Monday, November 3, 2014

Is Ed Reform Addicted To "New"?

I have followed with interest the continuing blogoddysey of Andy Smarick (partner at Bellwether Education and Fordham Institute BFF) as he considers some of the places where the reformster movement and classic conservatism don't quite fit. I'm interested because 1) I think Smarick's an intelligent, articulate guy and 2) I've been saying for a while that classic conservatism and modern education reform have enough compatibility issues that I don't think eHarmony would send them on a date.

So installation six of Smarick's journey considers the addiction to "new," particular the automatic overriding of the old with anything labeled "new" or "revolutionary" (he might also have thrown in "game changing"). Is this deep devotion to "new" leading reformsters to throw out and/or ignore perfectly good school system features that are already in place?

As a thirty-five year classroom veteran, I can answer that question with a comparison that I can attest to because in my neighborhood we do have bears and we do have woods, and yes, the two go together.

This is not a new development, however. Or rather, it's not unique to the current wave of reformistas.

Politicians and hucksters, both trying to make some cheap hay, have been crying "educational crisis" since, at a minimum, the appearance of A Nation At Risk. And nobody who is hoping to capitalize on a crisis does it by saying, "OMGZ!! Education is in terrible crisis! Quick-- identify the parts worth preserving and whatever you do, don't hire/elect/pay me to fix them!"

No, for almost as long as I've been teaching, schools have been beset with experts trumpeting The Next Big Thing, because, Good Lord, man, the educational sky is falling and you must do something-- anything -- different right away (preferably like hiring me to consult or buying this new program in a box).

Teachers barely looked up or paid attention when Common Core first appear precisely because it looked, at first, like the 5,723,933rd Next Big Thing To Save Education to appear at the school house door.

There are districts out there (thank heaven I don't teach at one, but there are at least two within a stone's throw of me) that adopt new programs, new materials, new methods, complete with new consultants every single year. And there are vendors out there more than willing to sell you a New Savior, no matter how ridiculous. My district did bring in consultants and pay thousands of dollars to implement a special program that was special because A) writing types that every teacher learns about in teacher school were given a proprietary numbering system, B) the writings were store in special proprietary file folders and C) all writing was to be done by skipping every other line on the paper. And for that we paid, I kid you not, thousands of dollars.

And every new program requires something to be thrown out, either as an act of policy or of necessity. One of the things non-teachers just don't get is that we are working with a finite number of instructional hours. If you tell me that I must spend fifty hours a year on a new program, fifty hours of something else must come out of my instruction. You can leave that up to my best judgment, or you can tell me what I have to cut, but either way, something is going away.

This has been a recurring annual process in most schools for as long as probably 99% of current working teachers have been in a classroom. And no part of this process ever involves sitting down to say, "Okay, what part of what we're doing should we absolutely hold onto and support." This is just one part of why teachers despair of having their voices heard. Stand up at your own staff meeting and try to express an professional opinion, and you're lucky to be heard. But leave teaching, start a consulting firm, and charge a few thousand, and suddenly you get to be the guy running the meeting (suddenly, I have an idea for my retirement career).

So this using the New to steamroll the old without concern for the value of the old-- this is not new to current reformerdom. It's just that CCSS and its related movements have in this, as in so many things, brought us the same old routine hoppped up on steroids.

In our earnestness to improve the lives of America’s kids, especially the most disadvantaged boys and girls, our field has become terribly unbalanced. We have consistently picked the progressive path (with its pitfalls) and ignored the virtues of conservatism and the benefits of preservation.

But the question remains: Is it possible to combine the two? Can the strengths of both left and right be leveraged in a single bold reform effort?

Well, yes and no. As soon as you start using words like "bold" my internal alarm goes off, because that goes with the usual call for some New Revolutionary Super Program That Will Change Everything. Though I suppose in the ongoing climate of manufactured overhyped crisis, it's bold to just sit still and refuse to be stampeded.

Well, let's not split vocabularial hairs. My revolutionary idea is that we pick and choose directions for education based on what works, whether it is old or new. Now, I realize we're are going to have (and are currently having) huge HUGE arguments about how to decide what works. For instance, I believe that standardized tests tell us absolutely zip zero nothing about what does or doesn't work in schools.

 I confess an inclination to the old that comes with a proven track record-- but I'm drawn to the track record, not the mere fact of oldness. And I'm always willing to consider the new, provided it doesn't violate my own professional sense of what's sound and it isn't just a new, more expensive way to do what I can already do. But I bet we could mostly agree on this-- let's not consider either newness or oldness a virtue in and of itself. I'm looking forward to Smarick's seventh installment to see how close our answers are.

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