How to beat reform ‘addiction’

John Merrow spent 41 years reporting on education for NPR and PBS “Newshour,” long enough to develop a clear-eyed view of what’s right and wrong with America’s schools. He argues that our obsession with “reform” is an addiction that’s harming students and teachers.

But he insists we can beat it, if we just work the steps. And yes, there are 12 of them.

Book cover“The process of school reform is unquestionably addictive,” he writes in his book “Addicted to Reform.” “Its goals always feel good and sound right. … Unfortunately, as with drug addicts, the high is temporary, lasting only until reality intervenes and it becomes clear that the problem persists.”

Merrow diagnoses the illness in detail. He laments the way schools sort students into winners and losers at an early age. He criticizes overuse and misuse of standardized tests, segregation of schools by race and socioeconomic status, and inequalities in school funding. He calls out schools of education for failing to effectively prepare teachers.

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Just say no to the term ‘education reform’

Years ago, editors and reporters at a mid-sized Indiana newspaper sat around a conference table and talked about what to do about two words that had entered the political lexicon: pro-life and pro-choice.

We decided not to use them, except in direct quotes or if they were part of the names of organizations. Instead we would refer to “abortion opponents” and “supporters of abortion rights,” or something like that – an approach that now aligns with Associated Press style used by most newspapers.

Our rationale was straightforward. Both pro-life and pro-choice were simplistic, inaccurate and designed to demonize the opposition. People who opposed abortion didn’t have a monopoly on supporting “life,” whatever that meant. And people who opposed abortion did so because they believed it ended a life that was precious to God, not because they opposed anyone’s “right to choose.”

Both terms were, at best, misleading. Politicians can mislead. Advocates can mislead. Journalists should just tell the truth.

The issue comes to mind with the current use of the word reform for a menu of approaches to education policy – typically including giving parents more choices through charter schools and/or vouchers; using student test results to evaluate teachers and make decisions about compensating, promoting and firing them; and limiting the power of teachers’ unions and the authority of elected school boards.

The problem is that reform isn’t a neutral word. It doesn’t just mean change; it means change for the better. According to Merriam-Webster, it can mean “a) to put or change into an improved form or condition; b) to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses.”

So people who oppose, or are skeptical of, the policies characterized as education reform are by implication the champions of faults and abuses. Or they are “defenders of the (abusive) status quote.” Even if, for example, they rage against the educational status quo, with its segregated schools, savage inequalities and inattention to poverty. Continue reading