DEAN’S PERSPECTIVES ON EDUCATION
School Reform: Tinkering Around the Edges
School reform has been the subject of articles, books, speeches (including campaign), op-ed pieces, research, and most of all, political pronouncements. The problem is that they all attempt to validate either existing models of school organization or proclaim the virtues of variations of the same.
Solutions have been offered ranging from smaller class size and smaller schools (reported to have worsened the situation at large schools), to improving teacher quality, to paying teachers substantially higher salaries, to rewarding “effective” teaching through bonuses, to recruiting the “best and brightest,” to stopping the flow of experienced teachers from schools that are difficult to staff, to eliminating the assignment of new teachers to those same schools, and establishing charter schools whose achievement has been mixed, at best. None of these has proved to be altogether successful. And, if this assortment of approaches were not enough, we have also promulgated new and “tougher” regulations governing the certification of teachers while, at the same time, initiating accelerated certification programs with markedly different standards designed to fill the void of teachers in low achieving schools or in disciplines such as math, science and reading.
Moreover, emphasizing math, science and reading has reduced teaching the arts, sports and the social sciences, moving us perilously close to the virtual elimination of sequenced programs in each and, many times, substituting part-time, non-certified “teachers” who are available at a rate of pay far lower than that of regularly certified professionals. All of this provides little in the way of educating children to meet the world competition for a citizenry capable of contending with the promise of the 21st century.
The largest problem, and the one no one wishes to engage, is that K–12 schools operate as though we were still an agrarian economy. Summer vacation exists as though children in urban and suburban schools have to be free to harvest crops (apparently growing through the concrete pavement). It is claimed that summer “vacation” permits teachers to gather renewed strength, or to make needed extra money, or for children who have not passed exams to be tutored in an environment perceived by many of them to be more as punishment than support.
In My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins queries why women cannot be more like him. A corollary to this peculiar puzzle is why elementary and secondary schools cannot (indeed, should not) be organized more like higher education. Under the present system teachers have little time to confer with their colleagues, no time to engage in scholarly discussion except over a sandwich at lunch, no time to develop interdisciplinary programs, no time to reflect, collectively, on the progress of individual students, and certainly no time to advise or counsel their students out of class. Nor have principals the time to act, as the concept of principal was once believed to be that of “principal teacher.”
If K–12 schools were organized on a nine-month basis with longer school days, using summer for all children conceived not just as remedial, but as time for enrichment, for acceleration of those who are clearly gifted, and for activities that capture the imagination of all, we would have a very different set of outcomes way before twelfth grade, at which point only a fraction of the original school population is still in attendance. Of course, this is also predicated on a reduced teaching schedule for teachers, affording them, for the first time in our history, the time and support to become truly professional. It would harness the untapped talents of thousands who are now hampered by archaic policies and politics that prelude thoughtful and forward thinking.
It would also mean the complete restructuring of curricula, the prioritization of classes according to the needs of all pupils, and the potential for introducing brilliant people in their own fields as “adjunct” to the regular teaching staff. The proliferation of programs and practices within the existing framework of schools—a crazy quilt of competing ideas and conflicting approaches—are designed to “patch up” the existing structures rather than radically altering the failing status quo. This quilt smothers cooperative relationships between the school administration and its teachers, among the teachers themselves, and between teacher education universities and the schools, through which creative models of organization and pedagogy could be developed.
It is time to create a new pattern: one whose edges are not circumscribed by binding stitched together to prevent the loosely sewn pieces within from falling apart completely. It is time to view school reform as an entire piece, not piecework typical of factories: hopefully a work more resembling art than artifice. #
Dr. Jerrold Ross is Dean of the School of Education at St. John’s University in New York.