Reading & Reacting: Four decades of failed school reform

Photo: Pat Welsh

Pat Welsh – photo by Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post

Pat Welsh @ Four decades of failed school reform

I love reading reflective pieces, like this one from The Washington Post, by elder, retiring or retired teachers. There is such great wisdom in the perspective they offer on the teaching profession and the swift pendulum swings that characterize the field of education. Here Welsh chronicles a number of the major edreform efforts since the early 1970s and reveals just how futile they have been.

As Welsh sees it all of the latest and greatest attempts have failed to deliver what he believes is the “key to teaching: to make students care about what they’re studying and understand how it’s relevant to their lives.”  In that statement, he captures a paradox of teaching it is both that simple and that complex.

From James B. Conant’s comprehensive high school to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s schools within schools approach and everything in between, Welsh covers a lot of ground and squarely targets “A Nation at Risk,” which retrospectively certainly looms as a threshold moment in education.

The 1983 report “A Nation at Risk,” commissioned by Reagan Education Secretary Terrel Bell, warned that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.” … Off-base though it was, “A Nation at Risk” inflated the education-consultant industry, and its various panaceas began to proliferate.

Of course “A Nation at Risk” was summarily discredited by “The Sandia Report,” finally published in 1994, to an ignoble fate. Still, Welsh’s assessment is at least partially correct. After “A Nation at Risk,” the debate was framed and began evolving into what we have today. Unfortunately, the damage was done. Education, like crime or the economy, became an ever more important talking point and whipping post for politicians, conservative and liberal alike, to grandstand and propose new “solutions.”

Yet, the wilder the pendulum of edreform swings the more education gravitates to the mean, which has been slowly and steadily improving on the whole, albeit with a number of mitigating issues and challenges that are not all met, and require far more comprehensive action and political will to solve. Our public education system is by no means  perfect, but it likely never will be. Any system that is compulsory for all will struggle to overcome the greatest needs of a few.

Where Welsh’s wisdom is on full display is his recognition that top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions peddled by politicians, educational gurus, corporate executives, and well-intentioned philanthropists simply do not scale, as they say in the business world. Education involves too many fickle humans. Consequently,  what successfully works in one context may not in another. As Welsh explains the best teacher professional-development being colleagues sharing, “always with the caveat: ‘This works for me; it may not work for you.'” Again, it is both that simple and that complex.


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