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John Thompson Reviews Jal Mehta's "The Allure of Order"

Guest post by John Thompson.

Jal Mehta's masterpiece, The Allure of Order, answers the question, "Why have American [school] reformers repeatedly invested such high hopes in these instruments of control despite their track record of mixed results?" He starts with the review of how the bloom fell off the NCLB rose, explaining why its results in the toughest schools have been "miserable." In the highest poverty schools the predictable result has been "rampant teaching to the test" which has robbed children of the opportunity to be taught in an engaging manner.

Mehta explains that this "outcome might have been surprising if it were the first time policymakers tried to use standards, tests, and accountability to remake schooling from above." The contemporary test-driven reform movement is the third time that reformers have used the "alluring but ultimately failing brew" of top down accountability to "rationalize" schools and, again, they failed.

The Allure of Order describes the latest technocratic reform as another effort to turn the clock back to the mentality of the Model T assembly line. Administrative progressives defeated pedagogical progressives and imposed the scientific management theory that was then known as "Taylorism." It turned teachers and students into cogs in their vision of the mass production of "outcomes." Now, that dehumanizing system has been repackaged as "best practices."

The second wave of reform was imposed in the 1960s and 70s. They adopted the Defense Department's metrics-driven policies. After those policies, in the hands of "the Best and the Brightest," produced inflated "body counts" in Vietnam, that primitive policy was largely discredited. Only in school reform have we continued with that failed system of metrics.

The passage of No Child Left Behind was the high point of the third wave of data-driven reform. NCLB was even more utopian than the previously discredited attempts to use command and control to improve schools. Mehta cites the wisdom of Richard Elmore that NCLB was "based on little more than policy talk." "Never," Elmore thinks, "in the history of federal education policy has the disconnect between policy and practice been so evident and possibly never so dangerous."

Mehta concludes that a century of accountability-driven reform has produced "a downward spiral" of distrust between policy makers and frontline practitioners. Non-educators, frustrated that educators did not see the beauty of their theories, have resorted to more and more punitive systems for controlling teachers. The result has been widespread demoralization.

Mehta concludes, "The quest to rationalize schools has taken us as far as it can take us." By now it is clear that "We have been trying to solve a problem of professional practice by bureaucratic means." (Emphasis is Mehta's) He then closes with suggestions for making teaching a more respected profession.

I have some problems with Mehta's solutions. He adopts a model of teacher training that I read as virtually identical to that which Linda Darling-Hammond promotes, and he supports peer review and full service community schools. But, I question his hypothesis that teacher-bashing would diminish if we welcomed outside evaluation initiatives in order to become a more respected profession. He even makes a vague reference to accepting quantitative elements in evaluations. I can't see how the teaching profession could accept most of the accountability metrics that are common today and still retain its self-respect. After all, the thrust of his model is that "professions are not simply granted authority or deference; they have to fight for it."

Those problems should not detract from his brilliant explanation of how and why top down school reform has failed. If the "lay accountability" crowd had not been oblivious to education history, it is hard to believe that we would have again gone down this primitive and punitive path. But, common sense says that when you are trapped deep in a hole, stop digging. If the non-educators who have tried to micromanage schooling really want to help children, then they should read The Allure of Order. Then, we can get back to non-ideological, reality-based efforts to improve schools.

What do you think of Jal Mehta's explanation for the failure of the test-based reform project?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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