"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, November 04, 2013

Jal Mehta Nails the Reasons Why School Reform Has Failed

The Allure of Order provides one of the best single explanations of how and why top-down school reform failed. Elites chose to “colonize” the disrespected teaching profession. Part of the solution, Mehta indicated, was transforming teaching into a real and respected profession.

Mehta’s “From Bureaucracy to Profession: Remaking the Educational Sector for the Twenty-First Century” provides an equally brilliant diagnosis of why outcomes-driven accountability has repeatedly failed to improve schools. It is a fascinating piece of political science. As I reveled in Mehta’s historical analysis, I became more hopeful that it would conclude with a real-world model for improving public schools. And, Mehta did provide support for practical suggestions for improving schools, consistent with the work of Linda Darling Hammond and the American Federation of Teachers, but he they did not move much beyond theory.

I will address Mehta’s vision of the future, which I see as problematic, but this post will focus
On Mehta’s latest diagnosis of education’s problems. He writes that the “educational sector as a whole is organized around a core system that functions as a bureaucracy rather than as a profession.” School reformers are still are “trying to solve a problem that requires pro¬fessional skill and expertise by using bureaucratic levers of requirements and regulations.”

American education is “organized backwards.” (Emphasis is Mehta’s) “We seek to accomplish on the back end – by holding teachers accountable- what we did not do on the front end – building a system that might reasonably be expected to consistently produce good results.” When, predictably, the dysfunctional system falls short, reformers overinvest in outcomes-driven accountability. This creates a climate of distrust between policy-makers and practitioners, and that prompts a “downward spiral,” where more external accountability is imposed on teachers. This “misplaced blame and ill-informed demands from afar” further undermines trust and makes the profession less attractive to talented people.

Mehta nails the problem with educational systems that serve our poorest children, even though he offers no evidence that the entire system is broken. But, clearly he is correct that we need to do the opposite of what the test-driven reformers of the last generation have attempted. We need an upward spiral away from the “logic of managerial control, with power concentrated at the top and workers seen as largely interchangeable.”

Teachers typically receive praise as well as condemnation. It is acknowledged that teachers make thousands of “micro decisions” during the course of the day. We have enjoyed a great deal of autonomy to teach as we see fit inside our classrooms. For better or for worse, however, the result has been a “’all-teachers-need-to-invent-good-practice-for-themselves’ ethos.”

Perhaps the most absurd cliché describing the supposed goal of some reformers is Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s claim that accountability should be “’tight on goals’ and ‘loose on means.’” Real world, that means “that the higher power is asking the lower power to do something that neither really knows how to do.”

Mehta does a great job of explaining how and why education “is tossed around like a political football.” He explains the point of view of teachers about policy-makers and administrators being “out of touch with the realities in the classroom” and how “they lurch from one priority to another for largely political reasons.” The latest “fad of the moment” grew out of the evidence of the wide variation of skill between teachers, and the claim that it is to blame for the underperformance of poor children of color.

Of course, the quality of teachers varies dramatically, as is true of all professionals. Mehta reviews some promising proposals that have long been offered by experts such as Linda Darling Hammond. “Teacher training should take a page from medicine and develop an apprenticeship program akin to the medical residency program,” he proposes. Young teachers should be matched with master teachers. They would begin team teaching with seasoned professionals. Inexperienced teachers should start with a partial class load, and use the rest of their time for “feedback, reflection, and integration of what they are learning about teaching with their experiences in the classroom.

Mehta is correct that:

With respect to human capital, we need to take seriously the entire pipeline: attracting, selecting, training, and retaining our next generation of teachers. The current focu on teacher evaluation serves only to sort our existing teachers. … we will not make progress in the long run without a strategy that addresses all aspects of the pipeline.

He also has good suggestions for improving education schools and building research organizations like the Chicago Consortium on School Research. He would build an educational equivalent to the National Institutes of Health. The purpose of creating this knowledge base would be to “inform rather than drive decisions.”

Mehta’s best point is, “finally, we need to change the relationship among schools and districts and states from a culture of distrust and compliance toward one of mutual respect and professional learning.” After astutely delineating our systemic problems, explaining why the contemporary reform movement has failed, and describing some practical solutions, he proposes a systemic transformation of the education sector. I am not as impressed with that vision, however. Mehta’s big picture and my concerns with it will be discussed in a future post.

1 comment:

  1. I am not quite sure how to feel about what certainly presents itself as a kind of technocratic HR proposal:

    "With respect to human capital, we need to take seriously the entire pipeline: attracting, selecting, training, and retaining our next generation of teachers. The current focus on teacher evaluation serves only to sort our existing teachers. … we will not make progress in the long run without a strategy that addresses all aspects of the pipeline."

    I shudder anytime someone uses "human capital" and "pipeline" in the same sentence. It always strikes me as a failure of an "internal perspective." Thoreau makes this point in his "Resistance" (which I've come to see as the FIRST test any social idea must pass: "Webster never goes behind government, and so cannot speak with authority about it. His words are wisdom to those legislators who contemplate no essential reform in the existing government; but for thinkers, and those who legislate for all time, he never once glances at the subject."

    We seem to forget, because we are hurrying to keep pace with the false technological needs of "business," that there are no differences in what humans ought to be learning about being human in the world. It is this forgetting that keeps us driving toward the destruction of collapsing economies and catastrophic climate change.