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What Do We Mean by 'Reform'?

I had the chance to spend yesterday at the Southern Nevada Leadership Summit. The day brought together some terrific education thinkers with 150 Nevada educators and community thinkers. Guests included Cal State-Sacramento's Julian Vasquez Heilig, former New Schools for New Orleans honcho Neerav Kingsland, New Mexico schools chief Hanna Skandera, and the inimitable Howard Fuller. The focus was on "Getting Reform Right," and the backdrop was Nevada's adoption in recent years of an expansive, ambitious education agenda.

I was struck by how much the discussion came back to the first questions of school reform: What's the purpose of school reform? What constitutes meaningful reform? What is "reform," anyway? One challenge is that we come at this with different answers to these questions, which makes it pretty easy to misunderstand or talk past one another. To help clarify where I'm coming from and make clear why I see things the way I do, I thought it might be worth sharing a bit about how I answer these questions. The following is the beginning of the excerpt from Letters to a Young Education Reformer ("Reform Is a State of Mind") that was just posted at Education Next.

What do I mean by "reform"?

"School reform" has taken on a very particular meaning in the past decade: reformers are those who support things like charter schooling, accountability, test-based teacher evaluation, and the Common Core.

In earlier eras, other reform orthodoxies have prevailed. A century ago, the list would have included "scientific management," regular testing, sorting students by IQ, and depoliticizing school boards. In the 1980s, it would have included a more demanding high school curriculum, career ladders for teachers, a longer school year, and tougher teacher certification tests.

The problem is that, whatever one thinks of today's reform catalogue, this kind of list isn't how I define reform. For me, reform is more a matter of how one thinks about school improvement than a recital of programs and policy proposals.

Given that, I think my take will make more sense if I first say a bit about why I became a "reformer" in the first place.

It's partly because, as a student, a teacher, and a trainer of teachers, I found too many classrooms and schools to be spirit-eroding and mind-numbing. Bells rang, students took their seats, and minutes ticked by. And it's also because I experienced and saw classrooms that were wholly different places where students felt valued, inspired, and challenged. Most of us picture a particular classroom when we say that. For me, it was sixth grade with Selma Ziff at Pine Ridge Elementary. That year was a whirlwind of math drills, Shakespearean plays, schemes to colonize Mars, and probability learned by gambling with M&Ms. It was a relentless, joyous voyage of discovery and learning. It was what school should be. Hell, it was what childhood should be.

For me, reform has never been about anything as high-flown as "social justice" or as prosaic as "workforce readiness." It's been about wanting more classrooms to resemble the ones I loved, and frustration that we weren't making that happen.

It's long seemed clear to me that we could do much better. Better at igniting imagination. At helping students master world languages. At teaching science and history. At instilling a sense of civic responsibility. At ensuring that all students are literate and numerate. At cultivating interest in the arts. At raising kids who are kind and curious. But it's seemed equally clear that doing this will require allowing ourselves to reimagine and rethink schooling.

Anyway, if you're interested in how I try to make sense of all this, check out the whole piece here.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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