Sunday, October 5, 2008

What Blocks School Improvement

Before No Child Left Behind was even a glint in the nation's eye, Bill Clinton proposed Goals 2000 (the Educate America Act)in the early years of his first term. Originally its focus was on the formulation of national educational standards; but this emphasis quickly failed. What happened?

Education Week claims “Fears that the program would lead to federal control over local curriculum decisions drove Congress, governors and school administrators to move Goals 2000 away from its standards emphasis toward a loosely affiliated series of projects and computer purchases.” But was fear of federal control the real bugbear?

I don’t think so. We shy away from meaningful national education standards because every attempt at their formulation collides with the elemental fact that there is no consensus regarding what American kids should know and be able to do; nor is there agreement on how they should do it. When we launch national educational goal setting efforts, they inevitably founder on this rock of disagreement.

An alternative, imposed by No Child Left Behind, is to require states to set standards. But that doesn't alter the fact that there is little or no deep agreement at the state level. As soon as state legislators begin to define the details the whole thing tends to either break down into acrimonious haggling or we end up with standards that lack broad public support.

What about generating standards at the level of the 16,000 plus school districts? After all districts are often far more uniform than entire states can be. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of districts deep agreement still is non-existent. Try to reach agreement on any truly fundamental matter, say at a school board meeting, and just watch blood pressures rise as consensus evaporates.

This fundamental lack of agreement concerning the means and ends of public schooling is the basic reality that has troubled, presently troubles and will continue to trouble every serious effort at school improvement. The only way to generate consensus, and it will be a superficial one at that, is by formulating goals that are so vague as to be practically useless.

Google a sample of school district mission statements and see for yourself. Every one of them will rely on happy talk and buzz words. In this way a shallow and practically useless consensus is maintained. And as soon as we press for details the whole thing falls apart.

What is to be done? Continue to concoct superficial, warm and fuzzy goals and then ignore them when real work needs to be done.

Trouble is that strategy puts real pressure on superintendents, principals and, especially, teachers. That's because the closer you get to actual classroom practice the more useless, or even counterproductive, vague goals become. When its time to teach reading, for example, detailed decisions have to be made. That's why every classroom teacher should adopt Harry Truman's motto, "THE BUCK STOPS HERE!"

To further examine these and related issues, see articles at

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