Commentary

William Mathis: Why educational reforms do not work so well

Editor’s note: This commentary is by William J. Mathis, of Goshen, who is vice chair of the Vermont State Board of Education and managing director of the National Education Policy Center.The views expressed are solely those of the author.

Each day seems to bring a rant about the schools. Of course, the ranter is convinced the problem could be solved if policymakers adopted his solution. Generally, these magic bullets are evidence-free, and no credit is given to the fact that test scores for 9- and 13-year-olds are at an all-time high as is the graduation rate. Risky behaviors are at a low. But the achievement gap is becoming greater for poor children.

The gap is driven by the growing disparities in wealth. Policy makers ritualistically speak to this while systematically adopting measures that make the problem worse.

Perhaps the problem is with the reform process itself.

It begins with a dedicated leader with a cause. Often, the goal is a good one. It is easy to find thousands of papers supporting most any cause. Some are supported by solid research and others by wishful thinking — and still others are costumed to look like scientific studies.

Googling “failing schools” got me 115 million hits. It’s not too hard to cherry-pick this trove and prepare a report with nifty graphics presented on PowerPoint slides. Lobbyists then descend on statehouses waving questionable studies, pretty graphics and model legislation.

This is not limited to any ideological or political position.

Sooner or later, every group with a cause shows up at the statehouse asking for a task force, a show-case pilot program, a mandated curriculum and money. Once an appropriation is established, “accountability” must be assured. This is met with new standards, assessments, mandated reports and a covey of state and local officials sending paperwork to each other, attending professional development workshops and holding conferences. Once money is doled out, it seldom goes away. It becomes an entitlement. A vested interest is established.

Money and school days are limited. This leads to an over-crowded calendar and the inability to teach all the mandated “standards.” For example, the problem is that the reading and math tests are intentionally designed to fail 50 percent of students. (This is not a typo nor an exaggeration). This stirs up a real witches’ brew and a misled public screams about low scores and high taxes. The result is a jammed and fragmented system.

All the while, the reformers chug right along adopting unfunded mandates while impoverished districts struggle to keep the lights on. The result is 46 of the 50 states have been through a court challenge for inadequate funding – and the citizens have won over half.

The result is school resources become over-extended as the income gap grows. This leads to a person with a cause — and the wheel turns. What is missing from the perpetual reform cycle is a focus on the purpose of education. By trying to do everything, little is done well.

Contemporary policymakers forget that universal public education was implemented to nurture and sustain democracy. Without a commonly agreed purpose, educators are caught in a neverland between the official goals of the system and what actually happens with children.

Paradoxically, this reform cycle narrows the vision rather than expands it.

Curriculum becomes focused on tests rather than the attributes of a free society. Instead of building capacities to meet the needs of the 21st century, school becomes the passive instrument of ineffective and segregative policies. The answers do not lie in early 20th century organizational over-centralization, narrowing of public involvement, or inert strategic plans. These retreaded “reforms” have little effect primarily because they are not responsive to children’s or society’s needs.

The narrowing also blinds us to the painfully obvious present and future needs. At a time when school shootings are common and governmental chaos reigns, it is all the more important to remember that schools’ historic and primary purposes were to teach common knowledges and democratic values. At a time when social and economic gaps are ascendant, universal and equitable public education is the only remaining viable institution that can address these needs. At a time when computers and technology are changing the fundamental structure of learning, it is an imperative that we focus on our North Star, the universals of a democratic society.


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