A Vision of School Reform

School reform debates are often long on rhetoric and short on substance, dominated by 30-second soundbites rather than thoughtful conversations.

By the Editors of Rethinking Schools

As an essential starting point, discussions need to be guided by a set of principles. Developing such principles is difficult but can help create consensus, focus on priorities, reveal sometimes competing agendas, and clarify the criteria by which reforms can be judged.

Rethinking Schools offers the following working draft of a “Vision of Reform.” The vision is not intended as a programmatic platform but as a set of principles that can guide the development of specific initiatives such as smaller classes or universal access to pre-kindergarten programs. The ultimate goal is to develop both principles and programs that will allow our schools to serve all students and to promote the broader social good.

Principle #1: Public schools are responsible to the community, not to the marketplace.

For the first time in contemporary history, the very concept of public education is at risk. This has important repercussions not only for public schools, but for the entire public sector.

Education reform must be grounded in the democratic vision that all of society is responsible for educating the next generation. Reform must be shaped by an understanding of the crucial role public schools play in helping create a multicultural democracy. That this vision has yet to be realized does not mean it should be abandoned.

Many powerful people downplay the importance of the public sector and extol marketplace approaches to school reform. Yet the market privileges individual advancement over what is best for the community. It creates profitable opportunities for private investors and encourages more privileged “education consumers” to buy or move their way out of troubled schools. In the process, class and racial inequalities are exacerbated, society’s collective commitment to all children is weakened, and the concept of the public good is undermined.

Principle #2: Schools must be actively multicultural and anti-racist, promoting social justice for all.

At a time of increasingly successful attempts to roll back the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, it is essential that schools promote an anti-racist perspective and actively combat racism. Our society and schools are shamefully stratified, and this stratification is particularly acute when it involves issues of race.

In addition to combating racism, schools must work against discrimination and prejudice in all areas. Schools must ensure that all students are full members of the school community and are not discriminated against in areas such as gender, class, sexual orientation, physical or emotional limitations, or primary use of a language other than English.

Multiculturalism, anti-racism, and social justice cannot be mere “add-ons” to a school’s philosophy, culture, and curriculum. Rather, they must inform every aspect of school life – from the relations between parents, students, and staff, to the content of curriculum and teaching materials, to an all-out effort to eliminate the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Furthermore, a multicultural, social justice perspective understands that schools must not only prepare all students to take part in society, but to transform the world they live in.

Principle #3: The curriculum must be geared toward learning for life and the needs of a multicultural democracy.

Too often the problem is not just that students are not taught well, but they are not taught what they need to know. Curriculum reform is key to school reform.

First of all, curriculum must be based on respect for students, their innate curiosity, and their capacity to learn. It should be hopeful, joyful, kind, visionary, so students are made to feel significant and cared about – by the teacher and by each other.

A curriculum geared toward life is rooted in children’s needs and experiences. It expects students to pose critical questions and to “talk back” to the world.

A democratic curriculum must be rooted in social justice, and be explicitly multicultural and anti-racist. Teachers must admit they don’t “know it all” and have much to learn from their students and their students’ families.

At the same time, the curriculum must be academically rigorous and teachers must set high expectations for all children. A democratic curriculum not only equips children to change the world but also to maneuver in the one that exists.

Principle #4: All schools and all children must receive adequate resources.

Across the country, some children are showered with resources and attention while others are denied the bare minimum. Yet all children deserve adequate resources.

Money, well spent, matters. To cite one important example: smaller classes sizes. Combined with other supports for teaching and learning, smaller class sizes can significantly improve the likelihood of higher student achievement.

It is unjust that many urban and rural districts can only spend half as much per pupil as affluent suburban districts – especially when the needs of low-income students tend to be greater.

It is also essential to recognize that distributing money equally is not automatically “fair.” Some students deserve and need extra monies, in particular low-income students who may not have as many resources in their homes and neighborhoods, students who do not speak English as their first language, and students with special educational needs.

Finally, all children deserve adequate resources from the time of their birth, so they are able to start school on an equal footing.

Principle #5: Reform must center on the classroom and the needs of children.

Too many educational reforms show little understanding of the day-to-day realities facing teachers and students. The reforms are top-down, bureaucratic mandates (even if couched in the rhetoric of decentralization and local control).

Rather than judging how a reform will play on the evening news, we must first ask how it will improve teaching and learning for children in the classroom. In particular, we must evaluate how a reform affects the education of low-income students and students of color.

Take, for example, the issue of “standards.” Unfortunately, standards have become equated with “high-stakes” multiple choice tests that distort the curriculum, straitjacket teachers, and bully students, especially low-performing students. Instead, standards should be geared toward high-quality and rigorous academics for all children. They must be focused on improved student learning for all, not on setting up a system of rewards and punishments that legitimates existing social relations and power structures.

Principle #6: Good teachers are essential to good schools.

If we want to improve our schools, we must improve the quality of teachers, focusing on both their training in schools of education and on teachers’ ongoing staff development. A commitment to quality teaching involves traditional concerns such as ensuring that teachers are certified and educated in the areas they teach, that teachers have time for ongoing professional development and discussions with colleagues, and that mentor programs be instituted for all new teachers and for veteran teachers who need help. Equally important, it means that all teachers be educated to be actively anti-racist and that teachers be expected to act on their social convictions and promote issues of social justice.

A particular focus should be on increasing the number of teachers of color and ensuring that they have access to positions of leadership. Teachers of color play a particularly important role in serving as role models, in providing valuable perspectives for all students, and in enriching discussions on how schools and teachers can set high expectations for all students and help students meet those expectations.

Principle #7: Reform must involve collaboration among educators, parents, and the community.

Lasting reform must be built from the ground up and must be based on mutual respect and collaboration among all those involved in public education.

Parents, in particular, have been marginalized in school reform efforts, and must be brought into the decision-making process at all levels, from the individual school to the legislative arena.

Collaboration and accountability are two-way streets. The community must provide the support and resources for schools to do their job. Schools, in turn, must understand that the community at large, not just the parents at individual schools, has the right to demand accountability from the schools.

Principle #8: We must revitalize our urban communities, not just our schools.

The health of our schools reflects the health of the communities they serve. Joblessness, poverty, substance abuse, and sub-standard housing undeniably affect our schools. Clearly, massive and ongoing intervention is needed to save both our urban communities and our urban schools.

Schools need the support of the broader community if they are to do their job, and schools, in turn, can help bring needed perspective and resources to solving broader social problems. Schools should serve the entire community – from the youngest toddlers to adults and the elderly – with a variety of recreational, cultural, job training, and social service programs. Such a vision is especially important for struggling neighborhoods, where schools can serve as community centers providing everything from daycare, to language classes for immigrants, to health screening, to social services such as food stamps.

Working together, schools, labor unions, community groups, religious congregations, and civic leaders can boldly address problems that are too large for any one group to solve on their own.

There is a Zulu expression: “If the future doesn’t come toward you, you have to go fetch it.” It is time to build a movement to go fetch a better future: in our classrooms, in our schools, and in the larger society.