Review: The Right to Learn: A Blueprint for Creating Schools That Work

Chris McNutt
April 15, 2020
Darling-Hammond’s work, which is nearly 400 pages with 200 citations, is a formative review of inner-working and issues within the United States education system, and perfectly captures the need for progressive policies.

The Right to Learn by Linda Darling-Hammond, published in 1997, may as well have been published in 2020. The same principles that guide the work — a need for school reform centered on teacher preparedness and professionalism, is still as true as ever. Darling-Hammond’s work, which is nearly 400 pages with 200 citations, is a formative review of inner-working and issues within the United States education system, and perfectly captures the need for progressive policies. Although an exhausting read due to its steadfast approach to research and clarifying details, that’s the exact thing that makes this book great. Taken in small dosages, The Right to Learn offers a framework for rebuilding US schools and provides educators with substantial evidence for doing so.

Why we need “school reform”

Darling-Hammond is very careful in the words she uses to describe school reform. Oftentimes, this term means school choice or voucher systems, and is heralded by libertarian or neoliberal voices who seek to privatize the system. Other times, it is seen as disparagement against teachers to conduct classroom engagement on their own. Darling-Hammond sees public schools as the equitable solution for school reform:

When student background factors are taken into account, public school students do as well or better than private school students, despite the fact that private schools are able to select for student ability and behavior as well as parent income. In addition private schools that succeed with a wide range of students have organizational features also present in many public schools that succeed — a strong core curriculum, communal organization, and shared values — but neither all private nor all public schools have these features, and the presumption that market pressure will produce them is far from proved.

Yet, her solution is centered on professionalism. School choice doesn’t work if teachers and administrators aren’t prepared properly in any scenario. And for public schools that have proper preparedness, they achieve just as much, if not more than their “school choice” counterparts. This builds into Darling-Hammond’s thesis, as well as her work as President of the Learning Policy Institute: create high standards, high accountability teacher training programs, then provide autonomy to teachers to connect and learn with students.

Darling-Hammond breaks down why the education system is failing. There are many reasons, but she makes a point to start off with,

In the view of most educators, parents, employers, and students our current education system is failing. Rigid and bureaucratic, it was never designed to teach all children effectively, to teach learners in all their varieties, to attend to each child’s particular mix of aptitudes and barriers to learning. Educating all children effectively is the mission of schools today, yet great numbers of children still have no reasonable opportunity to acquire the knowledge and abilities that will help them thrive in and contribute to today’s society.

Because teachers are (and were) often treated as “technicians” — taught to repeat and regurgitate a slew of pre-conceived curriculum notions, and not taught much in the way of pedagogy, then held for “accountability” by how well their students regurgitate this same information, it’s no wonder that teachers are underprepared. Darling-Hammond notes,

…I found a crumbling warehouse high school managed by dehumanizing and often downright unqualified teachers. It had a nearly empty book room and a curriculum so rigid and narrow that teachers could barely stay awake to teach it.

In the process of her school reform work, Linda Darling-Hammond co-developed standards and curriculum that would recognize the power of teacher’s work, ensuring that this newfound teacher autonomy was centered on common pedagogical practice. She highlights the New York State Council on Curriculum and Assessment in crafting this statement:

The schools we envision are exciting places: thoughtful, reflective, engaging, and engaged. They are places where meaning is made. They are places that resemble workshops, studios, galleries, theaters, studies, laboratories, field research sites, and newsrooms. Their spirit is one of shared inquiry. The students in these schools feel supported in taking risks and thinking independently. They are engaged in initiating and assessing their ideas and products, developing a disciplined respect for their own work and the work of others. Their teachers function more like coaches, mentors, wise advisors, and guides than as information transmitters or gatekeepers. They offer high standards with high levels of support, creating a bridge between challenging curriculum goals and students’ unique needs, talents, and learning styles. They are continually learning because they teach in schools where everyone would be glad to be a student, or a teacher — where everyone would want to be — or could be — both.

Then, she breaks this down further:

(1) redesigning schools so they focus on learning, foster strong relationships, and support in-depth intellectual work; (2) creating a profession of teaching to ensure all teachers have the knowledge and commitment they need to teach diverse learners well; and (3) funding schools equitably so that they invest in the front lines of teaching and learning rather than in the side offices of system bureaucracies.
Picture: A school hallway with lockers.

Why are schools performing poorly?

The idea that teachers are underprepared, yet need more autonomy is an idea that needs substantial evidence. Of course, Darling-Hammond addresses that to prepare teachers for professionalism, we need to understand why educators aren’t treated as professionals. In addition, she calls on a critique of the pedagogical beliefs that diminished teacher autonomy to begin with:

Hirsch contends that the problem with U.S. schools, and the reason they perform more poorly than schools in other countries, is that they have widely adopted such progressive practices as research projects and discovery methods and have abandoned good old-fashioned rote learning and memorization. This claim is far from true. In fact, both national and international studies consistently show that the large majority of U.S. schools emphasize rote learning with heavy doses of lecture, drill-and-practice, memorization, and multiple-choice and short-answer testing. The exceptions are found in more affluent communities and higher tracks. Schools in European countries require more extensive projects and rarely use multiple-choice testing, favoring oral and essay examinations instead. In addition, schools abroad are much more likely than U.S. schools to engage students in research and writing, experimentation, and extended discussion of problems and ideas.

Darling-Hammond finds that the “dumbing down” of teacher education programs toward behaviorist and “transmission” approaches has led to a nationwide movement of poor teaching practice that, in-turn, causes us to perform worse on assessment. This has led to a cycle of “back to basics” school reform measures that center on practices that never worked in the first place. Because teachers are not prepared for progressive pedagogy (as that work is much more nuanced and complex), reform measures to address progressive learning fall flat. As she explains,

Transmission teaching is much simpler. Teachers can get through texts and workbooks. Classroom routines are straightforward; controls are easier to enforce. There is a sense of certainty and accomplishment when a lecture has been given, a list of facts covered, or a chapter finished, even if the result is little learning for students. When a teacher has transmitted information, it is easy to say “I taught that” — even when students have not learned it. Active learning situations infuse more uncertainty into the teaching process. When a student is building her own understanding through a research project, for example, the teacher needs to construct a careful scaffolding to guide the learning process and have well-designed strategies for eliciting the student’s thinking in order to assess what is being learned. Many teachers’ preparation has not taught them how to create situations in which learners can have real breakthroughs in understanding or how to evaluate learning and adapt their teaching. Thus they teach as they remember being taught, creating a flow of lessons and activities aimed at fairly superficial coverage that moves along comfortably oblivious to student learning.

This blame is not to fall on teachers. Rather, it is placed on teacher-training, a history of public policy in demanding underprepared teachers, a deep history of treating teachers poorly, and a lack of teacher professional development that’s centered on autonomy and growth. Broken down by research, it is clear to see:

More than 25 percent of those hired into teaching each year are not fully prepared or licensed for their jobs, and these underprepared teachers are assigned primarily to schools and classrooms serving the most educationally vulnerable students. These teachers tend to be more autocratic in the ways they manage their classroom, less skilled at managing complex forms of instruction, less capable of identifying children’s learning styles and needs, and less likely to see it as their job to do so, blaming students when their teaching is not successful.

These conditions are then exacerbated when curriculum is handed down from policy makers and districts, transmitted to teachers, to then transmit to students. There is no place for student inquiry, as all of the engagement is purely through superficial means. This would be the case with programs like Accelerated Reader, which diminishes student engagement with reading and is mostly integrated in districts where teachers and students are just told to “do it.” This “teacher-proof” curriculum is expanded upon:

School systems’ ongoing search for a teacher-proof curriculum continues to be grounded in mistrust of teachers’ capabilities to make sound decisions about how and what students should be taught. Unfortunately, a teacher-proof curriculum is also student-proof. It ignores the fact that students come to the classroom with different preconceptions, levels of understanding, and styles of learning. Detailed curriculum prescriptions have to presume that learners are passive because the alternative presumption — that students are idea producers and problem structures whose motivations and readiness matter — would defy the precise predetermination of learning tasked.

And this problematic treatment of teachers is nothing new. Darling-Hammond outlines the industrialization and feminization of the teaching workforce, and draws parallels from the turn-of-the-century “factory model” schools to current operation. Drawing on Frederick Taylor, William McAndrew, William Wirt and other industry pioneers, she makes a point that the bureaucracy of public schools dates back to the 1800s. Further, she outlines the treatment of the woman workforce,

The imposition of hierarchical decision making over matters great and small was made easier by the feminization of the teaching force. The egg-crate school structure headed by a male administrator and staffed by female teachers was established by Boston educator John Philbrick, whose model school contained twelve classrooms built for fifty-six students and one teacher per classroom. “Let the Principal or Superintendent have the general supervision and control of the whole:’ Philbrick advised, “and let him have one male assistant or sub-principal, and ten female assistants, one for each room” ( 1856, p. 263). This was the start of what Tyack ( 197 4, p. 45) called the ‘’pedagogical harem” and of the subordination of teachers to the directives of those “above” them.

As teachers were homogenized and told increasingly how to manage their classrooms, we saw a conversion of work from projects and models to worksheets and definitions, a conversion of reading to vocabulary lists, and regurgitating equations instead of finder deeper meaning behind mathematics. This is still definitely true today, when state report cards and district mandates encourage teachers to try the latest ed-tech tool, curriculum “initiative”, or “standards-based” practice. Standardized testing has only made technician-style teaching worse. As one research study found,

…the tests’ conceptions of knowledge conflicted with many teachers’ views of worthwhile learning and reinforced a focus on rote teaching, especially in classrooms serving predominately minority students where test-based instruction was most extensive.

As referenced in this study and throughout the book, “reform” measures that center on disqualifying teachers and diminishing autonomy have the most effect on less advantaged students — low income students, students of color, and redlined districts:

Profound differences in the capacities of schools and classrooms serving more and less advantaged children have become so ingrained that no quick-fix managerial reform — whether a fancy program, a teacher-proof curriculum, or an elaborative incentive scheme — can magically transform impoverished schools so that they produce better outcomes. Even if forward-looking standards and assessment systems were developed in all states and school systems, students served by inadequately prepared teachers in underfunded and poorly managed school organizations would still fail to achieve. Systemwide capacity building — that is, an overarching strategy to increase the supply of highly qualified teachers, the funds for under-resourced schools, and the ability of schools to use knowledge well — is absolutely critical to the success of students in U.S. schools.

In the last few decades, in an attempt to “pair” students with their appropriate “achievement level”, many districts have multiple tracks of learning. These tracks mirror racial disparities, as do honors and AP course achievement and retention rates. A research study concludes that, “students show a far smaller spread of academic achievement than current practices in most school produce.

Picture: The cover of Teach Like a Champion

A Byproduct of Behaviorism

Darling-Hammond targets behaviorism as a specific mindset that’s dampening teacher autonomy and hurting students.

Moreover the roots of the system’s current limitations continue to be nourished by the behaviorist learning theories, curriculum prescriptions, and specialized organizational structures planted by scientific managers a century ago.

In the same vein as teachers as technicians, behaviorism treats students as technicians. There is little room for growth and development of unique ideas. Instead, one is expected to teach a room of 25+ students the exact same thing, in the exact same way, then “pivot” when students are at different levels. These “pivots” are simple strategies that any layman could understand. Behaviorism attempts to solve any “problematic” teaching by diffusing teaching to the simplest form possible. Yet, people are complex beings and do not learn as passive receivers of information. As Darling-Hammond states,

Behaviorism’s influence has been potent in education for two major reasons. First, its assumptions of predictability, its view of children as passive raw material, and its tactic of reducing tasks to their simplest parts and sequencing them in a uniform manner fit the operating principles of a scientifically managed bureaucracy like hand to glove. Second, the weakness of the teaching profession and the undereducation of teachers have invited simplistic schemes for teaching and have prevented much organized intellectual opposition to them.

She makes a point to connect the history of teaching and education, its neoliberal connection to industry, and now its continuing embracement of behaviorism as an obvious hinderance to professionalism, and therefore — school reform. We won’t be able to build flourishing schools where innovation can occur while promoting practices that look and sound the same everywhere.

The toll that this takes on educators is stark:

Most teachers in our study felt that their views of good teaching were at odds with those of their school districts. The large majority (79 percent) described concerns for children and for learning as central to good teaching, but only 11 percent felt their school districts shared this view. Most (75 percent) felt that their school districts, reflecting the behaviorist learning theories described in Chapter Two, were more concerned with implementing specific teaching techniques tied to precise objectives and with diagnosing student deficiencies. Teachers saw themselves as differing from their school districts in the extent to which they viewed students as active participants or passive recipients in the learning process, the extent to which they saw student concerns as central or”peripheral to the choice of learning goals and activities, and the extent to which they saw teaching as focused on student development or the identification of deficiencies.

Instead, Darling-Hammond calls on progressive pedagogical policies that center on student inquiry. She highlights 9 common perspectives that all teachers-as-professionals should hold, each supported by many research studies:

Further, she calls on student voices to share this call to action. As one student remarks,

I believe that the main reason we rank at the low end in education is that we are primarily taught to memorize text until we reach 10th or 11th grade. As a student in the 11th grade, I am only now being asked to think logically to solve problems. It would have been much easier and a lot more useful if our elementary and middle school teachers had begun to explain why certain equations worked and taught us how to discuss poems or a speech …. I cannot remember a teacher ever asking us about our feelings about an event or about the effects of historic decisions. If we do not know how to analyze a problem, how are we ever going to compete in the real world? The problems we are going to face are not all going to be written down in a textbook with the answers in the back.

Ending Bureaucracy

As the United States has organized its schools to pass on as many students as possible, and has derived its teachers and students into numbers on a spreadsheet, it has also created vast paperwork, forms, and data analysis that circumvents a teacher’s ability to actually teach their class. Darling-Hammond sees bureaucratic schools as another “technician” role, and calls on again, more autonomy for teachers:

Over and over again, research and casual observation reveal that in most bureaucratically organized schools, students feel alienated from teachers, who appear to have little time for students unless they are unusually “bright” or “problematic.” Teachers feel at odds with administrators, who appear to have little time for them unless their concerns pertain to contractual matters, mandates, or paperwork. And everyone feels victimized by “the system,” which demands attention to reports and procedures when teachers, students, and administrators would rather devote their time to each other and to learning.

I was especially drawn to a quote from Ted Sizer, a school reformer who noted that in suburban schools:

“save in extracurricular or coaching situations, such as in athletics, drama or shop classes, there is little opportunity for sustained conversation between student and teacher. The model is a one-sentence or two-sentence exchange…Dialogue is strikingly absent, and as a result the opportunity of a teacher to challenge students’ ideas in a systemic or logical way is limited. Given the rushed, full quality of the school day, it can seldom happen. One must infer through careful probing of students’ thinking is not a high priority.

These dialogues, research studies, and articles are expressed at length — teachers don’t need to be concerned with numerous spreadsheets or forms, they need to be making connections with students.

Teacher Preparedness

The roughly 200-page overview of the issues with our education system are followed up by the second half of the book, which centers on what we can do about it. Linda Darling-Hammond has spent the majority of her professional life crafting standards for teaching and finding ways to center “professionalism.” As in, how engineers, doctors, and lawyers have well-regarded professional organizations, dialogue, common standards of practice, and universally agreed upon procedures. Darling-Hammond writes,

Educators in the United States have much less experience than these other groups with the development and use of professional standards. Because teaching in the United States has been managed as a bureaucratic rather than a professional enterprise, vehicles for developing and transmitting standards-such as professional associations, standards boards, and accrediting agencies-have traditionally been weak or nonexistent. Instead implicit and unexamined standards exist by default. They are the aggregations of decisions made by textbook makers, test publishers, individual state agencies, legislatures, and school boards, often uninformed by professional knowledge, shared ideals, or consensual goals for education. Teachers are rarely involved in the professional activities of standard setting, curriculum development, or assessment.

Although some loosely scattered organizations exist, due to everything mentioned above, as well as a less supportive social environment (the US has high rates of child poverty, mortality, abuse, and less support for welfare and preschool education), teachers don’t have such fundamentals to be considered “professionals.” The problem is made worse by US policymakers, who have…

…nearly always responded to teacher shortages by lowering standards so that schools can hire people who have had little or no preparation for teaching. Although no state will allow a person to fix plumbing, style hair, practice medicine, or write wills without completing training and passing an examination, more than forty states offer emergency and temporary licenses to teachers who do not meet these basic requirements.

To solve these problems, educators require a high-accountability training program, steeped in child development, research, and multiple years of learning. A referenced study finds that a teacher’s abilities, documented by their experience level and certifications, accounted for a 90% difference in children’s reading, math, and civics scores across elementary, middle, and high school. Further, educators who participated in 5-year degree programs (e.g. a master’s) were shown, on average, to be much more motivated, regarded as experienced by their peers, saw higher student achievement, and in general, were happier in the profession compared to their 4-year counterparts.

Motivation is central to improving teacher retention, which continues to be a serious problem in the US. Establishing professional certification allows teachers to see the classroom for what it is:

When teachers investigate the effects of their teaching on students’ learning and when they read about what others have learned they come to understand teaching to be an inherently problematic endeavor, rather than a highly routinized activity…

The result is a great appreciation for what matters and what works as well as what needs to change to promote student success.
Picture: A teacher leading a group of young children.

A Call for Progressive Education

As the Human Restoration Project believes wholeheartedly — progressive education is the central pedagogy supported by child developmental and educational research. The further we talk about experiential learning, democratic classrooms, self-directed education, restorative justice, gradeless learning, and more — the more apparent it becomes that overwhelming research supports these ideas, but they’re held back due to the various issues Darling-Hammond provides. In fact, A Right to Learn is a perfect tool to demonstrate why progressive education is not taken seriously or commonly implemented.

Progressive education is more complicated than taking a group of teachers and telling them what to do. It’s way more difficult to teach a group of students based on their unique needs and interests. It requires true professionalism to engage in human-centered learning, and communicate the needs of students, families, and classrooms — connecting the dots and mapping paths to purpose. Darling-Hammond notes,

Progressive education requires more than committed teachers striving for classroom-level reform. It requires a set of systemic conditions — including widespread teacher knowledge and schools structured for strong relationships — that turn-of-the-century managers could not understand and did not believe in. School reformers have focused on how to get around the system, but it is the system’s deeply ingrained mechanisms for organizing schooling that have thus far prevented the enactment of widespread change. These same structures will kill reforms once again if the system itself is not transformed.

This means encouraging flexibility, adaptability, and creativity as key traits for teachers; Building experiential, collaborative, and inquiry-based learning; Equitably funding school districts, and providing ample opportunities for teacher planning and collaboration; Creating smaller class sizes. The United States has the least number of teachers per administrator compared to the rest of the industrialized world.

By co-planning spaces that recognize all learners, we build flourishing democratic classrooms that cannot take place with worksheets and participation grades. Darling-Hammond writes,

Americans understand the importance of public education to democracy — the necessity for all children to have at least a minimal education, learning the rudiments of citizenship and a means of making a livelihood. However, the more fundamental need is to prepare people for active participation in social decisions and for a productive shared life with fellow citizens. Few seem troubled by the fact that U.S. schools rarely enact democratic life within their boundaries, that they are more often authoritarian than participative and more frequently segregative by social class, race, and culture than integrative.

And continues,

…growing up humane and decent people who can appreciate others and take satisfaction in doing things well requires schools that model humanity and decency, that cultivate appreciation, and that support learning about things that matter to the people in them. Education should be a source of nurturance for the spirit as well as a means of reaching understanding, though it can be, and too often is, conducted in a way that deadens and demoralizes. Tedious, coercive schooling creates frustrations that must emerge sooner or later in self-deprecation, despair, or violence against others. However, where a real connection is made between students and teachers in the pursuit of meaningful accomplishments, the possibilities for developing lifelong capacities for learning, doing, and relating to others are greatly expanded.

Throughout the work, I was taken aback by how relevant all this information was — decades after its publication. Darling-Hammond talks about learning portfolios as assessment, restructuring standardized testing, ending lecture-driven professional development programs, promoting restorative justice, building experiential learning as the primary focus in all classrooms, and the dangers of removing active play and free time in the school day. These arguments are the exact same as what we argue now (and the research studies drawn upon are from well before then.)

A Right to Learn makes it abundantly clear that progressive education is needed, and makes a rational argument on what school reform means when we talk about rebuilding the US education system. It proposes a pragmatic way of getting there, and highlights history and research consistently to make its point. And, it showcases why we need real professional learning among teachers — to build a grassroots movement of teachers as experts who influence the system at large.

Although A Right to Learn is loaded with information to the point of exhaustion, I highly recommend this work to progressive educators who need the tools to debate behaviorism, to demonstrate what “school reform” could be, and just to see the sheer volume of research that supports our cause.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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