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Is School Reform Hopeless? NYTimes Poses Questions and Gets Promising Answers

September 14, 2016

In their Room for Debate section of the editorial page, the NYTimes posed the question “Is School Reform Hopeless” and got some promising answers. First and foremost, the respondents did not define “reform” using the now-traditional metrics of higher test scores.

Prudence Carter explicitly calls out the methods we currently use to define “success” and goes to heart of the matter:

Generally, (poor and low income) students (are) shortchanged by an emphasis on narrow metrics of student and school success. Many officials desire simple, low-cost solutions for deeply rooted, complex problems. But school success doesn’t come cheaply. Affluent communities and the most successful poor communities know this.

Later in her three paragraph synopsis she cites “…the importance of wraparound services like health care, meals, shelter for homeless youth and support for parents needing skills to obtain jobs paying livable wages”  and emphasizes that:

Those struggling with poverty and family instability cannot be expected to succeed at the same rate, on average, as those who will never know hunger and who have little to no exposure to unemployment, homelessness and/or other stresses.

Elaine Weiss criticizes the over-emphasis on the role of teachers, analogizing teachers in poorly maintained schools to surgeons in poorly equipped hospitals:

Like surgeons operating in isolated field hospitals that are short on antibiotics and staff, teachers in some of our toughest schools are trying to keep their patients (students) healthy (learning) in the face of overwhelming odds. If we want to turn around failing schools, we need to get rid of atrocious conditions in too many of them – stiflingly hot classroomscollapsing ceilingspoisoned drinking water.

Other writers decried the top-down approaches (Robin Lake), called for more services for ELL students, who comprise a large proportion of underserved students (Carola Suarez-Orozco), recommended replicating the methods used in schools that successfully meet the needs of students raised in poverty (Ronald Ferguson), and the need for site-based leaders to make their own decisions on how best to spend the funds they are given (Marguerite Roza).

Here’s what I found to be noteworthy: NONE of the writers who saw a hopeful way forward for school reform recommended a one-size-fits-all solution. They all recognized that insufficient funding was the root cause of the deficiency and all implicitly or explicitly noted that using tests as the basis for measuring school effectiveness was flawed. Maybe more articles like these will restore the true meaning of  the term “school reform” and help more people realize what affluent communities already know: school success doesn’t come cheaply.

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