The Incredible Short-Sightedness Of Education Reform

For three decades, the education reform movement has made a heap of well-intentioned proposals. There's the "No Child Left Behind" model, which utilizes standardized testing and the resulting prospect of school takeover (and layoffs), as a way of forcing accountability on underachieving school districts. There's the Teach for America model, which suggests that the academic achievement gap can be closed with high-achieving, highly educated, often short-term teachers. There's the charter school model, which attempts to rigorously structure a single school for success, in ways that a normally-regulated public school cannot. There are others, of course. But, to be sure, not one of them has universally or decisively worked

As a former Teach For America corps member, I've been trying to name — with the help of teachers I know, or whom I met when I was myself briefly a teacher — what's made the ed reform movement so unsuccessful. I can come up with no better term than deliberate myopia: an insistent, near-sighted focus on the classroom instead of the real world where both students and teachers live.

Too often, we're looking at schools in a vacuum, in-and-of themselves. We're thinking about education reductively, as if it were its own thing — a specialized field with little or no dynamic relationship with the wider world. And we're allowing this short-sighted, zoomed-in view to inform every last one of our efforts at reform. 

Take, for example, the charter model. A charter school is essentially an exercise in narrowly focusing in on "the school." According to teachers at Democracy Prep, in Harlem, and KIPP Delta, in Helena, Arkansas, the basic philosophy is this: Bring the latest, empirically-tested educational techniques to a single self-contained school, and the rest will follow.

Yet, apparently, charter students aren't always succeeding after graduation. Though some claim that students in charter schools do better than public school students while in school, they're also too likely to attend college and then drop out — to struggle immensely when the rigorously-controlled in-school format is gone. These students know exactly how to take tests and chant the class slogans and walk in straight lines, but they don't have a clue after the last bell rings — a direct reflection of the adults' single-minded emphasis on in-school life only. (Charter networks are also known for "skimming" the best students: rejecting students with disabilities or problems at home. It's a reform solution that attempts to build the best possible school, not the best possible generation of young people.) 

Or think about the burden that's put on schools in this country's poor communities. It's a catchphrase among Teach for America staff and the charter movement — inexplicably, in my view — that a good school can change everything ... that a good school, alone, in a vacuum, can educate a child who's hungry or homeless or faces violence or has to work to support his family

This is such a lovely, preposterous illusion, and, again, such a narrow, small-picture way of "reforming" the total education of young people. A child living with poverty, according to Harvard economists, is approximately as likely to retain information as a child who pulls all-nighters every single night. A child living with poverty is more likely to be or become mentally ill than a person exposed to warfare. A child living with poverty is likely to live in an area with toxic air quality, and to be food-insecure or only eat fast food— both of which cripple a developing brain. A child living with poverty is likely to have overwhelming work or family obligations; to have parents who attended failing schools also; and to be homeless or transient, and therefore move and miss class often ... you get the point.

Yet, in spite of the reality that the outside world bears on education, the education reform movement has preponderantly acted as if no such outside world exists. That's bizarre and so counterproductive. We won't be having a valid conversation about closing the achievement gap — and truly educating kids — until our proposals address not just classroom discipline and test questions and teacher tenure, but nutrition, healthcare, the employment available to parents, family counseling services, library services, housing, the whole deal.

You see another iteration of the ed reform movement's olipsistically focus on what's contained by the four schoolhouse walls in the professionalization of teaching. A decades-long trend in "ed-reform" has been to conceptualize of "education" as its own subject area. 

Surely, the more specialized the teacher-education — two or even four years of graduate-level training not in a subject area but in data-driven instruction, unit planning, aligning a test question to an objective, and educational theory — the better the teachers. Right?? 

I'm not so sure. The best science teacher I ever had — hi, Ms. Moran! — wasn't a trained teacher who'd been assigned to teach science; she was an elite environmental scientist who'd worked for years in the field, who was therefore able to communicate a deep passion for and knowledge of a real-world endeavor. The best English teacher I ever had — hi, Ms. Parker! — didn't write a "Do-Now" or an objective (SWBAT...) on the board, didn't ever mention any standardized tests, didn't know squat about motivational theory. But damn, she loved books, she expected us to love books, she'd read every book ever, she could communicate what was specifically beautiful about stories and literature, and she embodied — for all of us — what it looked like to be an adult passionately using the reading and writing skills we were learning.

Unfortunately, as we attempt to reform, we're looking at teachers just as myopically as we're looking at schools. Teachers ought to be passionate role models who connect kids daily with a real-world field they may one day pursue, not ed-specialists with no great love for or understanding of their material. Kids I've met as a teacher (and since) overwhelmingly don't know why they go to school, and I would contend that it's because their experience is not being consistently linked to the future and to the world they're eager to explore.

What we ought to do is invest in and emphasize field trips, current events discussion, and opportunities for students to be entrepreneurial — all of which would more actively, dynamically link their in-school experiences with their idea of what they're heading toward. We ought to embrace the model of a group like the Future Project, which puts staff in schools whose sole purpose it is to tie students' learning to their outside-of-school passions and their goals. 

The education reform movement loves to spout statistics about how our schools aren't producing the real-world entrepreneurs and innovators this country will need this century. Could that be because at no point in their schooling do American students know that what they're doing has anything to do with the real world?

Maybe that's because the myopic ed reform movement makes it so very difficult for well-intentioned teachers like the ones I know to see beyond the walls of a classroom.

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Eli Hager

Published in PolicyMic, The Washington Post, Glimmer Train, The Columbia Journal, The Week, and InDigest. MFA in fiction and nonfiction writing from Columbia University; former public school teacher in the Mississippi Delta. I play baseball and blues piano and I live in New York!

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