Race to the Top Needs Real Reform by Dr. Jim Taylor

My first two posts in my Race to the Top Series (Part I and Part II) focused on the effects of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top on children at the top and the bottom of the education food chain. This post will explore several of the more sensitive issues that prevent real education reform from occurring.

One point of contention involves defining precisely what is meant by education reform. As I noted in Part II of the series, the powers-that-be seem to think that improving test scores is reform. But testing is really only a way to assess the effectiveness of reform. True education reform involves two fundamental changes in our public education system. The first requires a structural shift in the areas that research has shown to actually improve education, such as teacher quality, class size, and available resources. These are very tough nuts to crack. Teachers’ unions are resistant to changes in the ways that teachers are evaluated and compensated (though they are showing signs of capitulation). It’s also just plain difficult to evaluate teacher competency. For example, should teachers be judged on their student’s test scores? That criterion seems dicey given how many factors influence test scores. And class size and resources are highly correlated with school funding. Everyone wants better public schools, but few seem willing to pay for them.

The second change demands a process shift in education, namely, changing the curricula that determine what and how teachers teach. You can’t find a topic in education more controversial than school curricula. There is the inertia of decades-old curricula that are embedded in most public schools and kept in place by highly invested groups including teachers’ unions, school boards, textbook publishers, and testing companies. Real education reform would be costly to these entrenched forces, plus they don’t want to give up the reins, even if it is an old nag. Then, when you add to the mix disparate educational, political, social, and religious ideologies that often guide curricula, you get a boiling cauldron of impassioned conflict.

Another obstacle to education reform lies in who should dictate the changes in curriculum. Those people with a federalist sensibility argue that states and local school boards are uniquely equipped to decide what is best for their children. This belief was perhaps true a half century ago when people tended to live and work where they were raised. Local control ensured that children learned what was necessary to fit into and contribute to their local communities.

But times have changed. Our mobile society, new technology, and a global economy have obliterated district, county, and states lines that once had meaning. Whether raised in Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Indiana, Colorado, or Oregon, all children in America need the same knowledge and skill sets that will enable them to compete in the national and international marketplace of jobs. In fact, local control of public education, dominated by potentially provincial attitudes and ideologies, can leave children ill equipped to survive, much less thrive, in this very flat world in which we now live. And, particularly in states with high rates of poverty and underperforming schools, the state-rights stance can maintain the status quo out of sheer habit, even if it hasn’t worked for many years.

There are certainly areas of American life that are best determined at the local or state levels because they have a better understanding of their region’s unique needs, for example, speed limits, public transportation, and first responders. At the same time, on issues of national import, our federal government should lead the way as it already does so in many areas, such as food, drug, product, and occupational safety, financial and environmental regulation, and energy policy. Shouldn’t education, one of the most essential contributors to the success and well being of our nation, be included in that list?

The final area that is perhaps the most controversial issue in education reform is how far to go outside of schools to improve students’ opportunities for academic success. Clearly, what happens at home has an immense impact on young people’s attitudes toward school, the tools they have to achieve success in school, their academic aspirations, and the effort they put forth in pursuit of those goals.

There are ideological and political issues at play here. Cries of social engineering are frequently heard, yet our country engages in social engineering every day, from programs to help people to quit smoking to school nutrition programs to the Welfare to Work program, and much of it works. Objections about cost are also heard, yet the cost of inaction or inefficacy are astronomically greater in terms of dollars and human capital; as the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

However politically incorrect or divisive it may be, it is difficult to deny the influence that early home life plays in children’s academic life. Positive parental role modeling, good nutrition, a home environment that encourages learning, regular exposure to reading and conversation, teaching essential life skills, and parental involvement in their children’s schools are just a few home factors that appear to be associated with success in school. Yet, all of these potential influences can be lacking in single-parent homes and in families where parents are unemployed, both work (sometimes at multiple jobs), or they aren’t proficient in English.

Given that just about every attempt at education reform has failed over the past 50 years, it seems incumbent on us to consider that changes solely within the school walls are insufficient and that reform will continue to fall short unless that reform reaches outside the classroom.

More comprehensive education reform must start at the macro level in which financially disadvantaged parents have opportunities for more education, job training, and better-paying jobs. When the vicious cycle of poverty and poor education is broken, the family, school, and community environments will shift in support of education for these children. Also, quality and affordable child care will provide an additional setting in which improved preparation for school can be fostered.

At a micro level, direct intervention in the home that develops the influences I discussed above seems like a necessary next step in preparing children for success in school. Head Start, for example, has been a long-running federal program that has attempted to institute early intervention with disadvantaged children, albeit with inconclusive results. I have also read about pilot programs in which trained educators conduct home visits and coach parents on how to enrich their children’s home environments in preparation for school.

Education reform in America has been a categorical and ongoing failure for decades, and a badge of shame that all of us must wear. And time is running out and opportunity is slipping away for many Americans. Yet there is hope. With the dramatic changes our country has experienced in the last decade, we seem to be entering a new chapter in America’s economic, political, and social narrative in which many see the need to make dramatic changes in our collective storyline.

Perhaps now is the time to plot a bold new course in education reform rather than continue the cautious and unsuccessful path we have been on for so long. Maybe this is our opportunity to muster the political courage and resolve to finally tackle this national tragedy head on and with all of the resources at our disposal. For the sake of our children and our country’s future.

cross posted at drjimtaylor.com.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D. in psychology, is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco. He blogs on education and technology for psychologytoday.com, huffingtonpost.com, sfgate.com, seattlepi.com, and other Web sites around the country, as well as on http://drjimtaylor.com/ blog/archives/education.