A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education

by Bekah S. McNeel

While death and taxes may have earned their spot at the top, there may be room for an addition to the dubious list of “things that are certain.” Every campaign season, candidates from both sides of the aisle in red states and blue states agree on one thing: the American education system needs reforming.

John Merrow spent his career reporting on education for NPR, PBS and others. He spent much of his 40-plus years in the field investigating the bold claims of turnaround programs and other reform efforts. His conclusion: school reform is adult-centered big business. Each new fix breaks the problem into digestible, funder-friendly chunks that lend themselves to sound bites and slogans, but not to meaningful improvement.

School reform is adult-centered big business

Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education summarizes Merrow’s years of reform coverage, and suggests a less politically expedient alternative: get to know the students, and educate them as individuals.

Nowhere is Merrow’s insight more prescient than in 2017 Texas, the home state of high-stakes testing, where the State legislature is currently debating whether to open the doors to reforms that would channel public funds into private schools. Over the past 44 years, Texas has been subject to constant litigation over the way it funds public schools. While the Texas Supreme Court recently ruled that the formulas are constitutional, the justices wrote that it was “byzantine” and likely to fail generations of students. They recommended that the State Legislature take up the issue, but in the regular session of 2017, every viable bill filed to address school funding was subjected to fatal reform-minded amendments.

The House, under Speaker Joe Straus, has declared war on any and all “voucher-like” programs, while the Senate continues to push the issue, urged on by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

According to Merrow, we shouldn’t wring our hands too much as one initiative or another fails, because until total overhaul is on the table, we may be chasing ourselves in circles.

Merrow’s suggestion is to stop the single-issue reforms, and create a new school system. In that system the student-to-teacher ratio would be such that teachers know the strengths of each students, and can engage and resource them accordingly. The educational philosophy begins with the question, “How is this student intelligent?” and sets them on a highly personal path to success.

This will be both radical and costly.

A Radical (R)Evolution

It is radical, because it means that students essentially become uniquely talented knowledge workers, and teachers become talent managers. Our current industrial model churns out workers — ostensibly educated ones. Teachers in the current model are the factory workers. Their students/products must fit a mold, measured by standardized tests. The more students/products struggle to conform, the more teachers, schools, and districts are inclined to cut corners, realign curriculum and eliminate non-test-based elements of the school day, like arts and recess.

A blame game ensues, Merrow writes, in which teachers and principals find themselves in a constant state of do-or-die employment. Charter schools, the ultimate reform effort, point to the entire public school system as a failure, and create their own utopian systems to serve small slices of the population. While individual charter schools and districts succeed and fail to different degrees, even the best cannot address the millions of students who are passing through a system in which no one really knows what’s going wrong or right.

Politicians take a stab at it, passing sweeping initiatives like No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act that continue to tweak assessment without addressing what Merrow sees is a fundamental breakdown in educational philosophy: where do the students fit in?

The system he proposes is revolutionary indeed, a much more reflective of the highly entrepreneurial, competitive, individualized-yet-globalized world of today. It will be costly to create a more nuanced system with smaller schools and classes, and more resources per child. Not as costly, Merrow says, as the futile parade of reforms taxpayers are currently funding.

Advocates are not holding their breath to see whether test-loving Texas fully dispenses with the Scantron.

Total overhaul will also be costly as it requires assessment strategies more pointed and informative than blunt reliance on standardized tests. While it does not get to the heart of the problem, The Every Student Succeeds Act does create an opportunity for states to begin down the path toward holistic assessment should they have the political will. The new act, signed under President Obama in 2015, requires states to submit an accountability plan that fits their population. It can include standardized tests, but perhaps additional measures such as school climate, parent outreach efforts, and more. Advocates are not holding their breath to see whether test-loving Texas fully dispenses with the Scantron, but the door is open to see if other states do something more radical, and to what effect.

Even for those who aren’t education junkies, Addicted to Reform is an easy read. I’m partial to books written by journalists, because they know how to keep a good pace and make do with words people actually use. While the book does indulge in some reminiscence from Merrow’s long career reporting on the issues, he is kind enough to put the anecdotes in clearly marked asides. So readers can enjoy them if they like interesting stories, or skip them if they are trying to get the meat of the argument and move on. I got the impression that Merrow doesn’t begrudge those who read his work with a sense of urgency, mining any and all sources in search of a better way to educate our nation’s children.

 

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian and journalist. She reports on education inequities for Folo Media. Mother of two, wife of one, and reader of many, Bekah is constantly exploring with books and kids in tow. 

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