Why Don’t Schools Improve?
Why don’t schools improve? It’s a thorny question, in part, because Americans tend to criticize schooling in general, but rate their local schools quite highly. It’s thorny for a number of other reasons as well, but perhaps foremost is the ambiguity that surrounds the idea of improvement.
We are now in our third decade of a reform movement that dates back to the 1983 Nation at Risk report. The authors of that report declared that American schools represented a “rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” Many more reports have followed; none trumpet an improved landscape for school children and teachers. Why not?
There are lots of reasons, but two come immediately to mind. One is the issue of defining improvement; the second is the problem of measuring improvement.
Improving schools seems like a pretty straightforward proposition — until one asks what the goal is. Presumably the chief objective would be academic: Schools can and should provide a richer education for all students. But richer in what sense? The Bush-era No Child Left Behind legislation focused on literacy and mathematics while giving short shrift to science, social studies and the arts. Should we judge schools to be improved if they register gains for less than half of the curriculum?
Moreover, are academics the sole area of concern? Two of the most commonly expressed goals of schooling are to prepare citizens and to develop a workforce. There is an academic element to citizenship education, but most observers agree that students need to be actively involved inside and outside schools if they really are to understand the role of citizen. Similarly, those who advocate schools as the place to introduce and reinforce good workplace habits and skills point to a need for both academic and practical elements. Given that we are already having difficulty getting the academics right, it is hard to imagine stretching the school day even further to accommodate real world activities.
If one reason that schools have not improved is the lack of an agreed-upon definition of improvement, a second is an inadequate system of measurement. Standardized tests offer a relatively fast, efficient, and inexpensive form of evaluating students. But the problems associated with such tests are well known — they tend to focus on surface-level rather than deep knowledge and often emphasize school-based learning rather than real-world understandings. Also problematic is the use of the results; a single test score can, in some cases, delay a student from graduating.
Standardized testing offers considerable convenience at a fairly modest cost, but convenience and cost savings may not be enough. If the assessments fail to measure something real and important and do so in a way that penalizes students for a single poor performance, then a key indicator of whether or not schools are improving is compromised.
Americans pride themselves as action-oriented people who can identify a problem, propose a solution and take action. But complex social organizations can befuddle the just-get-it-done spirit. The reasons why schooling seems so resistant to reform lend themselves to no simple prescription, no single action plan. That condition is frustrating, but ignoring the challenges we face is no solution either. If we are serious about improving the educational lives of all children, we may be able to get there by tinkering around the edges of teaching, learning, and schooling. But it is hard to imagine that we can continue to avoid the two challenges to school reform — defining what constitutes school success and developing measures that appropriately assess that success. Until we know where we are going and how we will know when we get there, all roads lead to disappointment. #
S.G. Grant is the dean of the School of Education at Binghamton University, State University of New York. He has written extensively on issues related to teaching and learning. Grant’s research in the field of social studies/history education culminated in two books.