Thoughts on Education Reform

On the way to a conference last month I finally made time to read the latest Music Educators Journal (March, 2015) and was struck by the Reforming Education Reform piece by Paul R. Lehman. This article was adapted from his Oct. 2014 presentation to the NAfME In-Service Conference in Nashville, TN. 

I realize that as a presentation in Nashville he was looking to spark a reaction and probably intended to stir emotions with some of his comments. With me as his audience, he succeeded! I can't help but be shocked, frustrated, and spurred to action. Or at least to give more thought to some of these concerns. These are a few of the quotes that most stood out to me. 

He discussed how states responded to high test score standards that were impossible to reach. "Instead of committing the resources needed to improve education, they typically postponed the date of enforcement - and then they either lowered the passing score or made the tests easier. Is that education reform?" Obviously I would answer "no" to his question. And I saw this happen when I was a K-12 teacher and continue to read about it - legislation is passed setting standards but there are no resources provided to support or enforce those standards. Even small projects, like graduation projects required of seniors in a district, require funding and support to run smoothly. Without that support the project/standard must be adjusted so that the goal is actually attainable and evaluate-able with the minimal resources.  

NCLB began with good intentions but funding was never provided and it actually did nothing to improve education. "NCLB required that every student be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Now, no one who knows anything about education could take seriously an objective so monumentally naive. The only way to achieve that goal would be to define proficient at a level so low as to be laughable." (italics in original) Enough said I think. "no one who knows anything about education..." So who are we allowing to make these decisions for us? 

"NCLB not only allowed the states to manipulate their test results and mislead the public, but, by providing severe penalties for failure, it virtually required them to do so. In that respect, NCLB was worse than doing nothing because it gave the public the illusion of having addressed the problem." This approach is something we need to change in education. We develop a possible solution or improvement and announce to the world that we've "fixed" education. Before doctors announce a cure or a new vaccine they test it! They give it time to be tried, seen in action, and evaluated. Then they decide whether the medicine is actually a fix or not. In education this requires using an improvement with actual kids, with the actual amount of funding that will be provided. Not running models or hypotheticals. Education reform would run much more smoothly if we would accept that not everything is going to work and stop advertising every reform and idea as THE SOLUTION to education concerns. 

"Education is a local responsibility, but it's a national priority, and there are many educational issues that simply cannot be addressed adequately by local communities acting alone." Particularly when many issues are tied to funding and not all local communities have the ability to provide more funding by passing bonds or levies. 

Lehman has an incredible section discussing the evaluation of teacher effectiveness by looking at student test scores. He asks whether math teachers want to be judged by band and choir performance ratings (absurd, right?!?). And he discusses validity and how that term is often misused in dealing with standardized tests today. But instead of quoting his many, many excellent points I would like to end with a sentiment I agree with every strongly.

"If we are truly serious about reforming education, we will somehow build a system in which the kind of education available in the best schools is available in every school. Some people say that's unrealistic. But the real question is whether a just society can settle for anything less." Amen.