Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Reform what?

With President Elect Obama nominating Mr. Duncan to become the new secretary of education, everyone seems to be talking about reform. I would like to know more about what reforms he thinks are needed, because in education there are reform movements that seek to reform the previous reform movement. Ask any teacher. They will tell you that the trend in education is reform-- always reform. And the pendulum never slows, it simply gathers energy and swings wildly from one side of the pendulum to the other. Duncan has never been a teacher, so as a reformer it may be hard for him to get a sense of how hard this swing is for teachers to manage. 
Working as a teacher and teacher educator for many years, I have learned that it takes time for teachers to learn-- not surprising. They are after all, human like the rest of us and need time to practice complex things in varying conditions. I have seen reforms come in under one principal, with enormous amounts of effort and money following, only to be swept away after a year or two by a new administrator, new board, new idea. And the reform that had just begun to flourish is buried under some contrary idea. 
What I would say to Mr. Duncan and Mr. Obama is this: be smarter than the previous guys who did this. Don't throw out the baby with the bath water. Look not only at what has not worked, but what is working. Scale up what is working. Keep listening to all sides, get the big perspective. Use the really great work that the Institute for Educational Sciences (IES) has done to research what works. 
The biggest problem with No Child Left Behind is that it has turned our schools into dreary places where "reformers" come in and make sure every teacher is "covering material" at the same time, lockstep, documenting those who are not on the pacing guide-- even when they slow down to make sure their students are learning. Many teachers have left schools because, as one told me, I was being asked to do things to my students that I felt were wrong. One teacher explained that the "reform" consultant who came to their school suggested that they stop teaching writing until reading scores came up. WHAT? 
That is not reformed education, it is deformed. 
Talent matters in education, Duncan said. I could not agree more. He should start by looking inside our own country at some of the best and brightest that are here, doing good work that has nearly been shut down under My Child Left Behind.