Saturday, April 30, 2011

Education reform

The topic today is school reform, building on Joe Nocera's op-ed column from April 26th and the letters this column prompted that appear today. Nocera's essential point: regardless of how much schools improve, increases in student learning will always be limited by poverty, inequitable funding, parental neglect, and a variety of other forces outside the influence of schools. Today's letters largely support Nocera, though one of them, while perhaps agreeing with Nocera, argues that his argument may be beside the point. No matter how poor or abused some kids may be, teachers have to teach them as if their potential were unlimited, as if by virtue of their teaching, they could turn these kids into geniuses. Seems right to me, actually, but what we must not do, and what none of these commentators quite touches on, is hold these teachers exclusively accountable when their students don't progress as much as we had idealistically hoped. Which doesn't mean there isn't accountability; it just has to be right kind that takes into account how great the challenge truly is of bringing these learners up to grade level in, say, a single year.

Part of this complexity has to do with the actual details of the challenges faced by the children in one of those teacher's classrooms. For instance, as one letter writer points out, what can you accomplish with the student who was in a mental hospital for 2 weeks? Or the two who ran away? Or the one who has no way to get to school? Or the three who have been suspended for drugs? Too often, school reformers show no regard for these very specific and very real issues.

How then do we hold educators accountable, while also recognizing there are many factors beyond their control that foil improvement? My admittedly inadequate answer is by telling more stories - as many as we can find really - about the nature of these many challenges, so that policy makers and law makers can begin to see that if we want true improvement in schools, it must be a united effort. Such an effort must hold schools at least partially accountable, while also insisting that much, much more be done to help kids get to school and stay there. This often huge challenge of ensuring that kids can get to school - a job schools cannot do alone - could make a huge contribution to better schooling and better learning.


  1. I agree that we cannot hold teachers accountable for what is completely outside of their control. Dave Eggars ( ) likens the situation to the way we deal with military failures. We don't blame the troops in the trenches, we put the blame at the top and do the best we can to do a better job of supporting our troops next time. Eggars also reminds us that the average teacher makes what a toll taker or bartender makes. And this is where we begin to see the problem. If we want children to succeed then we need support for their success at every level: the teacher, the school, the parent, the society. It's absurd that teachers have to take supply money from their own pockets, that schools are not maintained, that parents have to choose between making a living and raising their children.
    We need policy that puts the well being of children at the center of our thinking. Then we can start to make progress.

  2. Thanks db. Putting "the well being of children at the center of our thinking" is not only the starting point for progress, it is also the standard by which we should be measuring ourselves as a society.