Jack Schneider, historian of education, has written a powerful column about why education is actually harder than rocket science.
He explains that reform after reform has failed because the reformers think that it is easy to change teaching and learning. It is easy (in their eyes) because they went to school, they were students. But they know nothing about how children learn, they know nothing about children with disabilities, they know nothing about child development. So, armed with ignorance, they assume they can “fix” education by eliminating unions or tenure or imposing a new curriculum or creating a computer-driven metric for evaluating teachers.
Thus, elected officials pass law after law, claiming they are “reforming” education, when they are only creating mandates that remove teachers’ professional autonomy.
Would they dare to tell rocket scientists at NASA how to do their work? Of course not. They respect rocket scientists, and the politicians know the limits of their knowledge. But when it comes to education, they feel free to impose mandates and interfere with the work of experienced teachers.
And that is why “reforms” imposed by politicians in DC and state capitols fail again and again and will always fail.
Imagine Congress exerting control over NASA through a bill like No Child Left Behind, or coercing policy shifts through a program like Race to the Top. Or well-intended organizations like Teach For America jumping into the fray—recruiting talented college graduates and placing them on the job as rocket scientists. Or philanthropists deciding to apply lessons from their successes in domains like DVD rentals to “disrupt” the NASA “monopoly.”
How long would any of this be taken seriously?
The point here is not that various groups involved in school reform should disengage from the field. Their energy and financial support can play a critical role in supporting communities and their schools. And for all their arrogance and errors, reformers have helped turn the nation’s attention to the importance of public education. NASA should be so lucky.
But the egotism and ignorance of the so-called education reform movement are all too often on display. Because the work of improving schools isn’t as simple as reformers believe.
Reformers would know this if they spent their days in schools. But most do not. Unlike working educators, most leaders in the reform movement have never taught a five-period day, felt the joy of an unquantifiable classroom victory, lost instructional time to a standardized test, or been evaluated by a computer. And unlike the vulnerable students targeted by so much reform, most policy elites have not gone to school hungry, struggled to understand standard English, battled low expectations, or feared for their personal safety on the walk home.
The other day when I was in Connecticut, an experienced teacher told me about his students. He teaches special education. His students are in ninth grade but they read at a third-to-fourth grade level. Reformers think they should be reading at ninth grade level. Arne Duncan wants them all enrolled in Advanced Placement classes. Why not invite legislators and governors and even Arne Duncan to teach that class for a day, even an hour. They are totally out of touch with reality. There are real children with real learning issues. Their teachers are heroic. They should not be evaluated by those who know nothing of teaching and learning.
I do not give “reformers” credit for turning the nation’s attention to “the importance of public education.” The reformers have created world of illusion, in which 100% of children will succeed, regardless of their circumstances. If they don’t, blame their teachers. This is pie in the sky. It is unrealistic. It is a display of staggering and harmful ignorance.
The reformers are hurting children. They are undermining the teaching profession. They are damaging public education. They should be held accountable. And politicians should get out of the way, fund the schools appropriately, and shower respect on those who do the hard work of educating children.