Why can’t school reform take off?

For progressive educators, it can feel like the world is against you. Stating that standardized testing, row-based seating, and PowerPoints are detrimental to students appears nightmarish to traditionalists. Sadly, this is only the tip of the iceberg — wait until you bring in real ideas like gradeless assessment, self-guided learning, and factoring in emotional intelligence — then you’ll feel really alienated. Obviously, there are many people pushing towards these efforts. Daily I’m bombarded with Twitter feeds, blog rolls, and new publications that call for drastic changes in the education system. However, is this just a vocal minority?

The fact is that progressive education has existed for a very long time, arguably starting around John Dewey’s experiential learning work in the late 1800s, through John Holt’s unschooling approach in the 1960s, to Tony Wagner today. Every single time these ideas have not become prevalent. Visit any random classroom today and you’ll still find some of the most outdated learning practices (except with iPads, because technology!) If you’re lucky, you’ll find the one teacher (or perhaps 1 in 1000 schools) that have started to focus on students, rather than testing.

Let’s consider why reform doesn’t work:

  • Every single time that we “reform” schools, we’re really just making “tougher standards.” Which frankly, makes me — as I’m sure many — question whether or not they should be teachers. What a great idea! Kids aren’t perceived as testing as well, so let’s cram even harder! This, in-turn, de-legitimizes other reform methods.
  • There’s an obvious connection between money, politics, and education. If we focus less on testing, students may perform worse on the SAT. If we spend more time on what interests students, we may not reach every AP standard. Of course, the SAT and AP tests are both controlled by the CollegeBoard — which essentially controls how our schools should function, as they are one of the prime determinants to enter college. Also, the CollegeBoard is one of the prime linkages to the Common Core Standards, which focus on “preparing students for college” (note: standardized tests). Then, there’s the outpouring of lobbying for SAT- prep businesses who have insanely lucrative profits from our children.
  • Teachers and administrators don’t take the time to think or care about progressive policies. There’s various reasons for this: they have to “unthink” what they were taught in their education classes, they’re stressed out about how they’re evaluated, they remember how they were taught in schools and want to improve that(but not change it), they’re overworked and don’t want to read, etc. The amount of material out there is staggering. XQ Institute, a progressive policy organization, has hundreds of resources alone on changing schools.

Of course, this all makes the assumption that progressive education is better than what we have now. I’m not sure what exact changes need to be made — but I know for certain that multitudes of research show what we’re doing to kids is detrimental. To assess someone on archaic mathematical practice, understanding Shakespeare, or recalling a battle in the Civil War has absolutely no relevance in our world, let alone succeeding in college — and there’s been test upon test to showcase that there is little correlation (if any) between assessment on these pieces and growth. In fact, it’s usually quite the opposite (see Miserandino, Anderman, Dweck, Henderson, Kohn, Flink, Milton, and more).

This begs the question: is it possible for school reform to succeed? Hopefully, the Internet can begin to be the turning point. Day after day, I find resources that reinforce my education principles and expand my knowledge. Now, it’s time for everyone to actually push past fear and make a change — even if it’s uncomfortable or threatening. The forces against progressive education have money, power, and time on their side, and it will take everyone pushing to succeed.