If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet. –Linda Darling-Hammond
Progressives are in short supply on the president-elect’s list of cabinet nominees. When he turns his attention to the Education Department, what are the chances he’ll choose someone who is educationally progressive?
In fact, just such a person is said to be in the running and, perhaps for that very reason, has been singled out for scorn in Washington Post and Chicago Tribune editorials, a New York Times column by David Brooks and a New Republic article, all published almost simultaneously this month. The thrust of the articles, using eerily similar language, is that we must reject the “forces of the status quo” which are “allied with the teachers’ unions” and choose someone who represents “serious education reform.”
To decode how that last word is being used here, recall its meaning in the context of welfare (under Clinton) or environmental laws (under Reagan and Bush). For Republicans education “reform” typically includes support for vouchers and other forms of privatization. But groups with names like Democrats for Education Reform–along with many mainstream publications–are disconcertingly allied with conservatives in just about every other respect. To be a school “reformer” is to support:
§ a heavy reliance on fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests to evaluate students and schools, generally in place of more authentic forms of assessment;
§ the imposition of prescriptive, top-down teaching stand-ards and curriculum mandates;
§ a disproportionate emphasis on rote learning–memorizing facts and practicing skills–particularly for poor kids;
§ a behaviorist model of motivation in which rewards (notably money) and punishments are used on teachers and students to compel compliance or raise test scores;
§ a corporate sensibility and an economic rationale for schooling, the point being to prepare children to “compete” as future employees; and
§ charter schools, many run by for-profit companies.
Notice that these features are already pervasive, which means “reform” actually signals more of the same–or, perhaps, intensification of the status quo with variations like one-size-fits-all national curriculum standards or longer school days (or years). Almost never questioned, meanwhile, are the core elements of traditional schooling, such as lectures, worksheets, quizzes, grades, homework, punitive discipline and competition. That would require real reform, which of course is off the table.