It’s time educational reformers reform their thinking. After over 25 years of national education reform, what has been the result? A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, and the Race to the Top all followed similar themes: high stakes testing, database metrics, carrots and sticks, disparagement of teachers and unions, and a romance with school choice.

Revisiting some fundamental questions about making our schools creative, innovative, exciting, and nurturing places for children may provide clarity. They may move us beyond politics, speculation, and platitudes.

  • What is an educated person? Is passing a standardized test the marker of an educated person? Has teaching to standardized tests narrowed the curriculum and restricted achieving more complex educational goals? Is the goal of education about getting a college degree or job or is there a larger purpose? Where do character, commitment, creativity, ethics, and wisdom fit into our public schools? Do multiple-choice tests taken by thirteen year olds really count for much in the long run, real world? e.g., Singapore with high test scores produces few top-ranked scientists, entrepreneurs, and inventors compared to the US. 
  • Is centralized federal control of public education the answer to quality schools? Will regulations from Washington produce innovative and dynamic schools? Do federal regulations create trickle-down taxation and reds tape that puts a financial burden on states and local school boards? Do parents really want an education directed from Washington, the Department of Education, and Congress? Where should the nexus of control rest?
  • Is choice the panacea that will improve student achievement? Milwaukee has had 20 years of school choice through vouchers, charter schools, integration programs, and open enrollment, yet the results are not there. Why? A study by the University of Arkansas found that children in Milwaukee’s voucher program showed average rates of achievement gains similar to their peers attending the Milwaukee Public Schools. Is privatization a panacea?
  • Is it ethical to evaluate teachers on test scores without defining the statistical limitations of them?  Can teachers’ performance be reduced to multiple-choice tests? How do you evaluate teachers who do not teach the content tested? Is the stability of value-added instruments sufficient to be used for making important decisions based on them? Is the teachers’ role no more than that of a computer avatar guiding instructional content program? What do teachers control and what are the ‘uncontrollables ‘ that can overwhelm the instructional process? What is the responsibility of students and parents in learning and achievement?
  • Are carrot and stick approaches to improve teacher and school performance effective? Are there serious dysfunctions to carrots and sticks and being married to bottom-line metrics? Is there a difference between motivation and movement?
  • Finally are our metaphors for schools appropriate? Are schools really businesses and are children and parents really customers? Are schools unique and different from profit-making or competitive organizations?  Do children need schools that are sanctuaries so they can be nurtured, learn and grow, and garner the experience of life without paying devastating prices?

The reform movement has gotten a pass on some of these questions. Platitudes are not policy. Reform does not necessary mean improvement. Reviewing fundamental questions may cause us to stop and reflect and not engage in political, hollow, and misdirected solutions. 

Important questions. Important stakes. They produce important conversation and dialog.