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Reform with a purpose 

by Robert Herold


The Bush Administration's rhetoric regarding school reform, to date, has been long on noise and short on imagination. To reduce the problem of public school performance to more testing -- for both students and teachers -- is simplistic in the extreme.


At the very least, the work accomplished more than a decade ago by the Holmes Group and the Carnegie Foundation task force should be used as a jumping off point for the administration's reform efforts.


Both the Holmes Group and the Carnegie task force made what was a watershed argument that, so far as I've been able to determine, has languished ever since in the political and bureaucratic backwaters.


Specifically, Holmes and Carnegie concluded that effective school reform is highly dependent upon better teacher preparation, and better teacher preparation is dependent upon our willingness to address the consequences of state certification and, by implication, the education establishment that certification has created. The trail then leads back to the hub of the establishment -- the university educational school -- for it is there that determination is made as regards to who gets in and who doesn't, and that's the whole ballgame.


Oddly enough, even the reform literature continues to focus primarily upon the debate over ideas while ignoring politics. Diane Ravitch, in her most recent book, takes the matter a tad further, but not much. In Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform, she argues persuasively that American schools have been damaged by three misconceptions: the belief that the schools can solve any social problem; the belief that only a portion of youngsters are capable of benefiting from high-quality education; and that imparting knowledge is relatively unimportant, compared to engaging students in activities and experiences. As a result, our schools have, in Ravitch's words, "lost their sense of purpose."


Once we politicized the schools, it has turned out that they can be made to be just about anything the educational trend setters and political opportunists want them to be. And thus we have watched the failure of school reform after school reform over the past century.


Ravitch concludes with some words of advice: We should avoid anything that even hints at being a "movement." There is really no substitute for well-educated teachers, and when she refers to "well-educated" she isn't referring to expertise, rather to knowledge. Finally, she argues that adults must take more responsibility for their children, both in regards to education and in the realm of character development.


While Ravitch takes the reader through the many ideological battles that have defined public education over the years, and while she alludes to the controlling presence of what E.D. Hirsch Jr. refers to as "educationists," her study doesn't extend into the political analysis necessary to fully explain the current situation.


She stops short of signing on to the sharpest, most pointed blast that I've ever read directed toward the professional education community. Regarding the chances of success in public education, the co-founder of the University of Chicago Great Books Curriculum, Mortimer Adler wrote: "I must confess that I am pessimistic, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, there is the inertia of vested interests, which perpetuate existing human institutions. Organized education is one of the largest rackets in this country, and the teachers colleges, especially such influential ones as those at Columbia, Chicago and California, are the gangs that control what goes on, in ways that do not always meet the eye and would not stand inspection. To call education a racket is, of course, to speak metaphorically, but the comparison has point. Reforming education will have to use racket-busting techniques or it will not succeed."


So there it is. Oh, and Adler penned those comments in 1939, so his take on the inertia of vested interests has been proven correct, as we find ourselves facing many of the same foundational issues faced then.


Not even Hirsch, in his controversial book The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, went so far. Hirsch jabs at but does not really confront what Adler asserts is the cause for the mess in the first place -- the education establishment.





What if Adler was right? What if ideas have never been so much the issue as control and influence over which ideas see the light of day and which ideas don't? And if this is the case, then shouldn't we be addressing the political question -- the who gets, what, when and why of the matter?


What we find here may not be the racket that Adler charges, but it certainly looks and smells like a monopoly. Our professional educationists, we discover to no surprise, have nicely positioned themselves to protect and enhance their professional interests, which in all instances coincide with their personal interests. As the official gatekeepers, they decide "who gets what and how" and use this power to leverage support from below and from above -- from students who want jobs and from teachers and administrators who have matriculated through a program in which they retain an investment. Most significantly, what they do has grave impact.


Analysis would lead to the conclusion that reform, over the years (from "whole language" programs to "self esteem" building) has been held hostage to a closed intellectual shop -- credentialing, certification and accreditation. What emerges is a kind of interlocking directorate that gives ground only grudgingly.


Where does this analysis lead us? What needs to be done? Professor Ravitch would counsel against any new "movement" -- that we can agree upon. So how about beginning with a few political actions that hold promise of breaking apart Adler's "racket"?


First, the Carnegie Report should be followed to the letter. Prospective teachers need more work in their subject areas, and if that means getting education schools entirely out of the undergraduate curriculum, then so be it. Teachers-in-the-making do not usually earn history degrees to teach history; they earn education degrees, and that is a big part of the problem.


Second, as Bard College President Leon Botstein wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece awhile back, there is blame to go around. While the liberal arts and sciences are properly critical of the teacher trainers, the truth is that they aren't so interested in taking on the task, either. Faculty who are trained in the traditional disciplines need to become more responsive and responsible to the needs of teacher training.


Third, with a reduction in methods courses, student teaching requirements could be increased.


Fourth, school districts should consider hiring non-educationists into the position of superintendent. Atlanta and Seattle have both experimented with this approach with good results.


Fifth, the education bureaucracy at the district level needs to be cut -- deeply. More decision-making authority could then pass to the principals, who, as the literature shows, are key to the success of any school.


Sixth, cutting the district bureaucracy will be dependent upon the state and federal government lifting as many regulations as possible.


We do all this, and then maybe we can have a meaningful debate over that sense of purpose that Ravitch believes schools have lost.

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