Saturday, May 25, 2019


The whole point of school reform is to have students learn more. If this doesn’t happen, the experiment is a failure, no matter how happy the children, the parents and teachers—and the reformers—are.

Albert Shanker, The New York Times, March 13, 1994

        For many years, when I talked to principals and superintendents in large urban school districts where youngsters were not doing very well, I’d hear the same thing. They’d tell me that they had a new plan or policy or initiative that was making a tremendous difference. You couldn’t see any difference in the test scores, they’d say, but that was not the whole story. If I would only go into the schools, I’d see kids smiling, and I’d feel the warmth in the classrooms. That would tell me a whole lot more than test scores.

        There were always some hard-nosed reformers who didn’t buy that idea. They insisted that you had to judge the success of schools by the results—how well students performed. Some of these people were key players in creating the big Chicago school reform in 1988. This removed much of the authority from the central school board and brought it down to the school level, creating councils of parents and teachers and community members with the authority to hire and fire principals, spend money and establish curriculum—in other words, it introduced the kind of school-level empowerment that many believed was needed if we hoped to improve student learning.

        What’s happened? Several months ago, I was in Chicago with a group that was looking at the reform. With us were the key players who had always pushed the idea that the important thing was test scores—if you didn’t have good test scores, the kids weren’t learning.

        I asked them, “Now that the law’s been changed so that parents and teachers and the principal are in charge of what goes on in school instead of a bunch of central office bureaucrats, have the test scores gone up?” What I got from these people—those who were leaders in this revolution—was a variation of what I used to hear from principals and superintendents: “No,” they said, “the test scores haven’t gone up, but you should see the children smiling—how active and happy they are—and how the school councils are working together to make some very exciting changes.”

        That’s basically what a big report these people did on the Chicago reform also said, except it used a lot of data and scholarly apparatus. The report told us that reform is fragile but it is coming along. It classified four different types of school politics and five different types of school improvement initiatives. It found that small schools were more likely to be undertaking ambitious reforms than larger ones and said how good it is when people work together. But the report ducked the question of whether or not any of the changes were beginning to achieve what the reform intended—raise the achievement of Chicago’s students out of the cellar.

        Is student learning better in schools where there are democratic school councils or in schools where the principal runs the show? Have what the report calls “practices associated with ‘authentic learning’” produced any “authentic learning” in schools where they have been introduced? The report does say that the reform has not harmed the achievement in schools that were already doing well (a good thing). And it offers enthusiastic quotes from students and teachers in reforming schools, but no data or discussion about student performance. It talks all about process when what we want to hear about is substance.

        Am I saying that Chicago’s schools should show an across-the-board jump in student achievement after five years of reform? Of course not. Reforming any large institution is extraordinarily difficult. But it’s ridiculous and dangerous for a report on the status of the reform to omit what should be its centerpiece—an attempt to measure progress toward the goal of improved student achievement and an analysis of what seems to be working and what seems to be failing.

        Proposals for radical school decentralization are very popular now. New York City is considering a division into five borough school systems, and a number of states have or are looking at charter school proposals, which would allow people to establish free-standing public schools that are independent of local school boards and can do pretty much what they want. The jury is still out on whether decentralization in Chicago will significantly improve student achievement. But the five years of reform do illustrate one thing. When school decentralization—or any other reform—is put in place, we need to be careful that the new “owners” of the school system don’t change the rules. 

The whole point of school reform is to have students learn more. If this doesn’t happen, the experiment is a failure, no matter how happy the children, the parents and teachers—and the reformers—are.

1 comment: