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Is School Reform Needed or Not?

Robert Pondiscio of Democracy Prep writes again to Deborah Meier today.

Dear Deb,

My time here grows short.  When I first agreed to blog with you here at Bridging Differences, we talked about a brief residency, November and December.  The calendar has turned to April, baseball is back, the Mets are already in last place, and spring is at hand, even if it is 36 degrees and sleeting here in Harlem as I type these words.  I hope I have not overstayed my welcome. 

As I wind down, let's review the bidding, differences bridged and unbridged, since you first invited me to exchange ideas with you here last fall. 

We've covered a lot of ground so far: testing, school choice, civic education, school tone and culture, educating for self-sufficiency and upward mobility, and my push for a knowledge-rich core curriculum and "pretty good schools."  We've also discussed some of the ways in which business and education simply don't understand each other.

So Deb, what bridges have we built?  We agree that we like small schools and schools of choice.  We broadly agree on educating children "for democracy and liberty," even if we don't always agree on what that looks like inside or outside of school.

We agree about "immersing kids in a community that finds the world a fascinating place" even if I failed to persuade you of the need not merely for common standards but a common curriculum. I'm not giving up on that one.  I have an article on teaching reading in the current issue of City Journal that I hope you will read and consider with a fresh set of eyes.  In particular, I'd like you to consider my plea for patience in adopting and implementing curriculum.  If there's one thing of which I'm certain it's that raising reading achievement means playing the long game. There are no quick fixes. The biggest challenge in education—and education reform—is almost certainly making room for the patient investment in knowledge and vocabulary that allows sustainable gains to take place.  Beware and view with skepticism, now and always, the quick fix and those who promise one.

In my very first post here, I suggested that the education reform movement needs what I called a "Nixon to China" moment.  I lamented the unfortunate effects of our polarized education climate, which makes enemies of people who might be able to add value to each other's work.  In my remaining time here, I'd like to revisit that theme, especially as reform politics, never much fun, has become toxic again here in New York City.

Shortly before we started writing to each other last fall, Grant Wiggins, the author of Understanding by Design, penned a memorable open letter on his blog, asking Diane Ravitch whether or not she felt significant school reform is needed.  Diane's book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, had just come out and was roiling the waters, as Diane is wont to do.  "I am saddened by your Manichean view of the education reform world," Wiggins wrote. "You now consistently write and speak as if all would-be reformers have nothing but selfish or devious motives for advocating significant changes in public schooling."  Just so.  Had Diane asked me (I worked on her previous book), I might have suggested with a wink the alternate title Zero Shades of Grey

Clearly Wiggins is not someone generally regarded or easily dismissed as a "corporate reformer." Yet he cited a long list of problems he sees in schools every day, from poor teacher quality and weak curriculum to lack of challenging assessments and uninspired leadership, none of which are addressed or by the tired arguments around reform.

"What does poverty or privatization have to do with how educators set goals, use time, group students, and develop structures, incentives, and learning opportunities for all learners to achieve goals on a flexible schedule and with some degree of choice?" he asked. 

Most schools are simply not very effective, continued Wiggins, who sees too many teachers incapable of engaging and educating the kids in front of them. "Why can't we admit this?" he wrote. "I can admit it happily, because I think good teachers are tired of being brought down by weak teachers and policies that support them."

I have a lot of respect for Wiggins, with whom I do not always agree.  What I found most compelling about his open letter was his observation that quality, "unlike poverty ... is in our control as educators."  Too much commentary on teaching and learning elides this simple fact.

This blog is a testament to your belief in the power of dialogue, not diatribe, and candid exchange, even as you hold to your well-earned and earnestly held points of view.  It's why I agreed to post here, have lingered so long, and eagerly look forward to returning this fall.  But let's wrap up for now with the question Wiggins posed to Diane:  Is reform needed or not? 

If not, why not?  And if so, what can and should those of us who work in schools every day do to embrace reform and do ourselves, rather than having it imposed upon us from above?

Yours,

Robert

Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem. A former 5th grade teacher in New York City's South Bronx, Mr. Pondiscio has written and lectured extensively about education and ed reform. He previously served as the vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to becoming involved in education, Mr. Pondiscio was the communications director for BusinessWeek, and the public affairs director for TIME Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rpondiscio 

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