What Is School Reform, Anyway?

I was chatting with a reporter the other day who asked me why it seems like we hear a lot less about school reform than we did just a few years ago. It’s an interesting question and one that I hope to dig into sometime soon. But it also got us onto the interesting tangent of: “What is school reform, anyway?”

The term “school reform” tends to take on a very particular meaning at different points in time. Today, the school reform mantle is less visible than it’s been for a long time. And the school reformers have a new playbook. Instead of standards or teacher evaluation, “reform” circa 2022 — at least according to the advocacy groups, funders, and conference conveners who once fetishized that other stuff — is now centered on issues like social and emotional learning, teacher retention, and “anti-racist” education.

Obviously, it wasn’t always thus. For much of the 2010s, “reformers” were the people who supported things like charter schooling, accountability, test-based teacher evaluation, and the Common Core State Standards.

In earlier eras, other reform orthodoxies have prevailed. A century ago, the list would’ve included “scientific management,” regular testing, sorting students by IQ, and depoliticizing school boards. In the 1980s, it would’ve included a more demanding high school curriculum, career ladders for teachers, a longer school year, and tougher teacher-certification tests.

But, at least in my mind, these various recitals of programs and policies don’t actually equate to “reform.” Why not? Well, it’ll make a little more sense if I first say a bit about why I became a “reformer” in the first place (spoiler: it had nothing to do with today’s reform litany nor with those earlier ones). The short version: It’s mostly because, as a student, a teacher, and a trainer of teachers, I found too many classrooms and schools to be spirit-eroding and mind-numbing. Bells rang, students took their seats, and minutes ticked by.

And it’s partly because I experienced and saw classrooms that were wholly different — places where students felt valued, inspired, and challenged. Most of us picture a particular classroom when we say that. For me, it was Selma Ziff’s 6th grade at Pine Ridge Elementary in Virginia, a room that was a whirlwind of math drills, Shakespearean plays, schemes to colonize Mars, and probability learned by gambling with M&Ms. It was a relentless, joyous race to learn. It was what school should be. Hell, it was what childhood should be.

For me, reform has never been about anything as high-flown as “social justice.” It’s been about wanting more classrooms to resemble the ones I loved and frustration that we weren’t making that happen.

It’s long seemed clear to me that we could do much better. Better at igniting imagination. At helping students master world languages. At teaching science and history. At instilling a sense of civic responsibility. At ensuring that all students are literate and numerate. At cultivating interest in the arts. At raising kids who are kind and curious. But it’s seemed equally clear that doing this will require allowing ourselves to reimagine and rethink schooling.

Too often, in their well-meaning focus on achievement gaps, curricular agendas, and equitable staffing models, reformers can seem remarkably unbothered that so many students find school tedious and mind-numbing. I’ve found that tedium and boredom are rarely front and center except when they’re linked to issues of poverty or race. That’s nuts. These broad-based frustrations ought to be at the beating heart of reform.

And yet reform is too often a spinning wheel of one reform after another, all of it serving to exhaust educators and breed cynicism. Teachers learn to shut their doors while muttering, “This too shall pass.” Through the decades, I’ve learned that reform done poorly is often worse than no reform at all and that the real challenge is more often one of execution than of action.

So what is true school reform, the kind that actually helps kids? Sometimes, I think it’s nothing more than having the courage to resist the groupthink of the moment, embrace first principles, and remember that school improvement is ultimately about the human dynamics of teachers and students.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.