As 56 million children return to the nation's 133,000 elementary and secondary schools, the promise of "reform" is again in the air. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has announced $4 billion in "race to the top" grants to states whose proposals demonstrate, according to Duncan, "a bold commitment to education reform" and "creativity and innovation (that are) breathtaking." What they really show is that few subjects inspire more intellectual dishonesty and political puffery than "school reform."
Since the 1960s, waves of "reform" haven't produced meaningful achievement gains...
"Reforms" have disappointed for two reasons. First, no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy, especially for inner-city schools, that are (in business lingo) "scalable" -- easily transferable to other schools, where they would predictably produce achievement gains. Efforts in New York City and Washington, D.C., to raise educational standards involve contentious and precarious school-by-school campaigns to purge "ineffective" teachers and principals. Charter schools might break this pattern, though there are grounds for skepticism. In 2009, the 4,700 charter schools enrolled about 3 percent of students and did not uniformly show achievement gains.
The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail.
Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a "good" college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school "reform" is that if students aren't motivated, it's mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, helping explain why early achievement gains evaporate.
I wonder how many teachers would disagree with this assessment. On the other hand, there are enough examples out there that show that schools can overcome these hurdles if the right kind of people are in charge and the right kind of people are teaching.