April 29, 2009

Student readings address the chief issues in today's reform efforts, obstacles to reform, and critical views of mainstream school reform. Discussion questions and suggestions for student inquiries and writing follow.

To the Teacher:

School reform efforts have a long history in America. The most recent began with passage of President Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2002. President Barack Obama has now proposed changes in that program.

Below, an introduction to two readings asks students to consider what we mean by "education" and how people have used that word. The first student reading addresses the chief issues in today's reform efforts and some of the obstacles to reform. The second reading offers two critical views of mainstream school reform efforts. Discussion questions, questions for a proposed fish bowl discussion, and suggestions for student inquiries and writing follow.

For details of the NCLB Act and criticisms of how the act has been carried out, see "No Child Left Behind" in the high school section.



For writing

What does "education" mean? School reformers give different, sometimes very different, answers. What do students mean when they use the word? Ask them to write a short paragraph answering this question, then meet in small groups to read their definitions and select the one they regard as best for sharing with the class.

For discussion

As students read the paragraphs they have written, note on the chalkboard significant elements for students to consider. Afterwards, ask students:

1. What do you view as the key aspects of "education"? Why?

2. What do you think would be happening in a classroom where the teacher shared their view of the key aspects of education.

3. Consider the following definitions of "education" in turn. What do students think would be happening in a classroom where the teacher viewed education from the perspective of each one?

A. "Education is the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge."
—Alfred North Whitehead, "The Aims of Education"

B. "Education is what happens to the other person, not what comes out of the mouth of the educator"
—Myles Horton, The Long Haul

C. "Education, upon its intellectual side, is vitally concerned with cultivating the attitude of reflective thinking. Of course, education is not exhausted in its intellectual aspect; there are practical attitudes of efficiency to be formed, moral dispositions to be strengthened and developed, esthetic appreciations to be cultivated."
—John Dewey, How We Think


Student Reading 1:

School reform-issues, problems, questions

"I think schools should be open six, seven days a week, 11,12 months a year. You're competing for jobs with kids from India and China." This is what U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told about 400 Denver public school students recently. "Go ahead and boo me," he challenged the middle and high school students. But instead of boos, the Associated Press reported, he got "bored stares." ("Will Stimulus Money Lead to Actual Education Reform?", 4/9/09)

Secretary Duncan isn't trying to force schools to have longer school weeks and years, at least not yet, but he is putting pressure on them. He told the nation's governors in an April 1 letter that they would receive their share of $44 billion in economic stimulus immediately. Its purpose is to avoid inevitable teacher layoffs and cuts in programs that would otherwise result from sharply reduced state tax receipts in a severe recession. But before they receive a second round of funding, "he wants new information about the performance of their public schools, much of which could be embarrassing." (New York Times, 4/2/09)

For example:

  • "The data is likely to reveal that in many states, tests have been dumbed down so that students score far higher than on tests administered by the federal Department of Education."
  • "It will probably also show that many local teacher-evaluation systems are so perfunctory that they rate 99 of every 100 teachers as excellent"
  • "...diplomas often mean so little that millions of high school graduates each year must enroll in remediation classes upon entering college."

Secretary Duncan will require that to get their share of $54 billion more in stimulus money, "governors must pledge to improve teacher quality, raise academic standards, intervene in failing schools more effectively and carry out other education initiatives." To demonstrate that they are honoring their pledges, governors must report not just results of local tests but those on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a more difficult federal test; they must assign their most effective teachers fairly to poor students as well as those better off; and they must raise standards to the point that "high school graduates can succeed-without remedial classes-in college, the workplace or the military." (New York Times, 4/2/09 and 4/15/09)

Secretary Duncan recently praised Mayor Michael Bloomberg's leadership in New York City for producing school improvement, saying, "Graduation rates are up. Test scores are up...By every measure, that's real progress."

But, as the Times indicated, fuller information about public school performance can be "embarrassing" — in this case to Secretary Duncan. On the federal National Assessment of Education Progress, which is "widely acknowledged as the gold standard of the testing industry, New York City showed almost no academic improvement between 2003, when the mayor's reforms were introduced, and 2007," wrote Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University. "There were no significant gains for New York City's students-black, Hispanic, white, Asian or lower-income..."

Professor Ravitch argued that the city has also "overstated" its high school graduation rate, which "is no better than that of Mississippi, which spends about a third of what New York City spends per pupil. Moreover, the city's graduation rates have been pumped up with a variety of dubious means," like not counting as dropouts the students who were "discharged" during their high school years. Some "discharged" students moved, but others are "so-called push-outs, students who were ejected from school...often because their grades and test scores were bringing down their schools' averages."

Another problem with NYC public schools is that even those who complete high school "are often not ready for college," Ravitch wrote in the New York Times. "Three-quarters of the graduates fail their placement examinations at the City University of New York's community colleges...These are students who presumably passed five Regents examinations to graduate yet cannot read or write or do mathematics up to the standards of a two-year community college." (New York Times, 4/10/09)

Joel Klein, the NYC Schools Chancellor, disagreed: "By any measure, our graduation rate-after decades of stagnation-has gone up significantly during the last several years,...The percentage of 'discharges' has remained constant during this period, so that can't explain the gains...The number of New York City high school graduates going to CUNY [City University of New York] increased by 50 percent, with more than 70 percent of the increase being Latino and African-American students. As enrollment has increased, contrary to Ms. Ravitch's suggestion, remediation rates have declined." (New York Times, 4/16/09)

Yet another difficulty for school reform is how the states have responded to a major provision of the No Child Left Behind Act that became law under President Bush in 2002. It required placing a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom. The result, according to a New York Times editorial: "The states have simply reclassified inadequate teachers as well qualified, without demanding that they pass competency exams in the fields they teach." (New York Times, 4/9/09)

In a March 10 speech on improving America's schools, President Obama emphasized

  • Encouraging better standards and assessments for students and teachers
  • Rewarding outstanding teachers with merit pay
  • Reforming the school calendar and the length of the school day
  • Providing every American with a quality higher education

He also had a message for students:

"Of course, no matter how innovative our schools or how effective our teachers, America cannot succeed unless our students take responsibility for their own education. That means showing up for school on time, paying attention in class, seeking out extra tutoring if it's needed, and staying out of trouble. And to any student who's watching, I say this: don't even think about dropping out of school."

But the president did not discuss the specifics of such matters as "better standards and assessments," "outstanding teachers," and "quality higher education."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered? (Note questions that might be used for student inquiries suggested below).

2. What are major issues, problems, criticisms and questions in school reform efforts?

3. Which of these efforts seem to you best to promote student "education"? Why?

4. Secretary Duncan thinks we should consider lengthening the school day and the school year because "you're competing for jobs with kids in India and China." What does that statement suggest about what the secretary thinks is a major purpose of the schools? Do you agree? Why or why not?

5. Consider the points the president made about school improvement. How important do you think each one is? Why? Can you envision difficulties in making these improvements?


To the Teacher

Standing between schools and progress in their improvement are many unresolved problems and questions. Examination of them is almost always an adult prerogative. But students are the ones who are most immediately affected by what happens in schools. Their voices deserve to be heard. A fish bowl discussion is one useful method through which to promote student expression of ideas and listening to others, especially on a controversial issue like school reform. See "Engaging Your Class Through Groupwork," in the high school section of TeachableMoment for a description of fish bowl.

Suggested fish bowl questions

1. Key words in school reform efforts include "learning," "academic standards," "testing," "highly qualified" or "outstanding teacher," "teacher evaluation," and "quality education." Help students to define what they mean by such words and to work for consensus on meanings. For example:

  • What do you mean when you say you have learned something?
  • What kinds of tests would best demonstrate whether you had learned something?
  • What do you mean when you say a teacher is highly qualified or outstanding?
  • How would you recognize such a teacher? What would he or she be doing?
  • How should a teacher be evaluated to determine how qualified he or she is?
  • What do you mean by a "quality education"?
  • What evidence would support someone's claim that he or she had had a quality education?

2. A key element in school reform efforts is assessing school effectiveness.

  • How effective is your school in helping you to learn?
  • Specifically what can you point to that supports your judgment?
  • Would a longer school day and year promote your learning? Why or why not? If you think it would promote learning, how would it do this?
  • Can you think of other ways than those mentioned by President Obama that you could take responsibility for your education? What should your school do, beyond what it may already be doing, to help you take responsibility for your own education? And, by "education," what do you mean?


Student Reading 2:

Two critics

For the past seven years President Bush and now President Obama have been working for "school reform." But Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor of education, pointed out some years ago:

"We've had waves of reform ... in the 1900s, in the 1930s, in the 1960s. Every single time we try to do reform by changing the curriculum, changing the management structure, changing the budgeting process...without paying attention to helping teachers learn how to teach kids well, the reform fails. And then we say, 'Oh, we tried that and it didn't work.' Because teachers were not enabled to use the curriculum materials, to use whatever the new innovation was that was coming down the pike."

For Professor Hammond-Darling, "helping teachers learn how to teach kids well is absolutely essential for significant school reform. "Unfortunately, kids don't learn at the same rate. They don't learn in the same way. So whenever teachers are given a single way to teach, they're actually made less effective in meeting the needs of students...Obviously, lack of time to work individually with students or collaboratively with colleagues is a huge hindrance in American schools. In many other countries like France, Germany, China, Japan..., teachers will have 10, 15 even as much as 20 hours a week to work with one another on planning lessons, on doing demonstration lessons, on observing one another in the classroom, meeting individually with parents and students, all the stuff that enables what goes on in the classroom to be effective." The lack of teacher opportunities for such on-going learning "is probably the single biggest hindrance that American teachers have..."

"So when a teacher comes into the classroom and is confronted with kids who have a variety of needs...many who may not speak English as their first language, who learn at different rates and in different ways, the likelihood that she will have encountered the knowledge that would help her address these learning needs, understand how children develop, know what to do about learning difficulties, have an adequate grounding in the content area, is relatively small in this country. And so teachers have to learn by trial and error. And it's not fair to them. And of course it's not fair to the kids." (

Another critic, author Alfi Kohn, listed what he regards as inadequacies and failures in school reform:

  • "a heavy reliance on fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests to evaluate students and schools, generally in place of more authentic assessment;
  • "the imposition of prescriptive top-down teaching standards and curriculum mandates;
  • "a disproportionate emphasis on rote learning-memorizing facts and practicing skills...
  • "a corporate sensibility and an economic rationale for schools, the point being to prepare children to 'compete' as future employees
  • "charter schools, many run by for-profit organizations."

"'Reform' actually signals more of the same," writes Kohn. "Almost never questioned, meanwhile, are the core elements of traditional schools, such a lectures, worksheets, quizzes, grades, homework, punitive discipline and competition. That would require real reform, which of course is off the table." (Alfi Kohn, author of 11 books, including The Schools Our Children Deserve,, 12/10/08)

Darling-Hammond wrote: "High-achieving countries focus their curriculums on critical thinking and problem-solving, using exams that require students to conduct research and scientific investigations, solve complex real-world problems and defend their ideas orally and in writing...These other nations' assessment systems encourage serious intellectual activities that are being driven out of many U.S. schools..." (, 5/21/07)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What is one major reason why Professor Darling-Hammond thinks school reform efforts fail? According to her, what do teachers in America need that teachers in some other countries already have?

3. What is wrong with "fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests," according to critics? What would such critics regard as more "authentic assessment"? What do you think and why?

4. What do you think is meant by:

  • "top-down teaching standards and curriculum mandates"
  • "emphasis on rote learning"
  • "a corporate sensibility"
  • "for-profit charter schools"?

If in any case you don't know, how might you find out?

5. What is "never questioned" by many school reformers, according to Kohn? Would you criticize the items he noted? Why or why not?

6. Professor Darling-Hammond argues for replacing standardized tests as the main method of evaluating student progress. What would she replace them with and why?


For inquiry

Small group and independent student inquiries might focus on questions raised during discussions of the readings, past efforts at reform, and significant figures in American school history.

Productive question-asking is important in helping students focus their inquiries after they have chosen a subject. For example, if the subject is school reform efforts in the 1960s, exactly what is to be investigated? Sample questions might be:

  • What was "a school without walls"?
  • How did a school without walls differ from a conventional school?
  • What were the strengths and weaknesses of one such school?

A student choosing to inquire into the work of Jonathan Kozol might be guided by such questions as:

  • What is a major Kozol criticism of American schools?
  • What evidence does he offer for it?
  • How might one of his proposals improve them?

See "Thinking Is Questioning" for suggestions of class exercises to help students learn how to frame useful questions.

Some suggested subjects

  • School reform efforts and their results in the 1900s, 1930s or 1960s
  • Differences between American and French (or some other nation's) public schools
  • School reformers: Horace Mann, John Dewey, Harold Rugg, Linda Darling-Hammond, Howard Gardner, James Comer, Theodore Sizer, Deborah Meier
  • The Obama-Biden plan for school reform
  • School reform efforts in the school you attend
  • The merit pay controversy


For writing

What do you now mean when you use the word "education"? What behaviors would you expect from a person who was "well-educated"? Write a well-developed paper in which you answer these questions.


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: