So You Really Wanna Know What’s Wrong With Ed Reform?

It seems like every week I come across another article that tries to point out where “school reform has gone astray.”

Many of them are penned by teachers, angry and confused by the adoption of charter school  laws and rapid changes to their state’s accountability systems. Others are written by reform-minded folks with legitimate concerns about the direction that the movement  is moving. And of course, others are written by trolls who won’t be satisfied with any changes to public K-12 education.

Everyone’s a critic.

I don’t particularly want to join that crowd. But I will say this: if the reform movement has indeed gone astray, it’s because we’ve left the most important aspect of education — the teaching — out of the conversation.

For decades, the education reform movement at large has been laser-focused on issues like accountability, school choice, and teacher evaluation, and obviously, those issues raise intriguing and important discussions that need to be had. But the national need for rigorous, high-quality curriculum and instruction has been a surprising dark horse of the ed reform arena. So if we’re all going to be critics, I say let’s start there.

Thanks to years of research from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we know that a highly-effective teacher is the most important in-school factor in a student’s academic achievement.  Yet somehow, both painfully and ironically, many of the school reform efforts being implemented across the country continue to focus intensely on teacher effectiveness without any regard for the actual whats and hows of effective teaching.

Natalie Wexler, senior education contributor for Forbes, feels my pain.

It’s true that teachers are hugely important, but reformers have judged teachers’ effectiveness by how much they boost students’ test scores and whether they’re seen to be employing the right kind of classroom ‘moves.’ What reformers have paid little or no attention to is what teachers are being asked to teach. There’s increasing evidence that the best way to improve teachers’ performance is to provide them with high-quality instructional materials and specific training in how to use them.

In other words, we can argue about charter schools and vouchers and scholarship tax credits and who knows what else until we’re all blue in the face, but if good teaching isn’t happening, nothing is going to move the needle for our most vulnerable students.

You just can’t have a meaningful discussion about school reform if curriculum and instruction aren’t a part of the conversation. That dog just won’t hunt.

That’s why here in Kentucky, where the reform soil is fertile, the Kentucky Department of Education has begun hanging their derby hats on the earth-shattering “Opportunity Myth” report. Released last fall, this whale of a study from TNTP shows how students across American schools — rural and urban, traditional and charter — have been chronically exposed to assignments that are below grade-level.  Researchers found that some teachers were spending ridiculous amounts of time on warm-up questions, giving students the answers to homework questions outright, and even assigning fifth-grade work to eighth-grade students.

That, to me, sounds like an alarm that’s not being answered. So as the ed reform movement continues to reflect upon its successes and failures, I hope it will start expanding its scope to include instructional issues like academic rigor, graduation requirements, and standards-based teaching.

Because at the end of the day, whether you’re red or blue, donkey or elephant, reform or refrain, you’ve got to agree:  great teaching is the foundation for any improvements in our public schools.

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