Education Reform Basics

Democrats for Education Reform is an important organization in our state. It’s composed of people–mostly, but not exclusively, Democrats–who want to approach education issues from the standpoint of what is best for children, and without the usual political constraints. (“Political constraints” in this context means automatic obeisance to the teachers’ unions. The organization is not anti-Union, but neither do its members feel obliged to agree with the union on every issue, as Democrats have traditionally done.)

Last night, my husband and I attended an event sponsored by DFER. There were at least a hundred people in attendance, and it was an interesting and diverse crowd: teachers from both traditional public schools and charters, business people, legislators and ordinary citizens concerned with the problems of public education. The speaker was was Stephen Brill, and he was “interviewed” by Matt Tully, the Star columnist who has written movingly about Manual High School and the issues facing educators in our poorer precincts.

Brill has recently written a book (who hasn’t??) about what’s wrong with public education. He is not an educator; he describes himself as a reporter. He made a lot of money establishing Court TV and several magazines; he was self-possessed to the point of smugness, and he made sure the audience knew he teaches a seminar at Yale.

Brill made a number of points that most observers would agree with, and he showed real skill in evading questions for which he clearly had no answers. (Case in point: he forcefully defended testing students as a method of evaluating teacher effectiveness. When I asked him how that should work in inner-city classrooms that experience student turnover in excess of 100% during the school year–classrooms in which the students being tested at the end of the year are not the same children who were tested at the beginning of the school year–he didn’t answer the question; instead, he launched into an extended and mostly irrelevant defense of “doing something” even if that something wasn’t perfect.)

The format was question and answer, and there was a lot of earnest discussion about the importance of good teachers (duh!), the pros and cons of charter schools, and the role of teachers’ unions. But the truly important question was asked at the very end of the program. It was a simple enough inquiry by a woman who identified herself as a longtime proponent of education reform: “how do you define a good education?”

It caught Brill flat-footed. And therein lies the real problem.

Pretty much everyone agrees that the education system is broken. (To his credit, Brill agreed that most suburban schools are no better than the schools serving urban areas–students simply tend to come from homes that have prepared them better.) Pretty much everyone wants to improve public education–I don’t know anyone who’s celebrating the status quo. But all the arguments about how to improve schools, all the fancy talk about measurement and testing and excellence, tends to ignore the central question: what do we mean by education? What should students know when they graduate? What skills should they have? Why? How does education differ from job training? How does education for citizenship differ from education as a consumer good?

The Chamber of Commerce wants schools to produce an “educated workforce.” Parents want schools to provide “marketable skills.” Policy wonks talk about global competitiveness. Our Governor seems fixated on credentialing–turning out students who’ve earned a piece of paper in the least possible amount of time. Some old fogies (me, for example) believe an education requires acquainting students with great literature, with science, with history, with at least a minimal understanding of their government, and–above all–the ability to think logically and critically.

It’s an unresolved–and largely unasked–question, and it’s the elephant in the room. Because if we don’t agree about what an education is, how on earth will we know whether we are providing it?


  1. I don’t think schools who have Education doctoral programs ever give that last question much consideration in the classroom.

    People come out with a thesis that defines a solution, albeit an untested solution, which is then often implemented whether or not it may be appropriate to the situation.

    I believe that it is partially a problem of scale. Academia doesn’t seem to encourage those who look at the big picture much anymore. In an attempt to satisfy the impossibility of “originality”, research becomes more and more geared to the smallest scales and in the end the forest is lost for the trees.

  2. Great post! As the comment on Ed Schools however, as a professor in a School of Education I would have to whole-heartedly disagree. In fact, questions like this compose a whole field of study–Social Foundations of Education–that students can either major in or at least have required courses in. As for theses, most these days are empirical research of some kind; so…..the are tested by definition. One the major problems in education policy today is that the research is ignored (or never asked for) for political reasons. It’s not that we don’t have any.

  3. I’m the woman who asked the question you refer to at the DFER event last evening. I’ve served in nearly every capacity you can name in the K-20 system and have been involved in numerous types of education reform in all of them. What has become intensely clear to me is that we’re barking up the wrong tree. All of the solutions we’ve tried—many more appropriately learning-focused than others—have and will continue to miss the mark until we get our first question right, “What is the purpose of education in the 21st Century?” There has not been a serious public discussion about purpose for many decades! Unfortunately, the reforms of the past two decades have been about how to fix a system that serves an enormously obsolete purpose. We simply MUST first examine our assumptions carefully before spending further time and taxpayer money on fixes that cannot produce the results we need.

    KurtL’s comments are right on target—we’ve lost the big picture! I’ve taught in teacher education programs—and left them—precisely because of the reluctance to introduce teachers-in-training to even the idea that there was a big picture. Unfortunately, more practical things like where to place the pencil sharpener in the classroom were perceived of far greater importance. And he’s right about research. It’s tendency has been to focus on increasingly smaller slivers of the big picture to the point that we no longer know where or if any of the research findings fit.

    But education programs of any stripe are not to blame any more than any other element of the current system of education. Our system’s failure to produce what society needs is not the fault of any group, nor handful of groups. Our failure is the system itself! It does not know where it really needs to go.

    The next most important question, once we’ve identified the new purpose and its incumbent results of education, is, “How do we achieve the purpose in ways supported by the current knowledge of how humans at all developmental phases learn?” The information is available, we just choose not to act upon it. One thing is certain, we cannot achieve a new purpose by doing things the way we’ve always done them!

    I am so pleased DFER organized last night’s event, and hope to see many more like them—perhaps focused on education’s purpose.

    Irene Brock

  4. Rob H., I stand corrected that such programs don’t exist, but wonder if those who end up in charge of reform implementation (superintendents) have this classwork reinforced during their doctoral studies? Informally, based upon years of indirect observation, I would have to say “hardly”, or that it just isn’t sinking in (which is a whole other issue). And, just what does “tested by definition” mean exactly? Sounds rather insubstantial.

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