Guest Column

School Reform by Any Name

by DAN CHERNOW


The work of school reform today has a decided incongruity. Is it truly reform? Is it renewal, or is it something else?

We cannot decide what to call it, partly because U.S. educational history is littered with the debris of repetitious reforms. Most of these would qualify as tampering on the periphery rather than resonating as a true reform relating to a transformational change.

Each decade seems to bring a new wave of efforts, paradoxically, to "make schooling better" and "return to the good old days." And yet as Richard Rothstein, a fellow with the Economic Policy Institute, cited in a variation on a Will Rogers aphorism in The Way We Were? The Myths and Realities of America's Student Achievement: "The schools ain’t what they used to be and probably never were."

Blended Methods
I served for 10 years in policymaking positions in California and have worked for more than three years in my current position overseeing a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting schools in data-driven inquiry about their beliefs. In these roles, I have been a witness to the fact that Will Rogers was correct. For the most part, reform efforts have battled over what we teach and how we teach it.

From phonics to whole language and from basic mathematics to integrated mathematics, the conflict has been focused on exactly the wrong issues. Education writers such as Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn have articulated well the content of what students do not know. A cornucopia of books, articles and newspaper editorials has dictated to educators what to teach, how to teach and why they are failing. So what has been the response to this onslaught?

Wave after wave of so-called reform has been introduced in decade after decade of "doing it differently." This effectively has amounted only to what Rothstein describes as a Band-Aid applied to a gaping wound. We vacillate from one pedagogical approach to another and back again, driven more by who are in positions of power than by a deep understanding of how children learn.

I have become strongly convinced that the "what" and "how" of what we teach is secondary to the underlying belief system that drives it. Children have learned to read from a blending of the methodology of phonics-based instruction and whole language. They also have learned mathematics by concentrating on the basics when appropriate and by using an integrated mathematics approach as a teaching strategy. Children even learn when teachers use appropriate direct instruction within a constructivist approach that acknowledges what children bring to the learning process.

Underlying Beliefs
My observation of school communities struggling with reform and renewal is that the underlying belief system of administrators, teachers and parents has a deeper impact on learning than does any particular curricular reform. This is not to say that content and instructional strategies are not important. This is not a case for an "either/or" approach, but rather for one that includes an "and."

The community of learners that grapples with its belief system and is willing to challenge its practices in an ongoing way is most likely to improve student achievement in a sustainable manner. "All children can learn" must be more than an incidental phrase in a dusty, oft-forgotten and not well understood mission statement. It must be at the heart of what the entire school community believes. All children do learn. The question really becomes one of what they learn.

If school systems continue to be about sorting children into the "haves" and "have nots," then no reason exists to believe we will get results different than those we now obtain. Important curricular innovations will only have an impact on some children who have access to and inclusion in those changes.

The ones we believe will benefit will benefit. The ones we believe need remedial, skill-based instruction--strategies none of us could flourish with--will continue to flounder in a system that does not believe all children are capable. This means that some children will continue to do well and learn what we are teaching. Most others will continue to receive schooling, but not an education.

We will ensure a continuation of the system of inequity that now exists. The knowledge we gain about how learning occurs will continue to bypass the majority of children who will be mired in cycles of reform that only serve to recycle failed past practices.

A Desperate Fix
As I watch school districts struggle with making change, I see repetitive failure among district-level administrators who insist on prescribing the same failed practices of the past out of desperation to fix what they perceive is wrong. They use their power to force top-down change, convinced of the certainty of their position. They are caught in implementing adult issues of politics as opposed to student issues concerning learning.

I also see schools agonizing to make the kinds of real change that will affect student learning. These schools are using inquiry and conversation about student work to challenge what they have always accepted into their belief system. They have suspended certainty and have become true learning communities. They learn from their mistakes instead of pointing fingers and accept their responsibility as educators.

In the long run, all students at these schools will improve and achieve at higher levels. These educators will have renewed why they chose to be educators in the first place. If board members, superintendents and central-office administrators engaged in these same practices and learning, they too would agonize in the short run, but achieve similar long-term results.

Our 100-year-plus system will be changed from what has failed too many of its students in the past. I have renewed hope that we can and will make a difference for all students.

Dan Chernow is executive director of the UCLA School Management Program, Box 951521, Los Angeles, CA 90095. E-mail: dchernow@smp.gseis.ucla.edu