The so-called Save Our Schools march scheduled for this weekend is getting a fair amount of traffic on my twitter feed, so I clicked on a link that brought me to this list of “Guiding Principles” from the events organizers. And all I could think was:
To put it more directly: This is not an agenda for accomplishing anything. It’s just a wish list. Half of it is a wishlist of things the organizers don’t want (performance-based pay, school closures). Half of it is a wishlist for things someone might want, without any clear theory of how to operationalize them or what that might actually look like in practice in the real world. (I, too, would like to see “Well-rounded education that develops every student’s intellectual, creative, and physical potential”–but in the absence of clear prescriptions and mechanisms about how to make that a reality, well, you might as well wish for a pony, too.) The really weird thing is that a lot of the “wishlist” items aren’t even outcomes for educators or students, but process items, like “Educator and civic community leadership in drafting new ESEA legislation.” I don’t know how you’d intend to operationalize that or what the desired ends would be!
But beyond picking on the Save our Schools marchers, I think there’s a point here that often gets overlooked in education policy debates. Most people (but especially parents and educators) when they think about schools and what they want out of schools, they think about the day-to-day experiences that they want kids and educators to have and the concrete things they want to see happening in schools. That’s why policy initiatives like “small class size” have been politically successful despite the weak evidence on their effectiveness improving student learning–because they link up easily to something tangible that parents can understand why they’d want for their kids.
But articulating the kind of experiences we want children to have in schools is not policy. Policy is about going a step further and asking, “Given the types of experiences and outcomes we want schools to produce for kids, what are the structural and systemic arrangements we can put in place that maximize the likelihood that adults and school systems will deliver those experiences and results for kids?” And to a large extent those systemic and structural arrangements may not map obviously or intuitively to the experiences we want for kids. If anything, our experience seems to indicate that piling on mandates that schools do “good things” for kids leads to a kind of organizational incoherence and churn that reduces, rather than increases, our schools’ and educators’ ability to actually deliver the kind of experiences and results we all want.
For a long time, education debates in this country ignored the systemic and structural questions, which didn’t matter all that much because education was sort of a backwater policy issue anyway. More recently, education reform issues have risen in policy prominence and reformers have been surprisingly successful in engaging public debate around wonkier topics like accountability, teacher evaluation and incentives, and the role of market mechanisms in public education.
So it’s not surprising that many educators and some parents are feeling a disconnect now with our education reform conversation. The types of conversations that are dominating our educational policy debate today do often feel disconnected from the reality of what parents and teachers want for children and for themselves. And that’s why people like Diane Ravitch and the Save our Schools organizers can seize on that disconnect and spin a vision of an alternative world they suggest would come into play if we just got rid of those pernicious education reform initiatives. But anyone paying attention here knows that this idealized (and I use that word carefully–there’s lots of elements of this particular vision I’d dispute even if there were a clear path to accomplish them) world has never actually existed and that the people spinning a vision of it have no clear explanation of how–absent a magic wand–they’d actually get to the world they prescribe once they slay the reform dragon. Ok–I get it that you want to get rid of high-stakes testing and accountability and return control of curriculum and assessment decisions completely to the control of individual teachers. But we used to have an education system that did pretty much that. And it was really crappy, especially for low-income and minority kids. And if you think educational decisions of all ilk were free of “political and corporate control” before the current generation of reformers came on the scene–Well, when I get through laughing I’ll tell you you’d better put down Diane Ravitch’s most recent book and pick up some of her earlier ones (which are excellent, btw!).
This is a real challenge for reformers–both education reformers in the sense the term has come to take on in our contemporary debates, and individuals offering alternative prescriptions for reform. How do we keep the ball moving forward on reshaping our education systems to increase the likelihood they deliver good results for kids–with all the wonkiness that entails–while also developing a language that bridges the gap between systemic changes we seek and the emotional realities of what parents want in the most concrete of terms everyday for their children?