Why the Conventional Wisdom on School Reform Is Wrong and Why the Church Should Care

From Jan Resseger, Minister for Public Education and Witness, United Church of Christ (http://www.ucc.org/justice/public-education):


Every year at the beginning of the school year, the United Church of Christ Justice & Witness Ministries creates a little more in-depth resource to help members of our congregations explore pressing concerns for public education in the United States in the coming year.


This year’s JWM Message on Public Education, “Why the Conventional Wisdom on School Reform is Wrong and Why the Church Should Care,” challenges the church to call society to see and address racial segregation and poverty, two issues America seems to have forgotten today as they affect school achievement.


Read the introduction below, and find the link to the complete message at the end.


Why the Conventional Wisdom on School Reform Is Wrong and Why the Church Should Care


by Jan Resseger, Minister for Public Education and Witness


It has been a difficult year for public education. A five-years’ overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose 2002 version we call No Child Left Behind (NCLB), languishes in a divided Congress. Now Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says he will grant states unilateral waivers from the law’s most punitive consequences, but the catch is that to qualify, states must present accountabliity plans based on Duncan’s own favorite punishments for schools unable quickly to raise scores—including sanctions like merit pay and reduction of due process for teachers, school closure, and rapid charterization. The rhetoric of school reform has little to do with the lives of children or the daily work of teachers. Meanwhile a deplorable wave of scapegoating school teachers continues unabated.


The damage of NCLB accrues. Reviewing twenty years of test-based accountability, including these last ten years under NCLB, the National Research Council recently declared the experiment a failure: “Test-based incentive programs… have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest achieving countries.” Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Philadelphia, and a growing list of school districts are reeling from investigations of widespread cheating by educators under intense pressure to raise scores at any cost or lose their jobs. With state budgets still lagging from the 2008 recession and the federal government cutting services in our increasingly tax-averse nation, local school districts face the bleak political prospect of trying to make up the difference by asking voters for additional local taxes at a time when NCLB’s label, “failing,” is undermining confidence.


No Child Left Behind “was not designed around real educational experience, nor does it utilize what research has shown about the sources of educational inequality,” writes longtime civil rights advocate, Gary Orfield. “Instead, NCLB is based on the dual assumptions that children are falling behind very largely because educators don’t care enough and that deadlines and strong sanctions imposed by the federal government can cure the problem so that all subgroups of children will become proficient by 2014.”


“One of the disturbing things… is how frequently one encounters the idea that what we have now is so bad, the bureaucracy is so terrible, that just about anything would be better,” worries University of Chicago sociologist Charles Payne. “Any idea that can present itself as Bold!!, Visionary!!, Revolutionary!!—that is, as different from what we have—can get taken seriously. In Washington, Detroit, and New Orleans, that means a flight to charter schools. Elsewhere, it means a push to close old schools and reopen them as new…. All the bright shiny ideas can actually become ways to avoid thinking about the hard questions of instruction, of human and social capital, of school culture.”


Half a century ago, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term, the conventional wisdom, to describe “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.” Test-based accountability is today’s conventional wisdom for school reform. Despite decades of research documenting the need to address school inequity and the conditions of childhood poverty, the media and leaders in both political parties continue to find accountability-based, test-and-punish reform the acceptable conventional strategy. Galbraith wrote, “Because economic and social phenomena are so forbidding, or at least so seem… within a considerable range (the individual)…. may hold whatever view of this world he finds most agreeable…” “The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group.… the consensus is exceedingly broad. Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives.”


Read the rest of the report (which includes complete references) at http://www.ucc.org/justice/public-education/pdfs/Message-12-web-version.pdf.

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