Executive Perspective

School Reform or Reform School?


For some time now we have been neck deep in school reform. But progress has been slow. Perhaps that is because we are trying to do the wrong things.

Certainly we need higher standards, better discipline and more parental involvement. However, if standards are disconnected from each other and we fail to consider that some children come from homes and communities that are highly supportive and that provide world-class resources, while other children come from situations where none of that is available, we are simply chasing smoke.

I am reminded of the nursery rhyme, "This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home, this little piggy had roast beef, this little piggy had none and this little piggy cried ‘wee, wee, wee, all the way home.’" Thankfully many of our children have full plates of roast beef and dine from a rich menu of services and support. But others can only cry because they have none. Merely demanding higher standards without redressing the base of support is foolish.

The Factory Metaphor
Seeking to make schools safer is appropriate. However, merely tossing out troublemakers may make the schools safer, but it does not do much for society. How far can we throw them? Far enough so that we do not have to pay the price later? I doubt it. Further, do any of us really believe that we can have safe schools in unsafe communities? The late Ernest Boyer pointed out, "You can’t have islands of academic excellence in a sea of community indifference." You also cannot have islands of safety in a sea of community turmoil.

The operative metaphor for public schools has been the factory. This comes from the Industrial Revolution and the fact schools were organized around the principles of mass manufacturing. Schools were seen as the suppliers of the work force. We placed children on an assembly line, moved them along, shoving knowledge in along the way. At the end of the line we declared them educated and carried out a quality control inspection to see where they fit in the workplace. We were good at it.

However, I think another metaphor that should be the measure of school reform is more appropriate, yet more disturbing. That is the metaphor of schools as prisons. Think about it. We incarcerate children for a fixed sentence. We place them in cells with keepers. We have wardens who manage the place. We place them in solitary confinement for misbehavior. Now we also are fencing them in, using metal detectors and having them wear uniforms. The value of this metaphor is simply for use as a lens to examine school reform. Will the ideas being offered for reform make schools more, or less, like prisons? Are we talking about school reform or reform school?

I believe schools don’t need to be reformed nearly as much as they need to be transformed. Let me suggest a radical school transformation idea. Why don’t we try to create schools that children want to attend--where they want to escape into instead of away from? These would be places where the smiles on their faces are as wide at 8 in the morning when they are coming in, as they are at 3 in the afternoon when they are running out the door. They would be places where the enthusiasm, imagination and love of learning is as intact at 18 when they graduate as it was at 5 when they came to us.

What would those schools be like? They would be places of respect where everyone, child and adult, treats each other the same way he or she would like to be treated. They would also be places where meaningful work is done. It is one thing to have high standards and expectations. It is something else when those are matched with meaningful activity.

My favorite basketball team is the University of Arizona Wildcats. While I don’t pretend to know what has made them successful, I do know that every afternoon when the players go to practice, they do not read about basketball, have discussions about it or write papers about it--they play basketball. They have real experience doing something that is important to them and which gives them joy. It is not easy. Sometimes it is painful. They don’t always win. But they set high goals and work together to meet them.

Key Ingredient
Meaningful work seems to me to be the key ingredient in transforming schools. Think about when you are most engaged and most productive--it is when you are doing something important to you. I don’t wonder why some of our children learn and some do not. I wonder why they don’t turn on us in anger for the dumb things we ask them to do and for wasting so much of their childhood.

Reforming schools demands that we provide the resources to give all our children a chance to meet our highest expectations. That will require a greater sense of fairness from all of us and a bit of courage. We also must have expectations that have some meaningful connection to the lives that our children want to live. That will require real imagination and commitment on our part.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org