School Reform Fails the TestPrint
How can our schools get better when we’ve made our teachers the problem and not the solution?
By Mike Rose
DECEMBER 10, 2014
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.
I identified teachers, principals, and superintendents who knew about local schools; college professors who taught teachers; parents and community activists who were involved in education. What’s going on in your area that seems promising? I asked. What are teachers talking about? Who do parents hold in esteem? In all, I interviewed and often observed in action more than 60 teachers and 25 administrators in 30-some schools. I also met many students and parents from the communities I visited. What soon became evident—and is still true today—was an intellectual and social richness that was rarely discussed in the public sphere or in the media. I tried to capture this travelogue of educational achievement in a book published in 1995 called Possible Lives: The Promise of Education in America.Twenty years later, I want to consider school reform in light of the lessons learned during that journey, and relearned in later conversations with some of these same teachers.
For all of the features that schools share, life inside a classroom is profoundly affected by the immediate life outside it, by the particular communities in which a school is embedded. Visiting a one-room schoolhouse in rural Montana or a crowded high school in Chicago, you will find much in the routines and the curriculum that holds steady—the grammar of schooling, as historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban called it in Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (1995). Yet within that grammar lie differences: in topics of discussion, in the illustrations that teachers use, in how the language sounds, and in the worries of the day pressing in from the neighborhood. These differences, the differences of place, make each school distinct from every other.
During my travels, I watched as third-graders in Calexico, a California-Mexico border town, gave reports on current events in Spanish and in English. They followed the journalist’s central questions—who, what, why, when, where, and how—exploring the significance of the depleted ozone layer, of smog in nearby industrial Mexicali, of changes in the local school board.
In Chicago, 12th-graders discussed Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, trying to make sense of the characters’ different perspectives, offering provisional explanations of important occurrences in the novel. They were gaining a sense of the power of speculation, of moving an inquiry forward by wading into uncertain waters.
On Baltimore’s West Side, first-graders combined literature and science by reading a fanciful story about hermit crabs and then conducting an experiment—resulting from a student’s question—to understand the environment in which the crabs thrive.
In small towns in the Mississippi Delta, middle school children played games with physical representations of algebraic operations, part of civil rights activist Bob The American Scholar: School Reform Fails the Test - Mike Rose: