Sometimes I wonder what the word “reform” even means in the world of education today. When I scroll through my Twitter feeds and Google reader, I see far leaning left reformists who want a total overhaul to schools as we know them. They idealize schools without borders, totally individualized and student-driven learning paths, no standardized testing. At the same time, I see far leaning right reformists who support choice and charter schools, vouchers and accountability. Everybody critiques something about the state of schools as they currently are, but nobody can agree about what to do. Even the word “reform” has become almost cliche in a field where we are “reforming” ourselves to death from a million different angles and in a million different ways. The only constant in education is change.
I often hear teachers say they are tired of fads and trends and that elements of education come and go in cycles and waves. These are the teachers who don’t jump on board when policies change because they know reform; they’ve taught through many of the cycles, and they know by the time we adjust to this most recent reform movement, the next one will be on the way.
But to me, there are tiny shifts of true reform that seem to persist through all the ups and downs of change. These are small changes that make little ripples when they first come about and become great waves of change over time. While most “reforming” is really guessing in the dark and hoping to find something that sticks, these shifts are strong, educated guesses that force us to shift our entire approach to education and how we see ourselves and our students.
I think of tiny shifts over time that slowly but surely chipped away the boundaries of having students with disabilities mainstreamed into our typical classrooms. That didn’t happen overnight; it trickled through reform movements, withstanding the test of time until it became our new educational paradigm, until we recognized the equity and equality involved in educating all of our children to their maximum potential.
I think of tiny shifts that brought about desegregation. Again, small changes, small shifts over time until we recognized that students of all backgrounds were entitled to the same quality of education.
I think of how curriculum has changed over time to meet our societal needs. Our current curriculum stems from its foundations in religious instruction; over time we have recognized there is more to being an educated American than simply reading the Bible.
Our understanding of students as learners has changed significantly over time. How we engage our children and work with them to raise their individual achievements is very different than our educational predecessors who believed in rote memorization (over and over and over), recitation (over and over and over), and raps on the knuckles to establish obedience.
These are small changes over time. Little shifts that stuck and brought us to where we are today.
I like to think that all the “reforms” happening to us at least in the last few decades are leading us to some even greater shift, so I look for the tiny shifts of change that keep persisting and that have enough of an impact on equality and equity to actually shift our mindsets as we keep trudging forward. In my opinion, the standards movement is having that impact.
I recently read an Alfie Kohn article that was very critical of reform. In it, he lumped standards-based reform (what I would liken to actual instructional-level changes) and market-based reform (which I liken to a political tennis ball being used by both parties to manipulate our system) into one challenge to be overcome. He discusses the dismantling of the education system through standardized assessments, deprofessionalizing of teachers, standardized curricula that ignore individual student needs. I think his critiques are more than appropriate when applied specifically to market-based reform movements–Yes, making schools into mini businesses, setting up competition as a way to improve education, and using assessment data as a means of ranking and punishing will have that kind of impact. But I fail to see the sustainability of such reform movement because it doesn’t reach into actual instruction. Sure, some schools (out of desperation) purchase standardized curricula that guarantee improved standardized test results, but teachers who teach these curricula don’t internalize them; they don’t shift their mindsets and change their core beliefs in teaching and learning as a result. Market-based reforms, then, are superficial. They are transitory. They are the fads. They come from outsiders who want to impact instruction, but because they are outsiders they don’t have the same reach. They don’t ensure equality or equity; they don’t change the game the way desegregation did.
But to me, standards-based reforms do have this reach. We have been through two+ decades of standards, and every classroom has been affected by them. Teachers have had to dive in and do the leg work of figuring the standards out, making appropriate shifts in instruction, working harder to figure out each student’s strengths and weaknesses and keep them learning. Teaching changed as a result of our first round of standards, and it’s arguable whether these were for the better or worst. These were just our first couple rounds of work with standards–nobody could’ve expected to get it right the first few times. But they keep coming back, and each time they get better, stronger, more clarified, driving students (and subsequently, teaching and learning) deeper. Teachers cannot help but to shift their classroom instruction because new standards require new demands.
For true standards-based reformers, the standardized assessment doesn’t need to be punitive. It’s sole purpose should be formative/summative in nature, but not for passing judgment, comparing, or ranking schools. True standards-based reform focuses on the teacher-level analysis of data to inform instruction and drive learning forward. After all, the focus in this movement is each student’s individual learning path–with a progression of standards as the vehicle for learning, and standardized assessments as checkpoints along the way.
It is when market-based reformers put such a negative spin on standardized assessments that we all feel negatively about them. There’s a whole lot of value in a group of teachers collaborating and pouring over assessment data to analyze the needs of students, but there’s not a whole lot of instructional value in politicians using assessment data to pass judgments on entire systems (though, one may argue there is an entirely different kind of “value” involved in using data this way….).
I am very optimistic about standards-based reforms, and I’m also optimistic and positive about how standardized data can help teaching. I do not think what we’re experiencing now in terms of our standards and tests is the be-all, end-all, but I feel like we’re still moving forward. Standards give us equality and equity that penetrate our classrooms, change our thinking, and keep improving our instruction. Sometimes we just need to focus on the trees instead of the entire forest; I believe we should focus on these tiny shifts that pervade rather than those political shifts that don’t.