Reform Vs. Improvement, 2009 Edition

For the past few weeks, the crystal ball gazers waiting to see who is tapped for EdSec have been all a twitter about how the choice will serve as the white smoke as to whether the Obama Administration is the status quo or a reformer when it comes to education.  Will reformers (whether they be Democrats for Education Reform or advocates for new ideas such as Teach for America or New Leaders for New Schools) be given the keys to Maryland Avenue?  Or will the old guard (be it the teachers unions or old-school researchers and academics) be given the power to lead?

It is no secret that Eduflack is no fan of the status quo.  Those that are unable or unwilling to change bear ultimate responsibility for 40 percent of today’s fourth graders being unable to read at grade level, they bear responsibility for two thirds of today’s ninth graders failing to earn a college degree.  And they bear responsibility for too few effective teachers in far too many classrooms, particularly the urban and low-income classrooms that needs good teachers the most.
In recent years, though, we have used the term reform as a form a shorthand to describe a few key issues.  Reform is charter schools.  Reform is vouchers.  Reform is school choice.  Reform is alternative certification.  In essence, reform is a particular education intervention, designed to improve access, opportunity, reach, and quality of public education.  Reforms are important, yes.  And I haven’t been shy to advocate for key reforms, particularly charter schools, virtual education, and the like.  But at the end of the day, reform is but a process.  It is an input.  Important, yes, but not as important as the ultimate output.
Instead of talking about reforms and inputs, shouldn’t our focus be on improvement?  Shouldn’t the discussion about the next EdSec and the next list of marching orders for ED be a debate between the status quo and real school improvement?  Shouldn’t it be about whether we continue down to same path, or whether we identify and pursue a better path?
I realize this may be a matter of semantics, and that many of those who talk about education reform are meaning to talk about school improvement.  But from the discussions over the past few years, it is high time for us to drop the term “reform” from our educational vocabularies.  It is overused and has lost most meaning.  (That’s why many have already shifted from reform to innovation.)  We should be talking about improvements — improvements for the schools, improvements for the teachers, and improvements for the students.  Reform gives the impression we are acting for acting’s sake.  Improvement is about results and ROI.
So what does this all mean?  First and foremost, I would say we don’t need any additional reforms, we need real improvements.  When we look at the policy positions of the President-elect and the rhetoric coming out of the Senate HELP Committee Chairman’s office, we know that such improvement starts with the teacher.  We know that the best instructional ideas fall flat without an effective educator leading the classroom.  We have clear and uncontroverted evidence of what good teaching is and of effective pre-service and in-service teacher education.  You invest in the teacher — providing them the training, instructional materials and ongoing supports they need to do their job effectively — you see the results in terms of student achievement.
When we talk about current reform efforts — be it TFA, NLNS, KIPP, Green Dot, or others — they all hold similar characteristics.  They all start with the importance of caring educators and quality teaching.  They pledge a commitment to ongoing, job-embedded PD opportunities.  They provide educators the materials and technology they need to do the job.  They empower educators by giving them data and teaching them how to effectively use data to deliver needed interventions for kids.  And they are focused on more than just education reform, they are all committed to improvement, as measured by student achievement and school success.
A recent New Yorker article highlighted the research of Stanford/Hoover researcher Rick Hanushek on effective teaching.  The data is simple, yet illuminating.  Quality teaching trumps all.  Kids have a better chance of success with great teachers in lousy schools than they do with mediocre or bad teachers in great schools.  (Sorry for oversimplifying your research, Rick, but that’s this layman’s interpretation.)
From his work at Hoover and Koret, and his training as an economist, Hanushek is seen as a leading researcher for the “reform” side of the education debate.  But how different is his bottom line of the importance of high-quality, effective teachers than the decades of work developed by fellow Stanford-ite Linda Darling-Hammond?  They may come at it from different angles, they may define effective teaching differently, but they both recognize that school improvement begins and ends with highly qualified, effective, supported teachers.
Our schools need improvement, and improvement begins with the teacher.  The status quoers are those who say that today’s teachers are better than any generation of teachers before them.  The status quoers are those who say that schools of education and in-service PD is the best it can be.  The status quoers are those who say the current outputs of our K-12 teachers (whether it be measured by “high-stakes tests or other quantitative or qualitative measures) are sufficient, and don’t require improvement.  The status quoers are those who don’t see the need for President-elect Obama’s call for major investment in the recruitment, retention, and support of the 21st century teacher.
Yes, there are ideological differences on how we can build and support a better teacher, including the pedagogical needs of new and veteran teachers, the ongoing, embedded PD teachers needs throughout the year, and the better understanding and implementation of data in the classroom.   But improving teaching is improving education.  Clear and simple.
We should be talking about how we are going to improve teaching and improve education, not whether we will or not.  Perhaps the selection of an EdSec redirects the debate for the positive.  Regardless, we need to be focusing on improvements, and not on personalities and personal agendas.  Has it really been almost two years since the NCLB Commission called for a greater focus on “effective” teachers?  Has it really been a year since a bi-partisan group of U.S. Senators called for adding “effective” to the HQT provisions?  How much longer does it have to be before we really invest in quality, effective teaching, aligning federal policy and Title II with outcomes and ROI?  That should be the reformers’ dream come true.

3 thoughts on “Reform Vs. Improvement, 2009 Edition

  1. Is is amazing sometimes how much conversation and consternation occurs over how to improve education through program after program, and legislative effort after legislative effort. Two words. Better teaching. Hire great teachers, train teachers better, and help them leverage their strengths. The biggest difference in education is the teacher in the room. Focus on that.

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