Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Education Improvement" Not "Education Reform"

Reform: n. a removal or correction of an abuse, a wrong, or errors.

Improvement: n. the act or process of making something better.

Merriam-Webster's dictionary has has several definitions for "reform" and "improvement," however, these two definitions embody the current divergent views of educational change in the United States. Language is important. How an argument is framed often reveals important subtext and nuance. For the past 20 years, politicians, the mainstream media, and many self-proclaimed educational spokespeople or "educational celebrities" (i.e. Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Wendy Kopp, Geoffrey Canada, Paul Vallas, Kaya Henderson) have been labeling their visions of educational change as "education reform." In fact, if others argue against their "education reforms," they are labeled as supporting the status quo or the interests of adults over students. Of course, this is an artful dodge. Yet, language matters, and those who stand for public education and sustainable change are loosing the public relations war (although the recent PDK/Gallup education poll shows the public opinion is starting to turn). 

I am proposing those who believe in meaningful educational change need to craft the argument in terms of "improvement," rather than "reform." Reform for reform's sake is not improvement. In fact, if you look at the outcomes of 20 years of so-called "education reform" (for a primer, read Diane Ravitch's new book), it becomes very clear that reform does not mean improvement. In many ways, it means regression in the form of a cementing a persistent education gap, re-segregating schools, and decreasing the morale for generally hard-working teachers and parents across the nation.

Those who frame their arguments in terms of "education reform" have been pushing for market-based solutions, mainly in the form of privatization or decentralization, while they claim they have the best interest of children at heart. These groups generally rely on one type of data to assess student learning, results from high-stakes standardized tests. Education reformers claim that "poverty is no excuse" and a lack of resources are not the problem (H.L. Mencken once said "When somebody says it's not about the money, it's about the money."). The education reformers create groups with names that no one can argue against, like "Stand for Children," "Teach for America," "Education Reform Now." They say, unlike career teachers and their unions or parent groups like the PTA, they are dedicated to helping all children get an quality education. Yet, there is an important narrative all these reformers have in common: Our schools are failing, now it is their turn to "reform" them. They generally tie the failures of the American economy to the lack of education reform and contend that if their reforms are not implemented, the U.S. will loose its global economic standing.

However, education reform is not a goal; it is an action. Educational improvement is the goal. Groups that believe in public education, equity of resources, desegregation and support for multiculturalism, and increasing teacher professionalism and retention, need to begin framing the debate in terms of "education reform" vs. "education improvement." Reduction in class size, increasing resources to the neediest schools, supporting the professional development of teachers, increasing teacher pay - these are all part of education improvement. These are what the globally high-achieving educational systems, such as Canada, Finland, Singapore, are enacting in their nations and they offer a different path to "improve," rather than "reform," the educational system in the United States.

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