Reform from the ‘radical middle’

There’s a lot to like about a column that Leslie and David Rutkowski wrote recently for Education Week, but one of the best things about it is this: It reclaims the word “reform” from the distorted meaning that has attached to it in education policy circles.

The Rutkowskis, who are education professors at Indiana University, note there are reformers on the right and left and in the center. And they do this without making an argument, but by simply using “reform” in its dictionary meaning – an effort to improve what’s wrong or unsatisfactory.

“Education reformers are firmly parked … in one of two camps,” they write. “The ‘schools good’ camp argues that taxpayers have no right to demand a standardized accountability system that emphasizes student achievement. On the other hand, the ‘schools bad’ camp gives every indication that there is an easy way to hold schools accountable.”

School Matters argued a year ago that we should just say no to using “reform” to refer to the menu of policies advocated by Jeb Bush, Tony Bennett and friends: giving letter grades to schools; weakening unions; promoting, paying and firing teachers on the basis of student test scores; promoting charter schools and vouchers, etc.

But the Rutkowskis’ approach is more honest and more accurate. Bush and Bennett no doubt want to make schools better and think their approach is right. So, unquestionably, do their critics who would throw out standardized tests and trust teachers to always do what’s best for kids.

The Education Week column is a call to arms for people who reject simplistic approaches but who want to apply knowledge and analysis to the task of helping schools get better.

“Moderate reformers,” the Rutkowskis write, “can act as champions for cool-headed, dispassionate research and analysis that lauds our achievements and acknowledges our problems. Universities and some think tanks are home to many first-class moderate advocates of education reform, but these people need to wade into admittedly choppy waters where education reform is debated and risk speaking out to get attention for the ‘radical middle.’”

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