It’s Time to Update Our Education Reform Narrative

There’s a post up in Time today that rehashes the current narrative on education reform, and exemplifies everything that is wrong with it. Here’s a quick summation of its contents.

–Higher test scores equate with higher GDP
–Our test scores continue to lag in comparison with other nations
–Teachers are the greatest factor in raising test scores
–Education reform measures have not significantly raised test scores

–“For the U.S. to remain competitive, its students must go further faster.”

There’s a major problem with this narrative, and it lies not in the research regarding test scores (which I believe is the right way to use test scores, by the way). It lies in the way the problems are framed and the conclusions that are made.

This particular narrative begins, however, with a point that we strongly agree with: “the implications could not be clearer: The United States must recognize that its long-term growth depends on dramatically increasing the quality of its K–12 public education system.”

On this blog, we advocate for the sustainable, long-term perspective of schools as ecosystems, rather than schools as knowledge manufacturing factories. We advocate for this model because we believe it will dramatically increase the quality of our public schools. We share the goal of education reformers and activists everywhere.

But we would advise updating the education reform narrative to reflect human reality.

First of all, does a higher GDP reflect everything that this nation strives for? Does this calculation of GDP reflect measures of well-being rather than simply material wealth, as Great Britain and France are beginning to consider (and as Martin Seligman advises with his PERMA model)?

Next, teachers are definitely the greatest factor in raising test scores, simply because teachers are the adults that students spend the majority of their time with while in school. But this ignores the great impact that a school context has on teacher effectiveness. What about the impact that a principal has on the effectiveness of their teachers? What about the impact of the school curriculum? What about the environment of the school, the language that is used, the relationships that are formed, the niches and opportunities for learning and exploration?

Finally, if our current reform narrative is not substantially enabling greater student achievement, then why in the world would we advocate for more of the same, for pushing students to magically achieve “further faster”?

If we continue to view schools in this antiquated industrial manner, then we will continue to see greater segregation between economic and racial populations, continued gaps in achievement, and continued lag behind higher performing nations. We need to update our education reform narrative from viewing schools as knowledge manufacturing facilities to viewing schools as dynamic learning ecosystems.

Only when we ask the right questions and frame the problems appropriately will we be able to target our policies and actions to best improve the quality of our public schools.

2 thoughts on “It’s Time to Update Our Education Reform Narrative

  1. Anonymous

    I am an absolutely caring and dedicated reading specialist. I work in a very challenging school with some of the strongest students dealing with life challenges that I do not know if I can handle. Is that the teacher's fault?

    The students seldom get the academic services from the school that they need to be successful. Their needs are not addressed so our students struggle. Is that the teacher's fault?

    Do I have to go on? Or do you get the point?


  2. It is certainly not your fault — this is why Will and I are passionately advocating for the perspective of schools as ecosystems. The dysfunctional nature of your school and the acute and chronic stress that your students are undergoing are all part of the context of your school and community, and these factors have tremendous impact on achievement.

    You are certainly not alone in your situation. Here's a post I wrote on the inevitable feeling of failure that has hounded me as a newer teacher in a challenging position:

    We desperately need a new lens for looking at schools. It should never rest solely upon the teachers' shoulders. We know that it takes a whole school to nurture the whole child. Keep up the good fight, and I hope that you have a network of solid friends to lean on during the daily emotional pressures you and your students must undergo. You are valued and appreciated by your fellow educators and by your students.


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