Executive Perspective

The Mythology of School Reform

by PAUL D. HOUSTON

merican schools are knee deep in the “big muddy” of school reform. When I travel around the country I find everyone preoccupied with school improvement, accountability, assessment and other ways of working to upgrade education. Essentially, as Martha Stewart might put it, this is “a good thing.” As leaders, our focus should be on school improvement and our mission should be making the education of children better.

However, it also should be our mission to be thoughtful in what we are doing. Having the right stuff involves doing the stuff. Otherwise, we are going to wake up in a few years and find that, despite our best efforts, we haven’t improved things and people’s patience with us will have run out. We had better focus on real problems and move away from mythology. Right now too many myths are driving the school reform agenda, including these six.

The biggest myth is: “Schools are worse today than they used to be.” Utter nonsense. We are better today, our kids are smarter and our standards are higher. The problem is the expectations have changed.

In earlier times we were expected to bring the best up to a high standard and do the best we could for the rest. The expectations that “all kids must learn” and that we “leave no child behind” are relatively new. If you don’t believe me, look at most school funding schemes in America. They are grossly inequitable and inadequate for educating all children to high standards. Our funding systems have yet to catch up with our rhetoric. Leaving no child behind will require that we leave no school or school system behind.

Overwhelming Teaching
The second myth is: “Student achievement and test results are synonymous.” Certainly testing is an important way of checking on achievement. All licensed drivers must take a written test. But in reality, the standard for driving achievement isn’t the scores on the written test. It involves a demonstration of driving. And the accountability of that system is based on the accident rate, arrests for driving infractions and the like. The point here is we must start looking much more broadly at outcomes to measure how well we are doing.

The third myth: “If you test them, they will learn.” Clearly this mindset is related to myth No. 2. Testing has a place in schools. It is difficult to imagine schools without some examinations and it is even more difficult to imagine having any accountability without testing being a part of that system.

However, testing should not overwhelm teaching. We must acknowledge that there is much in schools worth teaching that cannot be tested. Testing should be used as a tool for assessing progress, determining strengths and weaknesses and directing program improvement. Tests should not be used to bludgeon teachers and staff into acting differently.

This leads to the fourth myth: “Coercion is the best management tool.” There is no question that with enough coercion there will be compliance. It will be stubborn, superficial and short-lived, but it will be there. The real test for educators has always been how can you get children to learn of their own volition? For when there is no one there to coerce, learning still needs to take place. That leads us to understand that education ultimately cannot be invoked; it must be evoked. Learning must be called forth and it must be constructed by the learner. That is the only way you can move from rote to reason.

Circumventing Educators

The fifth myth: “You can ‘educator proof” school reform.” During the late ’60s and early ’70s, we had a spate of teacher-proof products being offered. The theory was that teachers weren’t that good but you could use products to teach children while removing a lackluster teacher from the equation.

Now we have broadened that belief to the point where policymakers think they can improve education without involving educators. From education summits with educators excluded to rules and regulations being developed without consultation with practitioners, whole systems have been devised to circumvent those who must implement them. Yes, educators can be stubborn and difficult and they can get in the way of progress. But not all educators. You can’t get milk from chickens; it must come from cows. And just because some cows are slow to move, you don’t ignore the herd.

The last myth I will mention is: “If you brag loud enough about it, it becomes real.” There is a colloquial way of pointing out the fallacy of this approach—big hat, no cattle. We have heard a lot about the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that recently was signed into law. It is supposed to be a landmark act for improving education dramatically in this country. It is also a landmark in bringing massive federal intervention into local affairs.

While the federal act contains many useful aspects, only time will tell whether it truly is “landmark legislation” and whether that mark will be a gold star or a blemish on school reform efforts. One lesson we must teach children is that they pay attention to reality. Perhaps we need to reteach that to some of our policymakers if we hope to move from myth to the reality of truly leaving no child behind.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.