So here we are in the midst of another school reform movement. Here’s a funny thing. I’ve worked as a high school English teacher for about twenty-four years now, and while I consider myself progressive, forward thinking, willing to try new things, and while I feel confident that, in actual practice, I do progressive, forward thinking, new things in my classroom with my students, I feel, paradoxically, that in the 24 years I’ve been teaching almost nothing of real consequence has changed in Education—despite the fact that at every step of the way there was some reform movement on the front burner.
Oh, let me count the reforms (fair warning: this will be tedious): Over my twenty-four year career, we have been introduced to and/or implemented block schedule, site-based management, project-based education, schools within schools, houses, I.T.I.P., sheltered instruction operation protocol, professional learning communities, authentic assessment, Oregon state standards, Oregon state standards revisited, the CIM, the CAM, senior seminar, the capstone experience, career to work, language objectives, learning targets, multiple intelligences, international baccalaureate, and now, drum roll, please, The Common Core, adopted by something like 45 of the 50 states in the union.
Out of all of these hobby-horse reforms (some more hobby-horse than others and none of them meaningless on theoretical merits), only one or two of them have seriously impacted my practice and most all of them have come and gone and come and gone and come again.
Schools tend to be both perpetually in reform mode and perpetually frozen in time. Save for some clear philosophical distinctions between what I do as a teacher and what the teachers who taught me did as teachers, the experience of teaching or taking a high school English class is essentially the same as it ever was, only more difficult. Not that those philosophical differences between myself and my predecessors are small potatoes—I think of them as significant—significant, but not new. I know that there were secondary teachers during the late seventies and early eighties who would agree philosophically with almost every thing I do now—and probably did some of those things themselves. But in the end, it’s not so much about what teachers DO as it is about what they believe, which influences what they do. Can all students learn? Can all students improve? Should students have some autonomy, as often as is possible, to steer their own learning? Should students be encouraged to discover their own knowledge rather than regurgitate their teacher’s? Is schooling life-affirming and soul-enhancing? Is schooling a respectful, validating, joyful experience? Does the schooling experience grow positive and productive citizenry? If you can answer all of these questions in the affirmative, it seems to me you’ve got your answer to school reform.
All of this hullabaloo to measure and evaluate seems at total cross purposes with the above important questions. We’re always trying to evaluate, grade, assess, measure, weigh, compare, compete and publish those results, and once we figure out how to do these things, then the job seems to be about how often we can do them. The more often the better. And all of this momentum toward measurement comes from OUTSIDE the school. I have never known a teacher to beg for a standardized test. I have never known a teacher who professed any amount of faith or trust in the value of a standardized test. What I do know is how much time with students actually exploring meaningful work is lost to administering tests I have no role in creating, the content of which I have no foreknowledge, and that have absolutely zero connection to my curriculum. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the guv’ment, and the district bosses who are beholden to the guv’ment, don’t trust teachers to teach up the kids in our community. They don’t trust principals to hire effective people. Actually, I do know better, and what seems to be true I think is actually true: We’re not trusted at the school level. And testing is the most expedient way for the powers that be to check up on our progress, even if the meaning or value of that check-up is nebulous. Nobody once considered just stopping by, looking into a room or two, talking to kids and parents, asking some teachers to explain what they’re doing. That would be too hard.
Instead, let’s get a bunch of college professors and politicians together to hammer out The Common Core—this new group of nationally selected standards by which ALL students in participating states will be measured. In fairness, The Common Core website says the standards were created by “teachers, parents, school administrators and experts from across the country together with state leaders.” Beyond this, the authorship of these standards and exactly how they were decided upon is a relative mystery.
What’s “new” about these standards? Well, in English education, not a whole lot. They’re standards for skills rather than for content knowledge, skills around reading, writing, speaking and listening. None of these skills are skills that any thinking professional would dismiss as unimportant or trivial. But there are a ton of them, more than any one thinking professional could keep inside his or her thinker, and more than any one busy professional could ever accomplish in a school year. And they’re rigorous as all get-out—as if the authors of these lovely little standards had NO idea about what the populations of our classrooms look like in terms of diversity in readiness and skill level. They make the same mistake that every other standards movement in the history of standards movements makes: expect the same thing from all students in the same way over the same amount of time–as if they were all, dare I say it, the same. Here’s more work. Here’s more difficult work. And the added resources to help you with that, or the relief from massive student loads? I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
On the whole, if anything has changed in Education over twenty-four years, it’s that teachers have come into the profession, not less, but more highly skilled, knowledgeable, prepared, and professional than ever before—at least that seems true to me here in Oregon, or here in my district in a suburb of Portland. It is a wonder that the most qualified teaching force in the history of the public school system is not qualified to make determinations about the effectiveness of and the best path toward improving our schools, our programs, the learning of our students, and ultimately, whether or not those students have the skills necessary to be worthy of a high school diploma.