School Reform and the Confusion of Labels

Summary: Who are the school reformers, and how do we tell them apart? And what do traditional labels such as “liberal” and “conservative” mean in this context?

Who are the reformers in American education? Honestly, in my time in schools, I thought of myself as a reformer, in the down to earth sense of trying always to find better ways to motivate the kids before me and enhance their learning. I know I was hardly alone in my particular school. The faculty served up a diverse menu of skills and attributes, and a strong majority of staff (at least I thought) measured a significant part of their self-worth as stemming from the quality of their impact on the kids they taught.

Yet I am struck that seldom are teachers and more generally workers in schools labeled “school reformers,” while those outside schools such as corporate donors, think tank opiners or market oriented intellectuals often are so labeled in the media. “What is up with that?”

How have we school folk allowed the phrase to be hijacked? Perhaps there is no mystery or ulterior action involved. After the grading of papers, the preparation for the next days’ lesson, there is little room in the teachers’ life for meetings after meetings after school, or for evening meetings that conflict with family time. Just the practice of teaching itself for those committed to the craft consumes as much time as the practitioner is willing to give it.

Many teachers can little afford to be politically assertive in any school movement, including their union, unless they be young, without family and mortgage. As a consequence the ministrations of the union remain traditional, on compensation and work conditions — the latter which does intersect with issues of educational quality in matters such as classroom size — rather than on the broader philosophies of school reorganization and reform.

So unions are cut off from the better reform instincts of teachers, and show a face to the public, as a teachers’ organization, that poorly reflects the reformist heart lurking in most teachers, that instinct that brought them into the profession, a desire to create a better world.

By contrast, on the outside of the school community, it is in corporate interest to be able to hire well qualified public school graduates, and so time and resources are set aside to “reform.” University and private foundation thinkers make schools the focal point of their labors, and so produce ideas that “reform.”

I am struck that one of the original “reformers”, Diane Ravitch, has somehow been ascribed a reactionary patina, because she has come full circle to rebut some of the darling ideas of the “school reform” movement.

There are other time honored labels that seem to have been stood on end. What, after all, does “progressive” mean in school reform context? Can corporate types be “progressive” when they boost reform in their capital self-interest? Or does progressive somehow denote an approach to the betterment of others or the common good? Liberal used to mean something along those lines.

What then does “liberal” or “conservative” mean now, and in this context?

Are unions, once the liberal champion of the working person, now conservative because they too often deflate school progress? Once upon a time in American political discourse “conservative” referred to a respected position, and was not the pejorative it has become in the context of our acid, over heated national partisanship. One side spits “liberal”; the other spits “conservative”.  The former evokes gutless do-gooder and the latter stick in the mud.

In the name of market ideology another faction dons the mask of reformer and advocates school vouchers as a way out of low income and failing schools for low income parents and their kids. Are they then “progressive” for pursuing a conservative market ideology for its own sake, or is there altruism in the movement as well?

Such semantic confusion echoes an in depth disarray in education. In this world of misapplied labels and hyper partisanship, the factions tend not to confer with one another, a failed behavior modeled by Congress, and so pursue solutions in their own tunnels that may fit a preferred way of seeing the world, but at best address real problems only in a fragmented fashion.

Thought about school reform has become so partisan that teachers, the guts of the matter, are somehow left out of the discussion, and instead have become the butt of the problem, probably because as a group they are too silent. Teacher voice might pose just the dose of reality needed to leaven the frantic offerings from the lookers on – the corporations, think tanks, and politicians of various stripe that have some form of skin in the game.

Ours tends to be an adversarial society; in the end it is believed that better ideas will win out to the betterment of society as a whole. However, the model works best when positions are flexible enough to break bread with competing visions.

It seems to me that conversation between players has been a casualty. Peace, my brothers and sisters. Let us confer.

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1 Response to School Reform and the Confusion of Labels

  1. Deb says:

    Mr. Brand, I greatly miss your perceptions and insights. This blog entry ignited the spark after the busyness of keeping my head above water the first week of school. 🙂

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