Education Reform Students Teachers and Teaching

Mike Rose on the Failure of “School Reform”

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Mike Rose has written a thoughtful critique of “school reform” in The American Scholar. The title of the article is “School Reform Fails the Test.” The subtitle hits a bullseye: “How can our schools get better when we’ve made our teachers the problem and not the solution?”

Think about that question. If “teachers are the problem,” the problem will never be solved. It will not be solved by Teach for America, which accounts for less than 1% of all teachers. It will not be solved by putting former TFA into positions of leadership, as we can see by the disruptive and demoralizing experiences of John White in Louisiana and Kevin Huffman in Tennessee. No one, with the possible exceptions of Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan, would point to these states as models for the nation. For five years now, since the introduction of Race to the Top and the release of “Waiting for Superman,” the “reformers” have been obsessed with the hunt for bad teachers. They have been persuaded by Eric Hanushek’s views that our economy will soar by trillions if we regularly fire the bottom 5-10% of teachers, bottom meaning those whose students don’t increase their test scores.

Here is a taste of Mike Rose’s long and pensive essay:

Organizing schools and creating curricula based on an assumption of wholesale failure make going to school a regimented and punitive experience. If we determine success primarily by a test score, we miss those considerable intellectual achievements that aren’t easily quantifiable. If we think about education largely in relation to economic competitiveness, then we ignore the social, moral, and aesthetic dimensions of teaching and learning. You will be hard pressed to find in federal education policy discussions of achievement that include curiosity, reflection, creativity, aesthetics, pleasure, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. Our understanding of teaching and learning, and of the intellectual and social development of children, becomes terribly narrow in the process.

School reform is hardly a new phenomenon, and the harshest criticism of schools tends to coincide with periods of social change or economic transformation. The early decades of the 20th century—a time of rapid industrialization and mass immigration from central and southern Europe—saw a blistering attack, reminiscent of our own time. The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 triggered another assault, with particular concern over math and science education. And during the 1980s, as postwar American global economic preeminence was being challenged, we saw a flurry of reports on the sorry state of education, the most notable of which, A Nation at Risk (1983), warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

Public education, a vast, ambitious, loosely coupled system of schools, is one of our country’s defining institutions. It is also flawed, in some respects deeply so. Unequal funding, fractious school politics, bureaucratic inertia, uneven curricula, uninspired pedagogy, and the social ills that seep into the classroom all limit the potential of our schools. The critics are right to be worried. The problem is that the criticism, fueled as it is by broader cultural anxieties, is often sweeping and indiscriminate. Critics blame the schools for problems that have many causes. And some remedies themselves create difficulties. Policymakers and educators face a challenge: how to target the problems without diminishing the achievements in our schools or undermining their purpose. The current school reform movement fails this challenge.

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