Education reform, almost without exception, means teachers, schools or districts doing things differently to help improve education outcomes for students. Most of the “reforms” making the news lately have been initiated or promoted by corporate and philanthropic interests seeking to increase entrepreneurial opportunities in public education. However, no reform, not even teacher-initiated ones, can help all students meet educational expectations. No reform can get all students to graduate on time or meet testing goals because the primary cause of low academic achievement is poverty, not schools, curriculum or teachers. Without ending poverty and closing the wealth gap, even the best reforms will only help some students do better.
Many make the point that even if we cannot help all students succeed academically, we should still pursue reforms because they can help some students do better. Certainly, as professionals, we should always examine our methods and consider which are most effective. However, as professionals, we must also do a careful cost-benefit analysis. If a reform is unlikely to have much benefit, but will be stressful to students or time-consuming or expensive for schools and teachers, then it should not be done. Even if a reform seems likely to be beneficial to students, if teachers must put in a lot of unpaid extra hours to make it happen, the reform should be opposed. One reason is that “seeming likely to be beneficial” is a far cry from actually being beneficial, while the time and resources devoted to the reform may supplant curricula and pedagogy with a proven track record. Furthermore, even when a reform has the backing of academic studies, one should be skeptical. Reforms tend to be pushed well before there has been enough time for reproducible results and educational studies are notoriously biased and full of uncontrolled variables.
Because most reforms require considerable extra work by teachers, usually without compensation, they are the educational version of the “factory speed-up.” People forget (or perhaps never appreciated) that even without reforms, teachers have far more work to do than can be accomplished during their contractual hours. Consider a high school teacher, who is contractually obligated to work from 7:45 until 3:15. The teacher is legally responsible for the safety and education of 150-180 students for 5-6 of those hours, leaving 30 minutes for a “duty-free” lunch, plus 15 minutes each before and after school and 50-60 minutes for a prep period to grade papers, write lesson plans, set up or break down labs or other activities, contact parents, meet with other teachers or administrators, and use the rest room. For many teachers, the “duty-free” lunch is spent sponsoring clubs, meeting with students, tutoring and collaborating with peers. Few teachers actually work the minimum contractual hours because it is impossible to accomplish all these things in that amount of time. Many come in as early as 6:00 am, while others stay as late as 6:00 or 7:00 pm. Some do both. Reforms cut into these responsibilities, forcing teachers to come in earlier still, stay later, and/or work weekends to complete their work, usually without any extra compensation.
Education reform also lets society, especially the wealthy, off the hook. If the biggest cause of low academic achievement is poverty, then the only truly effective way to improve academic achievement is to increase the wealth and material security of the lower income members of society. Continually asking teachers to do more to improve student achievement distracts attention from the growing wealth gap and the enormous impact this has on student achievement, gives a false sense that the problem is being addressed and allows everyone else to smugly do nothing.