Two Myths Are Part of Shaky Foundation of School “Reform”

Here are two of the myths that underpin the school “reform” movement.  First, there’s the myth that the real problem with American schools is that teachers hold low expectations.  You’ll remember that the No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to address “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” And the second myth: schools and especially high schools fail because they are modeled after factories. For seven years, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has insisted that public schools are trapped in the dated industrial model and stuck in the 20th, not the 21st century. These ideas are rarely questioned. What do they mean?  Here are recent articles that examine some of their implications.

Myth 1: Children are falling behind because their teachers hold low expectations.

Gary Rubinstein is a math teacher at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, and a former teacher with Teach for America (TFA), the two-year alternative teacher preparation and recruitment program. Rubinstein publishes a thoughtful blog that critiques TFA and more generally the school “reform” movement.  In a recent post about TFA, Rubinstein digresses into a fascinating reflection on teaching itself and the role of teachers’ expectations:  “How I wish that low expectations were the main difficulty in education. It would be so easy to improve. Teachers would just raise their expectations: Teach a little faster, assign a little more homework, make the tests a little longer, a little more difficult—more ‘rigorous’ if you will.  While I’m certainly not an advocate for low expectations, I think it is definitely naive, and even a bit dangerous, to too blindly believe that the act of just having high expectations will cause students to learn more.”

Rubinstein describes the teacher’s job from the point of view of the practitioner.  And he describes his own experience as a high school math teacher who has considered how to help his students meet expectations: “As a teacher, one of the most important skills to have is known as ‘scaffolding’ where you break down a skill into sub-skills and then teach the kids those sub-skills which you then build up to the big skill. Is that not some form of low expectations?  If I’m an English teacher I suppose I could tell my class to read The Grapes of Wrath in one night.  That’s setting some pretty high expectations.  But will this work?  Or will it discourage kids by asking them to do an unrealistic task.  So I guess I’m an advocate for appropriate expectations, something that a teacher is best able to gauge.”

Myth 2: American Schools Are Like Factories That Process Students Along an Assembly Line

In her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss recently published an examination by education historian Jack Schneider of the idea that American Schools Are Modeled After Factories and Treat Students Like Widgets. Schneider charges: “The claim has been repeated so often—by entrepreneurs, by policy wonks, by the secretary of education—that it has achieved a kind of truth status.  And increasingly, it is a rallying call for reform.  Our schools need reinvention, reformers assert.  If we want to promote real learning, we need to tear down the factory and rebuild around technologies of the Information Age.  It’s the stuff of great TED talks.  It just happens to be wrong.”

Schneider identifies some factory-like characteristics of American public schools.  There is “bulk-processing.”  Our schools serve approximately 50 million students who are clustered by age into groups.  And there are assembly-line kinds of problems: “The typical school curriculum, for example, precludes students from pursuing genuine interests at an individualized speed.  Perhaps most obviously, schools, like factories, are generally geared toward producing a fairly uniform product, rather than a series of custom-built objects d’art.”

But, Schneider continues: “The root causes of disengagement and shallow learning, as it turns out, aren’t design problems at all.  They’re problems inherent to the concept of schooling.  Young people would rather be socializing than learning, and though some learning can happen through play, much of it can’t.  Young people, like adults, would also like to avoid exhausting and effortful work; but thinking is hard, and much of learning involves thinking.  Finally young people aren’t naturally interested in many of the things we want them to learn in school; yet as long as school is designed to serve the needs of society and not just the desires of the individual, much of education will involve steering students away from what they are naturally interested in and towards something else.  These are big problems that can’t be wished away or solved by new technologies.  They can, however, be ameliorated by great teaching.  And that’s what we should be focused on if we’re going to talk about improving learning outcomes.”

After he challenges the myth of the school as factory, Jack Schneider asks us to contemplate a very different metaphor: “(S)chools are much more like gardens than they are like factories. And great gardens aren’t the result of modernist design or entrepreneurial innovation. They are products of attention, devotion, and love. They are complex systems that demand our time and respond to our care.  And in a thousand different blooms, they reward us with their beauty.”

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