On "Reform" and the "Public" in Education

U.S. public education appears in dire need of reform. To address that problem central to the health of America's democracy and economy (reformers note), committees must be formed and solutions proposed and then implemented:

"That it is expedient to hold a conference of school and college teachers of each principal subject which enters into the programmes of secondary schools in the United States and into the requirements for admission to college—as, for example, of Latin, of geometry, or of American history—each conference to consider the proper limits of its subject, the best methods of instruction, the most desirable allotment of time for the subject, and the best methods of testing the pupils’ attainments therein, and each conference to represent fairly the different parts of the country."

This committee constituted of university presidents and school leaders set out to answer the following questions:

"1. In the school course of study extending approximately from the age of six years to eighteen years—a course including the periods of both elementary and secondary instruction—at what age should the study which is the subject of the Conference be first introduced?
2. After it is introduced, how many hours a week for how many years should be devoted to it?
3. How many hours a week for how many years should be devoted to it during the last four years of the complete course; that is, during the ordinary high school period?
4. What topics, or parts, of the subject may reasonably be covered during the whole course?
5. What topics, or parts, of the subject may best be reserved for the last four years?
6. In what form and to what extent should the subject enter into college requirements for admission? Such questions as the sufficiency of translation at sight as a test of knowledge of a language, or the superiority of a laboratory examination in a scientific subject to a written examination on a text-book, are intended to be suggested under this head by the phrase 'in what form.'
7. Should the subject be treated differently for pupils who are going to college, for those who are going to a scientific school, and for those who, presumably, are going to neither?
8. At what stage should this differentiation begin, if any be recommended?
9. Can any description be given of the best method of teaching this subject throughout the school course?
10. Can any description be given of the best mode of testing attainments in this subject at college admission examinations?"

Is this an initiative from the U.S. Department of Education led by Secretary Duncan? A committee formed by the governors to help schools implement Common Core State Standards? A committee funded by the Gate Foundation? A move endorsed by Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp (TFA), or the KIPP charter chain?

No. This is the Committee of Ten from the 1890s.

But it certainly is similar to any reform movement concerning education since then and including now.

The reform movement must be examined against two issues: (1) What is the status quo of education and education reform? and (2) How might we re-imagine the "public" in public education?

The Education and Reform Status Quo

Central to the potential effectiveness of reform is an essential process: identify the status quo, evaluate the status quo, and then change the elements of the status quo that are clearly failing. For education reform to change our schools directly and our society indirectly, we must first identify the status quo; thus, what are the elements of the educational status quo as well as the status quo of education reform?

Identifying "high" standards for K-12 to insure college and work readiness is the status quo. Common Core State Standards can be traced back to the Committee of Ten; identifying standards, raising standards, and implementing new standards have never worked, and never will.

Aligning standardized testing to those standards is the status quo. The Committee of Ten identified needed testing, and then standardized testing exploded in the early to mid-twentieth century. More and better tests have never worked, and never will.

What is not a part of the status quo (or the problem with education)?

Unionization is not uniform or present throughout the U.S.; thus, unions are not part of the status quo. Heavily unionized states often have the highest student outcomes, while non-union states have some of the lowest outcomes. Relative student poverty is a much stronger status quo than unionization.

Teacher quality is not central to or a major element in student achievement; thus, teacher quality is not part of the status quo needing urgent reform. But teacher assignment is part of the status quo since affluent students are assigned the most qualified and experienced teachers while children of color and children living in poverty are assigned new and unqualified teachers.

Current education reform elements being endorsed and implemented by the reformers with power and money are, in fact, perpetuating the status quo, and are in effect the exact opposite of reform.

Further, the dominant education reform initiatives in the U.S. are demonstrably counter to overcoming social and educational inequity.

Driven by more than a century of the same education policies and reforms, public schools face the exact same issues confronted in every decade since the late nineteenth century.

Re-Imagining (Not Rejecting) the "Public" in Education

In the education reform movement during the past thirty years of accountability and high-stakes testing, the U.S. has failed to identify the status quo, and has ironically perpetuated the status quo—entrenching deeper and deeper the social inequity the public schools reflect.

Universal education is a public good that should serve to correct the historical and current failures of society, such as economic inequity, racial injustice, and gender inequity. For public education to be a corrective public institution, then, public schools must be publicly funded but not politically managed.

Public funding is essential for basic aspects of a culture, such as a road system, a judicial system, a police force, a military, and the most important foundational system, schools. [The U.S. ignores the foundational nature of healthcare, however.]

Yet, when public institutions fail, that failure is not due to the public aspect of the institution but because of the failure to create a wall between public funding and partisan political bureaucracy.

Public education has failed historically and currently because educators have never run our school system.

Public funding of education, in order to reform education and overcome the failures of the status quo, must be implemented at every level of schooling—from the Secretary of Education to each teacher in every classroom—by qualified and experienced educators and scholars. Not by appointees, not by presidents, not by governors.

Then, instead of technocratic (and misleading) accountability policies imposed on education by partisan politicians, those professional educators must serve the public transparently while remaining committed to outcomes that support democracy, equity, and the public good.

Partisan political bureaucracy de-professionalizes education and creates a constant cycle of starting over with the exact same policies in different packages.

Common Core State Standards, high-stakes testing for student and teacher accountability, charter schools, and Teach for America are slightly new packages for the status quo—not reform that changes schools so schools can change society.

Let's start there and re-imagine the "public" in education.