expectations of these fervent reformers, they walked away in disappointment and disgust saying that the schools were not much better than when they had started. Their reforms had foundered. They blamed, among others, resistant teachers, unthinking administrators, a clogged bureaucracy, and hostile parents.
As one generation of reformers passed through, another arose and the pattern reasserted itself anew. Historians and social scientists have documented these cycles of reform over the past 150 years (see here, here, here, and here).
The chronic defeat of major school reforms authored by Progressives, Civil Rights leaders, CEOs and U.S. Presidents to achieve their lofty goals of fundamentally altering the system of schooling over the past century to school the “whole child,” raise all students to high proficiency levels in reading and math, and “personalize learning” reflects the often-used language within schooling of “success” and “failure.”
Commonly used to describe reform initiatives and innovations, these labels are also part of the DNA of schooling in the U.S. Some students are “winners” in the race to get a gold star for classroom work, a high grade-point-average, become valedictorian. Other students throw up their hands and drop out of school. And there are those–most students–in the middle doing the best they can do but nonetheless settling for seldom becoming a winner while avoiding being seen as a loser.
Over the decades, I have come to see both success and failure in reform linked to definitions of success and failure in classrooms, schools, districts, state, and national systems of education. Reflecting on all of the research I have done, a puzzle slowly emerged yielding questions that I wanted to answer:
*Exactly what do “success” and “failure” mean in schooling the young in classrooms, schools, and districts?
*Where do these concepts of success and failure come from?
*What is the middle ground between success and failure in schools and society? Is it being average, middling, or mediocre?
In a series of earlier posts, I have taken a stab at answering the first two of these questions, drafting answers that made sense to me. I have received very helpful responses from readers as I re-think what I have written and begin writing the next draft.
For now, I want to explore in a few posts the unanswered question about what’s between success and failure. After all, daily life teaches us by age 7 that winners and losers do not capture the totality of experience; in most situations we do not flat out win or lose, we often end up in the middle. Life is not a zero-sum game. Most children and youth realize that.
But the “middle,” “average,” and “mediocre,” in American culture, are negatively charged words. No one I know wants to be “mediocre.” Since most of us end up in the middle ranges in work, play, and life–how come such words carry the sting of being a loser?
In part 2, I take up the concept of being in the middle of most distributions of talent, achievement, and life. And how in a society prizing meritocracy being in the middle has gained the stigma of being mediocre both in schooling and life.