School Reform: Has the Baby Been Thrown Out With the Bath Water?

Summary: In the tight focus on testing for basic skills and the evaluation of teachers, do we look past issues such as critical thinking and civic education?

Every now and then in my personal life I stop and realize I am working too hard at something, and more often than not it is because I am going about a problem in too complicated and wrong minded a way. Eventually I refine my approach, usually into a more simple and direct strategy which fits the problem in a more elegant fashion, as a key fits a lock.

Something of this dilemma confounds me about the school reform movement, where much frenetic energy circulates around academic test scores, which measure student progress and evaluate teachers, but with modest effect so far despite much sound and fury.

My general support for these experiments aside, certain questions periodically cycle around to dog me.

Are we still educating our youth to citizenry in ways in which the original founding of public schools intended? Are our students learning to work together with one another or, more broadly, are we successfully mentoring them to embrace the increasing diversity of this republic? Are they learning to think critically above and beyond any rote instruction, in order to better transport these analytical skills to problems as yet unanticipated?

What do we lose as we obsess about academic skills, as much as that case continues to be compelling?

Where and how does the time come to do it all? Basic skills aside, voices periodically and patiently articulate directions in which the pendulum will need to swing one day.

For example, former Washington State Superintendent of Public Schools Judith Billings and former teacher Web Hutchins contribute an op ed piece in the Seattle Times that calls for more fervent attention to civics education for our future voters. They note that only 21% of 18 to 29 year olds voted in a recent federal election, an appalling figure if projected over the group’s adult voting life. How does a democracy function on such apparent civic illiteracy, even irresponsibility?

For myself, I wonder about the ease with which certain populations send representatives to Congress bent solely on reducing the federal government, oblivious to the various ways in which an activist government has incubated technology, funded economic progress, created assorted infrastructure, and on – in short, ushered our economy into the contemporary market environment. Too many accept too many simplistic solutions; reinvigorated civic education, aligned to critical thinking will hopefully deepen the debate, not necessarily toward big government, but toward rational choices in which government does what it can do best, and a civic environment in which citizens separate the wheat of politicians’ words from their chaff.

Implicit in the Billings/Hutchins plea is a corollary acknowledgement of the role multi-cultural instruction might play in a culture where Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman tragically play out their mutual fears of one another, or in an economy where people of color lag in their share of the pie. Whither the country if we do not continue to make progress on these issues; should not schools play a role?

What of teaching our youth to work together? Ironically, it is big business, which often bankrolls efforts toward basic skills accountability, which also requires workers who can work together on a team. Of course, competent teamwork and focus on skill enhancement are not mutually exclusive, but the former receives far less attention in the pedagogic councils of school war.

And then there is the all-important skill, critical thinking and its close cousin problem solving. Angela Ripley in her new book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way reports that American students (again!) are outpaced by students of other countries in these critical dimensions, according to internationally administered tests (of course) that purport to identify these skills. The Economist in its review of Ripley’s book notes that countries such as Poland and Finland have set out to teach these skills over a period of years, particularly in the manner in which they teach math, in concert with expectations held high, and produce young folk whose critical thinking skills outstrip those of our own.

Arguably, once our schools were superior, and helped feed the economic behemoth of the second half of the twentieth century, but for complex reasons have failed to evolve to the more demanding requirements of the twenty-first.

From my perspective we are in the midst of growing pains, and need to remember that the Finnish and the Polish have been at their school reform desk for thirty and forty years. For now, we focus primarily on basic skills, which have proven a sluggish enough enterprise; we have more sophisticated standards we will have yet to meet. First we walk; then we run.

It is worth noting that both the education ministries of Poland and Finland may operate in an environment more conducive to direction from the top than ours. Both with socialist histories, their social fabric are more accustomed to central direction. Moreover, particularly Finland is much smaller than the US, where federal education directives are inevitably subject to the cacophony of the states.

The Common Core, signed on to by forty-five states, promises to address some of these more sophisticated skills around which the corporate hiring engine hungers – critical thinking, teamwork, and of course basic skills with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) at the most desirable (and better rewarded) end. No doubt there will be further course corrections as the roll out of Common Core proceeds.

In response to Common Core, I can hear teachers moaning that another change occurs just as they begin to get their feet under them from the challenges of No Child Left Behind. As Diane Ravitch has observed, American schools are famous for causes and interventions du jour. So we shall see.

Meanwhile, other wild cards continue to haunt my thinking, and which may well be beyond the purview of school reform. Too many children of the middle class, who take for granted the opportunity in front of them in their good schools, do not do their part in preparing themselves well. Can we really ask schools to change the culture that has taught them they get what they want regardless?

And can schools really change economic inequality in a game in which the table tilts in favor of the already privileged?

These contemporary cultural weaknesses cause the gears of school reform to grind more ponderously and confound the best efforts of the many players, who are in fact working very hard.


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1 Response to School Reform: Has the Baby Been Thrown Out With the Bath Water?

  1. Deb says:

    Changing the culture…it’s an uphill, never ending battle but we keep on. Good reading.

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