Monday, July 4, 2011

Why I Oppose Education Reform

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.


  1. Michael, I agree with your comments. Simple reform of education is a non-starter. We need to, as educators and citizens, rethink the purposes behind public education. Without serious reflection on this question, we will only make the lot of our students more troubling. The immediate challenge, as I see it, is we are simply into a vicious cycle of the latest fad which is really no better. We need something long term and sustainable which means more than a top-down process manufactured by bureaucrats, technocrats, and autocrats.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Ivon. It really is a vicious cycle of fads. I've only been a teacher for 14 years, but in this time I've seen a lot of the same reforms return under new names and few cosmetic changes.

  3. I have been teaching for just short of 20 years. It seems we face the same issues in Canada as you do in your setting of New York. Take care. I am trying to approach things through a lens of learning organizations which are not to be confused with schools but based on work out of MIT.

  4. Saying fixing poverty is the only answer seems faulty to me. History has shown us time and time again that groups of people can get out of impoverished situations, frequently with racism attached. For example Irish populations received a great amount of racism, even 70 or 80 years ago, now they are just "white". Similiar experiences have been seen in Jewish populations, and I would be willing to bet, a couple generations down the road we will see similiar results in hispanic populations. As of yet we have yet to see these type of results in African American populations, at least not in large numbers; that begs the question, why?

  5. Not faulty at all. The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that poverty is the #1 cause of low student achievement. So ending poverty is the most direct and efficient tact. Furthermore, we should be fighting to end poverty regardless of education outcomes, as it shortens lifespan, increases risk of stress, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Poverty is miserable and unnecessary--so long as wealth is also reduced or abolished.

    Your history is faulty, too. The Irish and Jews did become "white," but there are still plenty of poor American Irish and Jews. Poor people tend to have poor children. Transcending ones class background is the rare exception, not the norm.

    There are many reasons for this. For example, growing up with affluence gives one a much better chance of getting through college and obtaining a high paying job. It makes it much easier to acquire enough wealth to make a down payment on a house or small business. It ingrains the norms, values and communication and networking skills necessary to rise above the norm in our society. Poor people, in contrast, are much more likely to have children born premature, with low birth weight, malnourished, with iron deficiency anemia and lead poisoning, all of which can lead to cognitive impairment and learning disabilities. Poor families read less to their kids and use less complex language. As a result lower income kids know far few words by the age of three than middle class kids, creating an achievement gap well before they even start school. The achievement gap only worsens over time, as affluent kids get to go on exciting and intellectually stimulating vacations and summer camp.

  6. The evidence also overwhelmingly indicates that ice cream eating is a leading cause of crime. I don't doubt that there is a coorelation, I doubt that you can make people care about education by giving them an extra 50,000 a year.

  7. Your example is ridiculous and rhetorically weak. There is no connection between ice cream and crime.

    However, there is not only a very strong correlation between wealth and education outcomes but logical explanations for how wealth influences educational success, as I outlined above.

    Poverty does not lower educational success by making people not care. Poverty impairs physical, cognitive and psychological development. It causes people to stay home longer when ill instead of getting treatment and returning to class promptly. It creates stress and anxiety which causes the overproduction of cortisol which impairs memory and learning. It causes people to move more often or live in shelters and on the streets, which makes it hard to stay caught up with school work.

    Also, it's not just about giving people money. It's about ending poverty entirely. More money now certainly helps pay the current bills, but it doesn't create the kind of stability and wealth acquisition necessary to buy a home or maintain health.

  8. LOL look it up, in months with high ice cream sales the crime rates go down, and vice versa. True they MIGHT both be caused by the summer months, but there are few studies that find stronger positive coorelations than ice cream sales and crime.

    Not valuing education can also cause poverty. Learning disabilities (which are frequently genetic) can cause poverty. Heck, any kind of disability can cause poverty. Etc. Thus, you end up with a bit of a problem of pointing out which came first.

  9. Well, I stand corrected and better be on guard when buying my son ice cream.

    Seriously, though, I do not oppose education. Hell, I'm a teacher and spend much of my summers, weekends and free time working out better ways to teach science, to reach challenging youth, to make school more meaningful for kids.

    My point, which I thought was pretty clear, was that poverty is the #1 cause of low student achievement and it must be addressed, not only to have significant improvements in educational outcomes, but also to make our society better. Poverty can cause learning disabilities and poor children with disabilities are at an even greater educational disadvantage. It's not a chicken v egg issue. Poverty is plain and simply the most significant cause of low student achievement. So ignoring it means that schools can only make small improvements for some students, at best.

    Also, you cannot make people "value" education by changing schools. People value things that help them (e.g., money is valued b/c it can be used to buy things; affluent people value education b/c it helps them maintain their affluence by increasing their job marketability). Poor people generally do value education. However, some have lost faith that it will help them much. And rightly so. It is actually fairly rare for people to transcend their family's class.