What Is School Reform?

by Steve Wyckoff on January 18, 2010

It’s funny how we carry definitions around in our head and we assume that other people have those same definitions. When we have discussions about school reform, school redesign, and change, we often times think that we are talking about the same thing as other people but in reality we have very different perspectives.

So I want to take this opportunity to clarify how I see these issues. When I think of school reform and school redesign I do it from the perspective of real systemic change. I know many educators consider the continuous improvement of what we’ve always done has reform, redesigned, and change. I don’t. This has been the main source of my disagreement with educators about whether or not schools are changing.

If I have a criticism of educators who take this view it’s that this perspective places all the responsibility for change on the individual classroom teacher. It assumes that ultimately if we do what we’ve always done except that we do it much more effectively and efficiently we have changed education. I approach this from a little different angle. I like to ask the question, “If magically all of our kids were proficient on standardized tests, and we had no dropouts, would society be satisfied with our product?” I think the answer is no, and the vast majority of people I’ve asked this question of agree with me.

It is my belief that if we are going to satisfy the needs of the 21st century society we must look at dramatically changing  4 major areas in education, what we teach, how we teach, how we organize to teach, and how we assess what we’ve taught.  And we cannot deal with each of these in isolation, the four must be dealt with simultaneously.

We have two major problems with what we teach, one is our core curriculum, the classes that we make students take were defined more than 115 years ago by the Committee of 10. Secondly, the content within those classes fundamentally was defined  115 years ago also, and  any updates to the content was done by content area experts whose primary goal was to align their curriculum with content necessary for a four-year liberal arts degree. Little of what we teach today prepares students to be successful in a 21st-century society.

The roots of our instructional model is also several hundred years old, and it focuses on what individuals know, not on what they know how to do with what they know. In an era of ubiquitous information focusing students on memorizing material, absent a context for using what they know, is ludicrous. We must move to an instructional model that incorporates learning by doing.

As long as we are organized by department and separate the day into segregated parts we will never achieve the integration necessary for kids to understand how what they are learning fits into the real world. We must eliminate departmentalization and moved to to an organizational structure that more closely resembles how the real world works.

I’ve saved the best for last. Standardized tests have become the focus of what we do in schools. And yet few educators believe that a standardized test score accurately represents what the student is capable of doing or what kind of a job the teacher did. They are analogous to passing the written part of the driving test and declaring the student to be a good driver.

So when I talk about school reform, school redesign, and change, I’m talking about the real systemic issues that we face not simply getting better at what we’ve always done.

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