As someone who blogs all the time about education, I find myself dismayed that most of what is discussed in the policy conversation has very little to do with what happens at school. That does not mean that we should stop talking about policy—the laws that define what ought to be taught—the laws that require all this crazy testing—the laws that guarantee special services for students with particular needs—the laws that determine whether money goes to traditional public schools or their privatized alternatives—the laws that define how state tax dollars are distributed from school district to school district.
Policy considerations determine much of what happens in classrooms every day, but most of us are not very good at thinking about how policy connects with the life inside schools. Mike Rose is a specialist at making the connection—which is why I am so delighted that The American Scholar has published School Reform Fails the Test, as the cover story in its Winter, 2015 issue. Rose’s new piece revisits the past quarter century of the school reform movement through the lens of what I believe is his very best book on education, Possible Lives, published in 1995.
“For all of the features that schools share,” Rose writes, “life inside a classroom is profoundly affected by the immediate life outside it, by the particular communities in which a school is embedded… These differences, the differences of place, make each school distinct from every other.” “During the first wave of what would become the 30-year school reform movement that shapes education policy to this day, I visited good public school classrooms across the United States, wanting to compare the rhetoric of reform, which tended to be abstract and focused on crisis, with the daily efforts of teachers and students who were making public education work.” Rose admits there is lots to be improved: “Public education, a vast, ambitious, loosely coupled system of schools is one of our country’s defining institutions. It is also flawed, in some respects deeply so. Unequal funding, fractious school politics, bureaucratic inertia, uneven curricula, uninspired pedagogy, and the social ills that seep into the classroom all limit the potential of our schools. The critics are right to be worried. The problem is that the criticism, fueled as it is by broader cultural anxieties, is often sweeping and indiscriminate.”
As he examines the history of school reform since Possible Lives was published, Rose touches on all of today’s issues, including the problems with No Child Left Behind and the reductive regime of standardized testing. Rose’s deepest interest, however, is the work of school teachers. He reflects on the debate about the importance of teachers’ experience and continuing education: “What is new is the nearly exclusive focus on techniques, the increased role of digital technology to study them and the attempt to define ‘effective’ by seeking positive correlations between specific techniques and, you guessed it, students’ standardized test scores.” To those who say that “neither experience nor schooling beyond the bachelor’s degree makes any difference,” Rose answers: “What a remarkable assertion. Can you think of any other kind of work—from hair styling to neurosurgery—where we don’t value experience and training.”
While today’s school reformers disdain the past and look for ways to “disrupt” public education, Rose tells the story of teachers who doggedly pursue excellence. He asks us to begin our quest for school improvement by examining classroom life in the public schools we are so prone to criticize: “What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students? Imagine, then what could happen if the astronomical amount of money and human resources that went into the past decade’s vast machinery of high stakes testing… had gone into a high-quality, widely distributed program of professional development. I don’t mean the quick-hit, half-day events that teachers must endure, but serious, extended engagement.”
Rose’s subject is wonderful school teachers—from Chicago’s South Side to Calexico, California to Baltimore’s West Side to a town in the Mississipi Delta to a one-room school in Polaris, Montana—teachers who share “a belief in their students’ ability to become engaged by ideas and to develop as thoughtful, intellectually adventurous people.” Rose explains, “Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades. Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity. Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper. For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities. These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents and most reformers, would want them for their children.”
Because Rose’s wonderful description of these qualities and the classrooms that define them cannot possibly be captured in a mere summary, I urge you to take time to read School Reform Fails the Test. You might also want to read or re-read Possible Lives. It remains absolutely relevant.