How Beliefs in School Reform Evolve Over Time

School reform is steady work. As a teacher, administrator, superintendent, and university researcher for over six decades in working to reform classrooms, schools, and districts, it should come as no surprise to readers that what I thought about reform in the mid-1950s as a teacher, what I believed school reform was when I ran a district in the 1970s and 1980s, and how I conceptualize reform today as a retired professor has changed. Looking back at my strongly held beliefs on reforming schools then and how, I can see how they have morphed into quite different views about school reform.

There may be wisdom in this “confession” about evolving beliefs about school reform. And even if some readers were to think so, I am well aware that wisdom cannot be told to others because reflecting on one’s direct experience more often than not trumps others’ advice. So I offer these reflections on how one educator’s beliefs about reform changed over time to get readers to ponder what their beliefs once were and are now about teaching, learning, and, yes, of course–reforming schools.

Changes in reform beliefs over time is surely common especially as educators accumulate different experiences. What may be uncommon is to document those changes and then reflect on those changes in beliefs.

And that is what I have done in the final chapter of my next book. What I present below is a draft–not a final version so I am open to comments–of a section of the chapter that describes how my beliefs about school reform have evolved over time.

I begin by returning to my first job teaching history at Cleveland’s Glenville High School between 1956-1963. What I discovered about reforming both teaching and the classroom curriculum convinced me then that engaged teachers creating lessons with multi-ethnic and racial content tailored to student interests could get Black students to participate and learn in de facto segregated city schools. That belief in sharp, committed teachers wielding relevant content and skills getting students to not only engage but also learn I carried to the District of Columbia’s Cardozo High School to train new and committed teachers to teach in similar ways. 

Turns out I was only partially correct. I came to see after being a teacher in Cleveland for seven years and then a teacher and administrator for another nine years in D.C. that my view of reform was blinkered, even myopic. I had not even imagined that classroom and school reform was a political process.

 In moving from the granular classroom at Glenville to the school at Cardozo and then the district office of the D.C. schools, my view of reform expanded to encompass the politics of getting something to happen at a school or in a district. Mobilizing resources and people to focus on a particular idea or program took bureaucratic moxie and forging relationships with like-minded people inside and outside schools. I began to see different units or sites for reform—classroom and school—nested within one another and that both had to be altered in order for reforms to have the most effect in classrooms.

And that view further enlarged when I administered a district-wide staff development program from my office in the Presidential Building in D.C. My experiences within a large bureaucracy with budgetary ties to the D.C. government and links to the U.S. Congress forced me to see how relationships, resources, and reform were intimately bound together. I came to a broader view that the Washington public schools were nested within the federal bureaucracy comprising an even larger political system in need of change for schools and classrooms to get better. The intersecting of various systems became clear to me in ways that I had not known as a teacher at Glenville High School.

The second confession comes from my years as Arlington County superintendent.

I entered that post saturated with experiences in Washington, D.C. classrooms and central office and filled with ideas learned at Stanford about organizations and how they worked.  Experiences with racial divides and political infighting at administrative headquarters in the D.C. system echoed in my mind.

In Arlington, I presented myself to the community and teachers as someone who prized the art and science of classroom teaching. These ideas, echoes, and presentation ran smack up against serious political problems over a largely white district shrinking in enrollment while becoming increasingly minority and fearing a loss in academic quality. The fact is that even after my experiences in the D.C. bureaucracy, taking courses at Stanford in politics of education, I was inexperienced, even naïve, about the political role I played as superintendent.

Chapter 6 described how the Arlington County School Board and I in our first few years amid constant political conflicts over closing schools reframed problems in ways that would restore community faith in its schools. A key part was tightening up organizational links between what happened in classrooms, schools, and the district to students’ academic outcomes. My staff and I developed a management mechanism that applied to all principals and district administrators called the Annual School Plan. And here is where I come to my next confession.

The Annual School Plans were successful in concentrating the entire staff’s attention on students’ performance so that within three years I began to see organizational, curricular, and instructional changes that I believed could lead to a mindless conformity, ultimately producing a system geared to cranking out high test scores and operating with less imagination and creativity.  And that worried me because I was very proud of the high level of teacher competence and creativity across Arlington classrooms.  While I did not dial back the push for higher test scores to meet local and state standards–the political climate looked for the numbers to rise–my concerns over growing uniformity grew.  I regret that I could not articulate the peril of mindless standardization.

And yet there was even a larger picture that I slowly became aware of as I reflected on the intersection between classroom, school, district systems and the larger society.  As a researcher at Stanford, I went into many California districts and came to grasp better how the politics of state and federally driven school reforms did and did not translate into district and school programs. I came to realize that a district system was itself nested within larger socioeconomic, political, and caste-like structures (e.g., market-driven society focused on individual action, economic inequalities, racist structures) all of which hemmed in what superintendents, principals, teachers and students could do in improving classroom, school, and district performance. I realized that social and political coalitions (i.e., civil rights movement) struggled to change those societal structures and in some instances made incremental improvements. This larger picture of public schools nested in America’s economic, political, and cultural milieu occasioned pessimism about school reform but in the end, tempered optimism over what needed to be changed and what can be done.

Writing in 2020, all of this seems self-evident.  But it wasn’t to me in 1956 when I began teaching. What I have described is the growing awareness of school reform as a political process and the complexity of schools as I moved from teacher and administrator to researcher—the journey of a toddler, so to speak, to an adult. I was not stupid, just innocent and unaware of how difficult it was to grasp the inter-connectedness of politics, relationships, resources, and systems. I had to pull together my experiences in schools and think about them time and again.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders, school reform policies

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s